How to identify and reign in competency gaps

As you’ll know, many of the topics I’ve been writing about lately share a broad theme – optimising your workforce’s productivity. That might be through good talent management or creating a fertile working environment. But when it comes to figuring our your overarching workforce strategy, it all relates to competencies, competency gaps, and reining them in.

A short 101 review – a competency gap is simply the difference between the current competency level of your workforce and the competency level needed to achieve a certain outcome. The process of discovering the nature and extent of that gap – and then taking the necessary measures to overcome it – is one of the most important deliverables of HRM in any organisation.

In the past I’ve written about how to conduct a skills audit and identify skill gaps. But, the notion of a competency is a bit broader than just a skill.

I’ll explain. The difference is that a skill can be considered a specific proficiency in some area of expertise. Take, for example, software development. A key skill in this area would be the ability to write code in a particular language, like Python or Ruby. However, the ability to analyse a software development problem and create an elegant and efficient solution using that language is a competency. (We have an article on the exact definition of a competency for those of you interested in a more in-depth discussion).

Essentially, competencies focus on the ability to produce certain outcomes through the application of various skills, and the synthesis of knowledge, understanding and other psychological traits.

If you think about your workforce in terms of competencies, you’ll reap some great advantages. For instance, you’ll get a much more meaningful picture of your present capabilities. It also makes it easier for you to better define what will be needed to achieve a specific outcome in future.

Conducting a competency audit is one way to uncover the present status of your workforce. When you’ve defined the competencies you need, the deficit is called the ‘competency gap’. A business’s role then is to shrink that gap through policies, encouraging great management and leadership, hiring and learning and development (L&D).

Incidentally, it’s often an inadequate understanding of an organisation’s competency gap that is the reason many L&D programs don’t deliver the expected results. It becomes clear to me that when you consider the relatively high cost of development activities (and limited resources), having a clear picture of the actual competencies needed to fill that gap can make or break your change effort.

The latest on measuring competencies

The purpose of a competency assessment is to determine:

  1. how effectively employees perform the duties of their job
  2. what employees are capable of accomplishing, and
  3. how those capabilities align with the needs of the organisation.

First things first. You need to know which competencies are important, both to each individual role and to the organisation overall. This is best achieved through a survey of your workforce that asks:

  • what tasks must be carried out in order to achieve success in your role? and
  • what would someone need to know, be or do in order to achieve that result?

After you’ve compiled these results, you’ll produce a set of agreed-upon competencies for each role in the organisation. The next step is to determine if each worker’s capabilities stack up to the requirements.

You could do this by simply producing a questionnaire that asks each employee to rate their own abilities. Obviously, that’s not ideal though, in that people in general are prone to exaggerating their abilities, so a better approach can be to conduct a 360-degree assessment.

This involves not only asking the employee to rate their own abilities, but those of their co-workers, managers and subordinates as the case may be. By tapping into these perspectives, you create a much more realistic picture of each employee’s true ability.

Addressing competency gaps

Addressing the gaps your assessment uncovers is the next step in the process. When an employee is found to be lacking in a specific area, a good idea is to allow them to share the responsibility of overcoming that shortfall. That is, getting them to help define and manage the process themselves.

This might entail the employee assigning their own goals and formulating a personal development plan that they commit to follow. Such a plan might include attending a formalised training course or in-house mentoring by employees who are already competent in that area.

You might also consider attaching rewards, recognition or extra compensation to the achievement of those goals – think about what would motivate that particular individual and use that as the carrot!

Managing the competency assessment

Managing a company-wide competencies assessment is a complex task, I won’t argue with you there. There are tools at your disposal though, that can make things much easier. Technology used well can streamline processes, analyse your  data, save valuable time and give you an accurate picture of the competencies across your workforce.

With these insights in your toolkit, you’re well equipped to plan L&D strategies, and any strategic hiring, to get you where you need to be to ensure the competitive success of your organisation.

What has been your experience with closing the competency gap in your organisation? Have you got a great example or tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you.

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