Management Development ForumVol. 1- No 1(98)
Organizational Change
James Hunt and Joseph Wallace
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James Hunt and Joseph Wallace

This article presents a new framework with which to undertand the totality of managerial competencies required for the modern organization, grouping the 99 competency elements commonly identified in management literature into six domains and identifying three axes that highlight differences in managerial practices among individuals, and that illustrate continua of competence.


Prior to the 1980s, very real long-term prospects appeared to exist for individuals interested in developing lifetime career paths with a single organization. This meant that technical and managerial skills could be developed in the context of the organization in which they were to be utilized. It also meant that there was no real need to attempt to separate--or even identify--those managerial skills which could easily be transported across situations, from those which were highly context bound.

Today, however, people are leaving and reentering the work force with much greater regularity than ever before. According to Charles Handy, by the 21st century less than 50% of the workforce will be in conventional full-time jobs. This “pattern” became evident for many of us to see in the early 1990s when a number of large corporations in the United States and overseas sought productivity increases by reducing their expenditure on salaries.

These downsizing initiatives resulted in thousands of employees finding themselves out of work, many for the first time in their lives. Notably white collar workers, and in particular middle managers, traditionally immune from organizational lay-offs, found themselves most vulnerable to the cuts. An increasing number of business analysts are now predicting another wave of downsizing across the organizational arena over the next two or three years as we approach the new millennium.

These organization-wide changes are in part a response to the growing awareness of the need to be competitive at the global rather than the national level. They are also the inevitable result of the increasing impact of technological change, predicted by Alvin Toffler in the 1960s to replace jobs in the modern era. Nowhere is this more apparent in the world today than in the banking sector. The huge growth of telebanking is already creating large white collar factory-style reception centers where customer service professionals provide over-the-telephone advice to callers. This in turn has rendered many branch networks obsolete.

Charles Handy reasons that such profound shifts in organizational structures are a consequence of the move away from labor-intensive jobs and towards knowledge-based organizations and the provision of services. Each change not only contributes to the development of new forms of organization, though. It also extends the expectations placed upon the modern manager. Fewer hierarchical levels often means much broader spans of control and greater responsibility for middle and senior management. It also implies greater levels of responsibility for those once considered to be exempt from the continuous demands of managerial activity. The growth of self-managed work-teams and semi-autonomous working groups now requires specialist blue and white collar workers to assume tasks as diverse as scheduling, budgeting, and training for example.

One way to assist individuals faced with ever increasing rates of change in modern organizations is to furnish them with a better understanding of the roles and functions of those engaged in the challenging task of management. Until quite recently, many of the prevalent models of management and managerial activity have tended to be overly simplistic, yielding only very general insights into what managers really do. A ubiquitous example of this is the POLC model, frequently cited in many of today’s introductory management textbooks. It suggests that managers plan, organize, lead, and control. The problem is that such a generalization is hardly likely to advance an individual’s understanding of his or her managerial role within the contemporary organizational arena. What is required is a comprehensive delineation of the full range of managerial roles, skills, and functions, atomized in sufficient detail to afford a measure of clarity which appears to have thus far eluded many of us.

Developing a Framework for Understanding Managerial Activity

Our research began by reviewing the literature on managerial activity. Our aim was to uncover studies which independently established reasonably comprehensive catalogues of the various components of managerial roles, tasks and functions. Twenty-four such studies were identified, including Boyatzis’s well-known 1982 research into managerial competencies. Boyatzis argued that in order to fully understand managerial activity, it was necessary to focus on motives, traits, social roles, and bodies of knowledge, as well as skills and functions. Each of the studies examined in our literature review represented a concerted attempt to delineate the full spectrum of managerial activity.

Initially an inordinately large number of management competencies emerged from the review. In a process of reduction, obvious semantic duplications and readily apparent similarities were firstly reconciled. Subsequent closer investigation revealed further similarities amongst some of the elements, enabling additional reductions to be made to the overall list. From this analysis, a resultant list of 99 competency elements emerged. These are presented in Table 1.

Conceptually, these competencies may have been grouped in various ways. Classical frameworks proved less useful than a number of the more modern categorizations of managerial activity. Careful scrutiny of the individual competency elements, and an exploration of several methods of grouping these into meaningful clusters, has enabled the authors to advance a new conceptual framework within which to understand managerial competencies. This framework is presented in Table 2.

Table 2: Six Managerial Competency Domains
(shown at 25% of original size; click on the graphic to view the full-size version)

Preliminary Investigation into the Perceived Validity of the Six Competency Domains

In order to test the perceived validity of the competency domains presented in our hypothesized model, a group of 12 graduate students in the final year of their MBA program were each presented with a random list of the 99 competency elements. These subjects were all current practicing managers, drawn from senior, middle and front-line positions across a range of private sector organizations. They ranged in age from 26 to 42 years, and constituted an equal representation of males and females. Four of the subjects worked in organizations with over 1000 employees; five worked in organizations with 500-999 employees; two were employed in firms with between 50-100 employees; and one was engaged in an enterprise with fewer than 20 employees.

