Best Practices for Competency Development

November 5, 2021 in
By Marni Falcone

In my last blog, I discussed how competency models are more important for effective talent management than ever before in a post-2020 world. In this blog, I will review best practices and considerations for competency development.

Competency models provide a common lexicon, or framework, that describe what is needed for organizational success. With proper development and validation, competencies can (and should) serve as the foundation across all areas of human capital (e.g., recruitment and selection, identifying and closing skill gaps, guiding employee learning and development, planning future workforce needs, managing performance). With that introduction, I am going to walk you through some basic concepts and the competency modeling process in our blog today.

Keep an eye out for the lightbulb icon which denotes a consideration for competency development.

The Anatomy of a Competency

A competency is made up of several parts.

  • Label: Title that conveys what the competency is (e.g., Customer Service).
  • Definition: 1-2 sentence description of what is meant by the competency overall.
  • Behavioral Indicators: The soul of the competency that helps define what is meant by the competency, especially how it is defined across proficiency levels. Behavioral indicators:
    • Identify successful performance at each proficiency level in a standardized manner
    • Answer the question “How do we know performance at this proficiency level when we see it?”
    • Are used to identify the level/type of content to be used in the human capital effort
  • Proficiency Level: Used to differentiate the extent to which someone demonstrates a competency on the job. This scale can range from three to five levels.

Using more than five levels of proficiency will make it difficult to distinguish proficiency between the levels. If you use less than three levels, behaviors will not be specific enough to adequately distinguish proficiency.


Example Competency with labels: Label, Proficiency Level, Behavioral Indicators, and Definition
Figure 1: Example Competency

There are three types of competencies:

  • Core: Foundation of successful employees across all occupations and grade levels (e.g., Communication, Customer Service, Teamwork). These apply to all employees, regardless of the employee’s job level or role.
  • Leadership: Competencies required to successfully lead the organization’s staff and operations (e.g., Vision, Leading People). These are unique to those in leadership positions, regardless of the employee’s job or role.
  • Technical: Competencies required to be successful within a specific occupation or occupational family (e.g., Regulatory Knowledge). These are unique to an individual role, occupation, or function.

Now that we’ve set the stage for the basic concepts, let’s dive into the competency modeling process.

The Process

While practitioners can have different approaches to competency modeling, there are certain “non-negotiables” that are required to ensure the validity and accuracy of developed competencies regardless of the position or type of competency being developed. These non-negotiables are rooted in best practice detailed by the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures, Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology’s Principles for the Use and Validation of Personnel Selection Procedures, and experienced Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychologists. In essence, competencies must be behavior-based, validated by the proper subject matter experts (SMEs), and updated regularly. FMP’s proven approach to competency modeling is future-focused and strikes the necessary balance so that resulting competencies are general enough to cover a wide range of employees, but specific enough so they can be tailored for various applications.

A graphic of FMP's Competency Modeling Process
FMP’s Competency Modeling Process

Step 1: Collect and Review Background Information and Data. A comprehensive job analysis is the first critical step in developing a valid competency model. You should begin with a comprehensive review of existing information (e.g., existing job analyses/competency models, position descriptions, vacancy announcements, performance standards, certification program content, training information) in addition to data from external sources (e.g., training certifications, existing competencies from other positions, the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) MOSAIC Competencies, or Occupational Information Network [O*NET]) to identify key tasks, roles, and responsibilities. I/O Psychologists are trained in reviewing and synthesizing a great deal of qualitative information to serve as the basis for draft competency models.

Don’t start from scratch! Leverage existing job databases like O*NET or the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) MOSAIC Competencies as a starting place. FMP also has an extensive library of existing competencies from which to pull.

