Uncomplicate Your Competencies

Organizations today are embracing anew the concept of “competencies” and training to them.  This concept has been around for decades, and with the current labor shortage, it’s high time it returned to favor!  Let’s take a brief look at competencies, the behaviors they enable, and how best to train them.

First, the term competency, as it relates to business, refers to a set of knowledge, skills, behaviors, attitudes, and characteristics that lead to producing distinguished results1.  A competency enables an individual to accomplish something consistently across different environments and settings2.  Competencies can come in three different categories.  They are:

  • Functional Competencies – these are skills or abilities that are specific to a job or industry.  For example, lawyers require different functional competencies than do surgeons.
  • Personal Competencies – often referred to as “soft skills” these include communication skills, learning agility, and problem-solving skills.
  • Business Competencies – include the ability to apply a business focus to a skill, including critical thinking applied to financial acumen.

So, how do you teach these competencies?  According to the National Skills Center of Australia, “competency-based training is a structured approach to training and assessment that is directed toward achieving specific outcomes. It is about assisting individuals to acquire skills and knowledge so they are able to perform a task to a specified standard under certain conditions.”

Enough of the definitions.  The down and dirty is this:  What’s the best way to train new skills to my employees?  The Behavior Skills Training (BST) method.  Although this method has been around for nearly 60 years, it is unclear it originated.  The BST is a four-step approach to teaching new skills.

  1. Instruction – The first step is providing the employee with a clear description of the skill or behavior you expect them to exhibit.  When training adults, this includes providing motivation for the learning.  Malcolm Knowles’ principles of adult learning theory loosely state that adults “need to know why they need to know” before embracing training for new skills or behaviors3.  So, explain in detail what the new skill or behavior is, what it looks like, how it is to be accomplished, when it is to be used, and how it benefits the learner.  I like to think of this step as TEACH.
  1. Modeling – Next, you want to demonstrate the new skill or behavior for the employee.  While this has traditionally been done in-person, in today’s environment you may be able to do this virtually through an online meeting.  The key here is for the employee to see and hear how the new skill or behavior is done by someone already possessing it.  You may consider this step as SHOW. 
  1. Rehearsal or Practice – Now that the employee has grasped the new knowledge required for the skill or behavior and “seen it in action” (preferably multiple times in different environments), now it’s time for the employee to give it a try.  You’ve heard the old saying; “Practice Makes Perfect” and that is what applies here.  Repetitive practice in different environments will build the “muscle memory” required to internalize the new skill or behavior.  
  1. Feedback – The final step is providing feedback to the employee.  Giving them specific and timely (read that immediate!) feedback about what they did right and/or wrong will help to build the skills into a person’s abilities.  Don’t forget that positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in this step – as everyone likes to know when they are meeting and exceeding expectations!

Why does all this matter?    I’ll give you three reasons.  First, an organization’s employees build the right competencies, they will drive better business results including superior market share and a competitive advantage.  Second, competencies outlive job tasks so employees will keep, modify, and reuse their competencies as their career and responsibilities grow – making competency training a great long-term investment.  Finally, competencies support organizational missions and cultures.  There are very different competencies required in an organization with a “best in class service” mission versus one with a “every day low price” mission.  Your organization not only will benefit from competency-based training, you need it to survive! 

1William J. Rothwell and Jim M. Graber, Competency-Based Training Basics (New York: ASTD, 2010)
2Dr.Leann Kang Pereira, Teaching Behavioral Competency with High Quality Content (Emtrain, June 21, 2021)
3 Six Principles of Andragogy – Malcolm Knowles http://brilliantlearningsystems.com/category/principles-of-andragogy/
4 Erin Melvin, Getting Started With Competency-Based Training (CBT) (eLearning Industry, June 9, 2018)