Each subject was asked to spend between 20 and 40 minutes carefully examining the list of competencies, and to search for broad commonalities amongst individual items. Subjects were further instructed to attempt to group broadly related elements into clusters or domains, and to provide a meaningful title or heading to describe each grouping.

All 12 subjects spent the full 40 minutes examining and grouping the competency elements according to their individual perceptions. A brief plenary session was then conducted, during which each subject listed the number of groupings identified, together with the title or heading given to each grouping. These headings were listed on a white-board at the front of the seminar room.

Subjects were then asked to form pairs, and to spend approximately 30 minutes further scrutinizing the list of 99 competencies. Jointly, each pair was asked to generate a set of competency groupings which they felt represented an adequate synthesis of the original list of 99 elements. Upon completion of this activity, each pair of subjects presented their findings to the rest of the group. The headings allocated to each competency cluster were listed and presented on an overhead projector, and examples of several competency elements considered to be the most defining variables in each case were provided.

At this point, each pair of subjects had settled on either four, five, six or seven competency groupings. A high level of similarity was now apparent in each classification system. A subsequent plenary session provided subjects with the opportunity to discuss the merits of each of the proposed groupings, and to jointly suggest a final set of competency domains. Discussion centered predominantly on whether certain broad groupings such as problem-solving and decision-making were best viewed as separate competency units, or whether the inter-related nature of these activities effectively justified a single competency domain. Following some fruitful exchanges, 11 of the 12 subjects concurred on the following five competency groupings: strategic management competencies, leadership competencies, networking and political skills, administrative (day-to-day) activities, and problem-solving and decision-making competencies. The non-concurring subject acknowledged the importance of each of the groupings listed above, but adhered to the view that a sixth cluster, personal management competencies, was necessary to complete the list. The other subjects felt that personal management competencies were largely subsumed across a range of other groupings, including leadership, networking and political skills, and problem-solving and decision-making competencies.


This exercise provides some preliminary evidence that at least five of the six competency clusters identified by the authors have significant face validity. In order to further validate these findings, it would be constructive to undertake a more formal empirical analysis of the perceptions of practicing managers regarding the 99 competencies. For example, using factor analysis and multi-dimensional scaling techniques, it would be possible to derive competency domains (factors) along with underlying dimensions or relationships. With regard to the current exercise, the single cluster not identified by the 12 subjects was organizational and environmental awareness. There are two possible reasons why this important grouping was overlooked by these subjects in the preliminary validation study. The first is that competencies relating to organizational awareness may have been conceived as closely related to broader strategic management competencies. In other words, organizational and environmental awareness may have been viewed by the subjects as the exclusive concern of those engaged in the responsibilities of strategic organizational management.

The second possible reason as to why the grouping organizational and environmental awareness was not clearly identified, may lie in its contextual emphasis. Whilst the 12 subjects readily acknowledged the importance of problem-solving and decision-making as a key competency domain, they appeared not to distinguish the more practical problem-solving competencies (such as problem identification and evaluation of alternatives) from the more conceptual competencies (such as awareness of organizational culture and awareness of cross-cultural differences).

Preliminary indications, therefore, are that this sixth competency domain or cluster, which we have titled organizational and environmental awareness, is not readily apparent to practicing managers--at least not within a competency framework. Despite this, the authors argue that this grouping is a highly important competency domain precisely because it helps to delineate the specific elements which collectively combine to define a manager’s acquired experience. It is suggested that managers in the next millennium will need to become much more aware of the value and nature of their accumulated experiences. Indeed, being able to articulate the collective practical value of a series of organizational and environmental experiences is likely to enhance opportunities for individuals in terms of career progression. Perhaps the clearest example of the importance of this competency domain was the sense of frustration experienced by hundreds of middle managers throughout the United States in the early 1990s. Upon being terminated from large firms where they had worked for between 15 and 25 years, many of these individuals were unable to articulate the value of their very substantial cumulated organizational experiences. This was largely because they lacked a common language for expressing the competency elements underpinning this experience.

Six Managerial Competency Domains Along Three Dimensions

Any attempt to derive a meaningful framework within which to encapsulate a comprehensive list of modern managerial competencies, immediately faces two significant hurdles. The first is that organizations and management practice are constantly evolving. Indeed the very concept of management is currently undergoing what may come to be recognized in the future as profound and significant change. Our introductory discussion has drawn attention to this consideration. Classical frameworks for understanding management are still being explored in business schools and training programs around the world today, predominantly for their historical interest. There is a growing awareness, however, that these paradigms are increasingly less useful in providing an overview of managerial effectiveness than more recent competency-based frameworks.