Step 2: Identify and Engage Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). SMEs play a critical role in establishing the validity and legal defensibility of competency models. SMEs must possess the experience and expertise to speak to the current and future expectations and requirements. As a whole, they must be representative of the target workforce to ensure that all points of view are incorporated. Involving the proper SMEs in the competency process is perhaps the most critical aspect of this effort to ensure the accuracy and applicability of the competencies. The SMEs will be dependent on the type of competencies being developed. For core and leadership competencies, SMEs should include a group of organizational leaders to ensure the competencies comprehensively reflect leadership’s organizational vision. For technical competencies, SMEs should include technical experts from across the field. While we recommend anywhere from 8-12 SMEs, it is more important to ensure that the workforce is adequately represented than to limit the number of SMEs.

Leveraging workforce data to create a SME sampling plan can help ensure all perspectives (e.g., organizational unit, tenure, role) of the organization are included and is a great way to identify SMEs and ensure representation.

Step 3: Develop Competency Models. There are two parts to this step.

  • Draft Competency Models: To minimize the impact and burden on SMEs, I recommend trained I/O Psychologists draft competencies with definitions and associated behaviors that span the proficiency levels using the information gathered in Step 2. By developing a draft competency model in advance, we can utilize SMEs in an effective manner that uses their time efficiently (i.e., to review/revise as opposed to develop). The draft competency models are meant to be a starting point to which the SMEs can react.
  • Review and Refine Competencies with SMEs: The draft competencies and behavioral indicators should be reviewed and refined with the SMEs. I recommend going through this process in an interactive workshop setting where SMEs can review the competencies and provide real-time edits to the information, providing rich conversation around the current and future skill requirements. This workshop can be done in-person, virtually, or in a hybrid setting—all of which can be effective methods. I have found that most virtual meeting programs with video and screen sharing functionality (e.g., Microsoft Teams) work well.

While your background review will yield information about past or current requirements, asking questions about emerging occupational requirements will ensure your competencies can adequately support human capital systems now and in the future. Refer to Part 1 of this blog series for more information.

Step 4: Validate Competency Models. Once the content of the competencies is reviewed and finalized by SMEs, it is time to collect data that will establish legal defensibility and support subsequent integration into human capital processes. In the validation survey, participants will rate the competencies on several dimensions, including importance, needed at entry, and proficiency required at job level. Depending on the workforce and competency implementation goals, this survey can be completed by the SMEs or all job incumbents in the target position.

The results can be used for a variety of human capital needs, for example: prioritizing current and future workforce needs, identification of workforce gaps, developing selection and assessment instruments, and informing and prioritizing workforce development.

Find ways to streamline your validation survey to reduce participant fatigue. Explore structuring survey questions in different formats, like a matrix, breaking the survey up into multiple pages, or even dividing the survey into smaller, separate surveys.

Step 5: Implementation and Maintenance. Once you have adequate validation documentation through the survey, the competency models are ready to implement across your human capital systems to maximize the value and impact of this work. Implementation should include:

  • Communications strategy and implementation roll-out plan
  • Training and supporting documentation and materials
  • Processes and tools for monitoring the program and evaluating results

Finally, maintenance is an often overlooked, yet critical part of implementation. Create a plan for how and where competency models will be stored (e.g., SharePoint, Learning Management System), how employees will access and use them, and who is responsible for maintaining that information. Additionally, we recommend revisiting and/or updating competency models every 3-5 years. This can vary depending on the job or external factors that cause significant change. For example, IT is a field that is advancing at a rapid pace. It is important that competency models accurately reflect the most up-to-date skills and programs necessary for job success. Other situations that may trigger the need to revisit or update competency models are major priority, policy, or process changes.

Assigning a sponsor who is responsible and accountable for the implementation and maintenance of competency models will support integration into human capital systems and adoption into organizational culture.

Rigorous competency development takes time and effort. But, when done properly, competencies lay the groundwork for successful implementation across the human capital lifecycle. Over the next few months, we’ll keep the competency conversation going and talk in more detail about competency implementation.

Marni Falcone is a Managing Consultant and an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. Marni leads many of FMP’s competency development, assessment and implementation projects. She is a Project Management Professional (PMP), a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), and the President-Elect of the Personnel Testing Council of Metropolitan Washington (PTCMW). Outside of work, she loves spending time her family, taking a Barre3 class, or rooting for her favorite sports teams.