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Competencies and the New Learning Organisation

Steve Barden looks at the benefits of modern competency-based learning, and some of the issues around the use of competence-based approaches within the New Learning Organisation.

With training courses losing ground as the default unit of organisational learning, and learning being transformed in the process, renewed attention is being given to competence (or competency) frameworks.

Competence-based approaches can yield numerous bottom-line benefits for organisations and individuals alike, but L&D often has a tricky time integrating them into their day-to-day activities, for reasons we discuss below.

So where exactly do the difficulties lay – and are the benefits to be accrued worth the effort involved in realising them?

New drivers for competency-based learning

It can less and less be assumed that courses will provide the curricular ‘spine’ on which to hang learning programmes. At the same time, we are seeing a proliferation of new ways to access learning, including through a range of mobile devices; a growing diversity that threatens to fragment and atomise the learning experience.

Technology is an important driver here, but theory also plays a part, and sometimes the two pull in the same direction. Currently, every new development of learning technology and theory seems to move learning closer and closer to the individual. Mobile devices put learning in learners’ hands, and increasingly tailor delivery to that unique individual and, crucially, to the particular situation they are in. With this greater personalisation of learning inevitably comes more control for the leaner – control over how and when they learn. When it comes to the what, however, the organisation also, necessarily, has to have a say.

Competency-based approaches, if used correctly, can not only provide the spine for through-life blended learning programmes, but can also be a way of mediating between the needs of the organisation and those of the individual – something that often provides a tension in organisational learning.

Opportunity and challenge

While a competency-based aproach creates many opportunities for L&D, it can also throw up challenges.

Lets deal with the challenges first. A well defined and implemented competence framework (CF) takes time to develop and mature, and, once in place, L&D needs to ensure that all career training meets and supports it. The challenge here, of course, is that a further layer of alignment needs to be in place before the learning objectives for a particular task or behaviour can be written. The devil is in the detail, and it should be noted that competency frameworks themselves come in many shapes and sizes.
It might be a wider, HR or organisational initiative that introduces a competency model or framework – they are often the basis for more standardised recruitment and reward procedures – and L&D might not have much of a say in shaping it. In attempting to use an existing model or framework as a performance and behavioural standard, L&D might be posed problems either by a CF that does not have enough useful detail, or by one that has plenty of detail but not of the right sort. More of these issues later.

The opportunity, on the other hand, is more obvious. Competencies act as the overarching model for career pathways. A good CF becomes part of the culture that guides and assists learner and assessor alike as to the focus of desired performance and behaviours, and therefore, the objectives of any learning intervention.

Let’s look a bit more closely at some of the benefits that can be achieved through such an approach.

Benefits of a competency-based learning approach


It is a truism so obvious as to hardly need repeating that different people learn at different speeds. Studies have shown that classroom training cohorts tend to move at the pace of the slowest member, so more personalised learning has an obvious potential efficiency gain to bring. Put simply, competence-driven learning has the potential to help learners of higher abilities progress more quickly.

More disputable perhaps is the idea that people have different preferred styles of learning, and that the ability to choose the style one prefers will confer an efficiency gain. Whether or not this has any scientific validity, it is certainly the case that the proliferation of different media types in technology-based learning allows a certain amount of learner choice (between a pdf document and a video, for instance), and that this sort of learner choice can not only make learning on the move easier, but also counter the effects of, for instance, lower levels of literacy. This is where competence pathways help keep clarity and focus on the goal, rather than learning pathways that define specific media.

Multi-modal learning of this type would cause problems for assessment if there were not some external standard to assess performance and knowledge against. So in this sense, competency-based learning is an important building block in providing more personalised learning.


Competencies can bring greater consistency to learning at scale because they are independent of the learning delivery methods used and focus on attainment, not attendance. They can be linked in to the appraisal system and career paths, and through that, into succession planning and strategic organisational development goals.

A good competency-based approach also allows an organisation to deliver more focused training and thus avoid training duplication. This is important, as studies show a great deal of duplication of training exists – especially where there is a high dependance on traditional classroom training or in industries with high churn or with globalised, highly mobile workforces. In a large organisation and over time, the efficiency gain of a competence-driven approach will have significant budget impact as well as aiding learner engagement.

