Understanding competency frameworks can help the NHS use them to their full potential

So, you have just bought the latest "must have" piece of electronic kit, bristling with new and innovative features. Now be honest, how many of these features do you actually use?

The answer to this question is immaterial. You may not actually use all of the features, but it is reassuring to know your new gadget has the capability to do more, should you choose to press that strange looking button on the corner of the handset.

In the world of management, the equivalent of the electronic gadget is the competency framework. It has been around a long time in various guises, has been developed through several iterations and has the capability to do a lot more than the basic functionality you thought you required.

Competencies describe what good leadership practice looks like, usually expressed in behavioural and sometimes technical terms. Most medium to large public and private sector organisations in theUKhave some kind of competency framework in place. Many would claim there is something unique about their business and their culture, and develop their own competency frameworks accordingly.

In reality, there is a high degree of commonality between these frameworks and the language used to describe the underpinning management behaviours.

Common ground

The common DNA appears to centre around three broad competencies: vision/strategy, action/doing, and intra/interpersonal. These core management competencies are generic, not unique requirements for any particular sector or type of organisation.

What differs is the context and environment in which the competencies are applied. This significant point is often missed, or paid lip service to. It is important to think about competencies in the context of the individual/organisational role, the situation, the task(s) and the outputs required. Only then will a conversation about competencies be relevant and meaningful.

There is no doubt in my mind that competencies can be immensely valuable for individuals, teams and organisations. They create a common language and a set of standards by which strengths can be identified and leveraged and gaps addressed. A conversation about performance and development feels incomplete without reference to competencies.

What to avoid

As with any management tool, there are pitfalls to avoid. It would be naive and simplistic to assume the complexity of organisations and management could be broken down into a set of neat and prescriptive statements. Competencies should be used to define key behaviours and standards required, not everything an organisation or person needs to do to be successful.

Second, if you are going to go down the competency route, do it well, or not at all. This means competencies should explicitly underpin the organisation's strategy, relate to values, and be integrated into core people processes related to recruitment, performance, development and rewards.

Going back to the electronic gadget analogy, competency frameworks have applications that are often under-used. Get behind the definitions and the paperwork, temper yourself with realistic expectations, and you will be pleasantly surprised at the potential added value.

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