The Importance Of Competency-Based Learning In Employee Skills Development

Boost Employee Skills Development With Competency-Based Learning

The term "competency" was first defined in 1973 by the American psychologist David McClelland to indicate the human factors that define "competence." A competency is "each personal characteristic which—usually combined with others—allows the effective execution of a task in a given organization." According to McClelland, competencies are task and organization-specific, hence they exist only in reference to a specific work-related task carried out in a specific organization. For example, fluency in a certain foreign language is a competency only if it is essential to effectively performing a certain role in a certain organization. Based on this idea, each organization (business) must identify its own very specific and distinctive group of competencies. This constitutes a "competency model."

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Boyatzis examined the competencies identified by all of the previously established competency models and defined competency as "an underlying characteristic of an individual, which is causally related to effective or superior performance in a job, which could be a motive, trait, skill, aspect of one’s self-image or social role or a body of knowledge which they use." Simultaneously, Boyatzis identified a basis of transferable competencies that all effective managers, regardless of their line of work, tend to possess. Boyatzis’s definition of competency preserves the attribute of "task and organization-specific" but is significantly broader. This allows for the current concept whereby competency is defined as "each personal characteristic which—usually combined with others—can lead to good general work performance," or even simpler, "an important skill that is needed to do a job."

The evolution of the definition of competency paved the way for the understanding that competencies are central to employee success. Thus, analyzing high achievers and top performers helps identify the competencies—knowledge, behaviors, attitudes, skills—that produce distinguished results.

What, Then, Is Competency-Based Learning?

It is an approach to education that focuses on the learner demonstrating the desired learning outcome at every step of the program. A competency-based learning program doesn’t concern itself with the learning journey but pursues the final outcome. Hence, the learning outcome must be clearly stated from the beginning. Adult learners tend to find this type of learning program more attractive since they can see the goal and benefits from the outset. Competency-based learning programs typically include asynchronous, self-paced activities because they put the responsibility on the learner and promote individual ownership of education. Learners in these environments must be independent learners, and, as they must demonstrate the acquisition of the specific competency, they cannot be passive receivers of information.

Bringing all the pieces together, we can see that an organization’s first aim must be the development of specific functional role competencies in a manner that aligns and supports the organization’s goals. The collection of an organization’s competencies represents a competency map.

Competency maps define the capabilities of successful performers as well as the ways these abilities and traits can be measured. Reviewing competency maps in relation to the existing talent’s competencies makes it easier to identify the gaps in work outputs, and being aware of these gaps is the first step in ensuring your organization reaches a level of competency which represents a competitive advantage.

So Why Is Competency-Based Learning Important?

Competency-based learning helps prioritize the training budget and achieve results. It allows you to match your employees’ individual competencies with the job’s competencies so that you can place talent in the positions that will ensure their growth and best performance.

Competency-based learning promotes individualized learning. This type of learning program accommodates multiple learning styles and levels of engagement. Since competency-based learning is outcome-based, assessment design and implementation are critical. Self-paced learning can be very individualized and allows the learner to decide the time they want to invest in the learning, perhaps even skipping straight to the assessment. This puts a great deal of responsibility on assessment designers because the assessment must be an accurate, consistent, measurable means of demonstrating the given skill.

Competency-based learning promotes a competitive advantage. Knowing the competencies that drive the best performance places organizations in the position to properly select, develop, and promote the successful performers. In today’s business environment, competencies also offer a competitive advantage for succession planning. In his Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Thomas Reid wrote, "a chain is no stronger than its weakest link." Similarly, an organization is only as strong as its weakest talent, so it is crucial to ensure that everyone is positioned for success.

Competency-based learning lives longer than job descriptions. Since competencies are defined from the abilities and traits of highly successful people, they can be used by organizations to train and evaluate talent over the long term. Competencies outlive job descriptions. They can be modified and developed, but at their core, they remain unchanged.

At Obsidian Learning, we design and develop competency-based learning programs. Follow this series of articles and contact us to learn more about the process, models, and tools we employ to create successful training outcomes. Download the eBook Competency-Based Learning: Increase Employee Skills Development Through Competency-Based Learning to discover more about this highly-strategic approach to employee skills development.