Issues in using competencies

In the real world, as we hinted earlier, the extent to which L&D professionals are able to benefit from competency-based approaches is liable to depend on forces out of their control. Creating a competency model for an entire organistion can be time-consuming and expensive, and thus a strategic decision. So while some organisations will have taken the plunge already, and have a framework in place, others will be considering this step or only just embarking on the journey. L&D could have to deal with a fait accompli – or conversely might have a frustrating wait for a strategic-level CF initiative to get going.

Neither are all competency systems created equal.


Competency frameworks can contain both ‘core’ and ‘role-specific’ competences. These focus respectively on the organisational and the individual aspects of performance. Obviously, of the two, defining role-specific competences involves the greater amount of detail, and some organisations are content to stick with the core. So while a rigorously applied approach would look at competencies to the level of individual job roles, others take a more broad-brush approach, defining core competencies at the same level as, or just below, brand values, and consequently with less rigour applied.

Here L&D might have some filling in of gaps to do, since working to improve the performance of individuals within particular jobs will almost certainly require the greater level of granularity offered by role-specific competencies.

Figure 1: Example of a map of leadership core competencies

Generic or bespoke?

Costs can be defrayed by adopting an off-the-shelf competency library and adapting that to the organisation’s particular character and needs. In some organisations, competencies have been implemented for some functions or some roles but not for others: often this divides along blue-collar/white-collar lines – or else there might be different models on either side of this divide.

An IDS survey of 2008 drew a distinction between behavioural and technical competencies. Behavioural competencies often reflect the particular ethos of the organisation and as such are part of the organisation’s brand and competitive advantage, and do not easily lend themselves to a generic approach. Technical competencies, on the other hand, are far more likely to be common across an industry or field of practice. The latter are often tied to external standards such as NVQ/SVQ or professional accreditations and certifications.

As a result of these factors, CFs often mix bespoke and generic elements. In addition, the availibility of generic competencies for particular roles can also be a useful resource for L&D departments whose organisations have either no CF in place, or a CF which is too broad-brush to cover all development needs.

Competence or Talent Management?

Since talent management systems are often built on CFs, it can prove difficult, sometimes, to work out exactly where responsibility lies for their management and application. Talent management tends to sit with HR, and a talent management system might involve both organisational core competencies and role-specific competencies. What exactly is the relationship here? Under a more traditional set-up, L&D would be responsible for filling the gaps in competency that HR had identified through the appraisal system – but the modern concept of a learning architect envisions a more proactive role than this.

In our New Learning Organisation white paper we describe the positive benefits of engaging with HR through common ownership of a competency system: ‘Adopting a more competence-based learning approach can … integrate L&D more closely with strategic HR and organisational development (OD) issues’. How this works in practice might have a lot to do with existing turf issues, but we would make the point, at the risk of mixing our sporting metaphors, that it needn’t be a zero-sum game!

Consistency across the organisation

Earlier, we identified consistency as one of the key benefits of a competency-based approach, but it must be owned across the organisation and attempting to realise this benefit often throws up issues for global organisations – particularly where both technical and professional standards are implicated.

Introducing company-wide systems tends to highlight an existing diversity of practice. Within a single organisation, standards can vary across territories, and might not have been mapped to common criteria or values. Differences in language, culture and local operating practices present further challenges. In addition to this, is the matter of standardisation both at governmental and industry levels. However, these types of issues tend to present themselves with the introduction of any new system across an organisation.

It is worth ensuring a proper benefits analysis is undertaken for this as you would for any other system change.

Competencies and learning theory

A lot of confusion is caused in discussing competencies by the issue of terminology. There is not much consistency in the way CFs are taxonomised, or in the way terms such as ‘competence’ and ‘capability’ are used for that matter, even in the academic literature.

This latter confusion is a case in point, since it tends to produce an impression that competence-based approaches are deprecated by certain learning theorists.

For instance, Stewart Hase of the Southern Cross University, one of the researchers who coined the term Heutagogy, meaning self-directed learning, invidiously compares competence with capability. In his 1999 paper, ‘From competence to capability: the implications for human resource development and management’, co-written with Lester Davis, he says that, ‘While competencies are the basis for capability they are insufficient for optimum human resource management and are part of the old pedagogical paradigm that fails to empower people to be learners and demonstrate elements of capability’.

What might be happening here, however, is simply that definitions of competency have moved on to embrace behaviours and attributes as well, and it can be argued that if the core competencies required of employees include the ability to learn independently and flexibility, work well with others, etc. then the distinction becomes meaningless. In effect, we would argue, competencies have been redefined to include capability.

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