Reframing competency models

On several projects lately, I’ve been spearheading developing competency models. Competencies enable learners to successfully perform their jobs by achieving outcomes or successfully performing tasks.

​To develop a competency model, you need:

  • A description of the competency (what knowledge, skills, and attitudes are part of the competency)
  • ​A way to assess the competency
  • ​A standard by which someone is judged to be competent (a bit like a rubric or evaluation checklist, could be formalized by certification)​

(NPEC, 2002).

In the healthcare profession, people tend to be quite comfortable with the overall concept of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. But often, there’s a tendency to list knowledge needed rather haphazardly, with little attention paid in any systematic way to the skills and attitudes that are the linchpins of any competency domain. Indeed, it’s often difficult to get stakeholders to articulate with any specificity the necessary skills and attitudes associated with a particular domain. ( When asked to describe a skill, stakeholders typically come up with “I want my learners to understand x,y,z..”.)

As an instructional designer with an eye on creating learning experiences that lead to performance improvement, this is where I can frame the conversation.  The figure below illustrates my current, evolving model of competencies.

Competency ModelStarting with the conceptual model shown in this figure, I try to focus stakeholders first on the desired organizational goals. I then ask how do you know when these goals are achieved? What do you view as proof that a person actually is competent in any given domain? This is where I try to focus them on performances and behaviors that shape these performances. However, it’s also where I try to manage expectations that learning experiences by themselves will lead to desired performances. Success in putting competencies into play depends on the environment and the current organizational incentive system.

Only after this initial understanding is fleshed out, do I try to move to KSA’s but typically I flip the order, asking stakeholders to consider skills and attitudes before knowledge. Important to consider is that the adaptive framework (attitudes, values, believe–collectively, “attitudes” in the image above) will shape success in developing a particular skill, just as confidence in a particular skill can impact attitudes.

Before getting to information needs, I try to focus stakeholders on the types of practice activities that are needed to help learners be successful at getting to desired skills/attitudes. Only then do I ask, “What knowledge will help learners be successful in applying skills and new-found attitudes to a variety of relevant situations?” In this way you avoid the problem of the “content dump” that plagues many training efforts, focusing on the need- to-know vs the nice-to-know information.

When considering KSA’s (or SAKs), it’s again necessary to be mindful that organizational influences (the environment and incentive systems that are part of the organization’s culture) will influence how easy or hard it is to develop a desired competency.

These are very tough conversations to have with stakeholders because it tends to flip their mental models of how the design of training should work/traditionally has worked (but not on my watch :)). It’s been a tough haul trying to get folks to move past training as a one-and-done event that let’s you check off a box on your to-do list to consider training as part of a system of aligned solutions. But I think it’s an important challenge to tackle to get to the learning trifecta–developing learning that’s engaging, relevant, and useful. My mission is to focus on outcomes with an eye towards operationalizing and sustaining needed behavior changes.  And along the way, to develop experiences that are hard fun and memorable. Because that’s what learning is.