The second difficulty is that there is inevitably going to be a trade-off between the perceived utility of a competency framework, and its capacity to accurately account for the enormous variety of competency elements of relevance to modern managerial activity. The more elaborate the framework, the greater its capacity to group individual competency elements into meaningful clusters. At the same time, however, increases in accuracy will invariably be accompanied by increases in conceptual complexity. The more complex the framework, the less valuable it becomes as a tool for providing the modern manager with a sensible overview of managerial work. With this consideration in mind, we have advanced six meaningful groupings of managerial activity in Table 2. These are arranged along three dimensions, in order to highlight important differences in managerial practice from one individual to another.

The first dimension (the x axis) indicates a continuum of managerial competence according to managerial level. It ranges from the technical, administrative and operational day-to-day concerns of first-line managers and supervisors, through to the strategic and future-oriented concerns of senior managers and executives. In large organizations, there are still clear distinctions between managers according to level--in terms of the tasks and roles they undertake. A small business manager, however, is more likely to be a generalist, and will need to master the competencies at both ends of the x axis. Stephen Robbins notes that the job of a small-business manager frequently combines the activities of a large corporation’s chief executive with many of the weekly tasks of a first-line manager.

The second dimension (the y axis) indicates the direction in which a manager is likely to channel his or her interpersonal skills and energies in terms of influencing others. At one end of the spectrum, there are the team-building and motivating competencies characteristically displayed by managers who are adept at developing others. At the other end of the spectrum lie the political and networking skills which are predominantly directed towards furthering one’s own career opportunities. A study by Fred Luthans in 1988 revealed that the most effective managers (in terms of satisfaction and commitment of subordinates) typically spend 11% of their time on networking and 26% on human resource management (including developing others). This same study found that the most successful managers (in terms of speed of promotion) spend 48% of their time networking and 11% on human resource management. Our framework highlights the need for modern managers to simultaneously develop their competencies at both ends of this continuum. As organizations move towards the next century, there will be an increasing need for individual managers to exercise effective leadership and team-building skills, as well as maintaining their adeptness at networking and forging alliances.

The third and final dimension (the z axis) represents a continuum of managerial competence from practical problem-solving skills and traditional decision-making abilities, to the much broader and more global conceptual skills such as organization-wide awareness and cross-cultural awareness. This dimension differentiates managers according to their preferred thinking and problem-solving styles. The practically-oriented skills are usually mastered by individuals with a good eye for detail (serialists). The broader organization-wide skills are more likely to be mastered by those with a global outlook (holists). Modern organizational effectiveness is increasingly likely to rest upon managers who are able to master both the holist and serialist perspectives, utilizing both frames simultaneously in order to enhance their problem-solving and decision-making capabilities.

To summarize, the three dimensions of the proposed model assist in alerting managers to the sheer scope of effective managerial activity, and provide them with a conceptual depiction of six important competency clusters. The x axis alerts managers to the necessity of developing a broader portfolio of skills as they move up the organizational hierarchy; the y axis points to the importance of mastering two very different sets of interpersonal skills irrespective of managerial level; and the z axis suggests that there is a need for managers to employ both serialist and holist perspectives when considering problems and making decisions.


The proposed framework can be utilized as a diagnostic tool by human resource managers seeking to assist team leaders, supervisors and executives in identifying their own strengths and weaknesses. It enables them to alert managers to the broad spectrum of managerial competencies, and highlights several dimensions along which managers have been shown to differ in their orientations. The framework encourages a focus on the totality of managerial competence by presenting a range of competency domains comprising effective managerial behavior. It also enables human resource managers to focus employees on continuous management development, rather than advocating the development of a more finite and narrow specialist base of managerial skills. As global economic forces conspire to create ever-increasing rates of change, as modern organizations strengthen their appetites for more frequent and more rapid regenerative processes, and as individuals within organizations embrace innovation, adapting to more flexible work structures and less career certainty than in the past, it makes sense for managers to become aware of their competency profile. Such an awareness enables individuals to devote more time to developing and mastering competencies in those domains where they may have weaknesses. One of the most important contributions that human resource managers can make to the development of leaders, executives and administrators within their organization is to professionalize their understanding of the very nature and scope of managerial activity. The managerial competency framework outlined above is designed to facilitate this process of professionalization. The scope of this framework suggests that it is likely to endure into the early part of the twenty-first century as an appropriate classificatory system by which managerial performance may be evaluated.

Suggested Readings

Boyatzkis, B. (1982). The Competent Manager, NY: Wiley and Sons.

Handy, C. (1994). The Empty Raincoat, London: Hutchinson.

Luthans, S., Hodgetts, R. and Rosenkrantz, S. (1988). Real Managers, Cambridge, MA: Balinger.

Robbins, T. (1997). Management, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

James Hunt is a lecturer in human resource management at the University of Newcastle’s Central Coast Campus in New South Wales, Australia. He has traveled widely, and has lived and worked in Bahrain, Spain, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Great Britain. His research interests include executive leadership profiles, managerial competencies, and organizational forms of the future. Correspondence:

Joseph Wallace is professor in organizational behavior at Monash Mt. Eliza’s Graduate School of Management, Monash University, Victoria, Australia. He has published numerous articles in international journals on issues relating to training and development, management competencies, and organizational culture.

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