KM Competency Model: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Hans Christian Andersen's tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes"

Okay, so I was having this conversation a couple of days ago about a KM “competency model” and then it came up again yesterday, and then again this morning, and so I thought that it might be a good time to tackle this particular issue. Buckle up and hang on, let’s talk about KM competency models! Specifically, let’s talk about what happens when a “very large organization” wants to develop a KM competency model and they instead begin weaving “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Let’s start by getting a handle on what a competence might be, and how then that fits into the concept of a competency model. “Competence (or competency) is the ability of an individual to perform a job properly.” And a “competency model” is a collection of identified competencies that collectively define what knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) are needed to perform in specific work settings and competency models provide information about what KSAs (competencies) are required for different levels of mastery or alternately provide information about the level of competence required at different occupational levels, and it should describe specific behavioral indicator statements used to define each level of competency. Competencies are what an organization determines its employees need to have for the organization to be effective and to achieve strategic goals. A competency model can be developed for individual jobs, groups of jobs, entire organizations or even an entire occupation or industry.

The root of today’s competency model and the process utilized to identify the competencies is based on the work done by Harvard professor David C. McClelland (a psychological theorist specializing in motivational behavior) who in the early 1970s was asked by the United States Information Agency to identify what would later be termed as the competencies of “outstanding” employees so that the agency could use that information to then improve their selection programs.

A key take-away about competency modeling is to recognize that developing a competency model involves research (you don’t simply sit down and…well, more below on that “other approach” used in this case). Common approaches taken in conducting that research may involve study of exceptional employee performance, usage of focus groups of subject matter experts, surveys or interviews with exceptional performers, use of already established benchmarks, etc. But there is a real art and science to developing an effective competency model (in fact, a great read on the topic would be “The Art and Science of Competency Models: Pinpointing Critical Success Factors in Organizations” by Anntoinette D. Lucia, as that is a well recognized “how to” discussion of the topic).

Now here’s why we’re now talking about this topic — someone asked me if I’d seen a particular organization’s “KM Competency Model.” And I replied by saying that I had and then sent back a slide that I had received, and asked if that’s what they were referring to. It was. And so off we went on our conversation — and all about why that wasn’t a competency model and how those weren’t competencies much less KM competencies.

Note: I’m going to apologize in advance and will do my best to keep this from becoming confusing, but I’m trying to keep this on a non-attribution basis.

The reason that I was familiar with that “competency model” and had a copy of it was because about 2.5 years ago when one part of that “very large organization” (let’s call them “VLO” for short) was drafting it, I was asked to comment on the “KM competencies” and the “KM competency model.” My reply at that time was rather straight forward in that I said that what they had listed weren’t competencies, and the “model” wasn’t in any sense of the term a “competency model.”

I even went a bit further in my reply by suggesting that what I was looking at seemed to be nothing much more than a list of possible course titles that someone probably wanted to teach, and that whatever the “model” was that they’d sent for review, it wasn’t a competency model. In fact it clearly seemed to be little more than something that may make someone who doesn’t understand competency models go “oh!” over it (interesting graphic, but no real meaningful content). A cute pie chart with nine slices drawn and along the outside of the pie slices were lists of “suggested topics.” That list of “topics” was a pretty good clue. But certainly nothing of substance. The reply that I got was especially interesting – admitting that what I was saying was correct.

It turned out that someone senior in the VLO had tasked this “teaching center” of VLO to do what they did. The senior person specifically used the term “competencies” and although it was quite clear (immediately) that the senior manager clearly had no real clue what that term meant or how it was applied to the concept of competency modeling, but instead of the “major division” telling the senior VLO manager that he was wrong and that what he was asking for made no sense, off they went. Doing what? Carrying out his wishes, of course.

Well, clearly they didn’t know how to do competency modeling. So they did what they knew how to do — which was pretty much just sitting down and creating a list of topical areas that this particular “teaching center” thought would be great to provide the training that would then support the KM “competency model. You see, the teaching center had instructors and was supported by lots of contractors who’d love to continue on their contracts by developing all of the training programs to support the…the…yeah, a “competency model” that wasn’t actually competency model.

Are you right now having a feeling that this is much like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” where the two weavers “promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that are invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent” and then when the “Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, a child cries out, ‘But he isn’t wearing anything at all!’? I did also at that time. Have that feeling I mean.

So we had a senior manager in VLO who didn’t know what he was talking about, but instead of someone setting the senior manager down and telling him so, everyone simply started weaving new invisible clothes. Kept everyone employed and kept the senior manager happy.

So the bottom line is that the competencies were pretty much nothing more than a list of potential course titles, identified by those who had specific motivations to identify those titles (i.e., they could then propose to provide that training under their contract).

To be totally fair, the “teaching center” did send out the whole thing as a “final draft” for comment to a bunch of folks — not that those folks had any particular background in competency based modeling, etc. And if someone did realize that this was not right, nobody then stepped forward to declare that the emperor had no clothes.

But that “final draft” of the “competency model” was presented and discussed (well, the need for having one was discussed) and that was circulated for comment. And in the end, by all accounts the “final draft” became the final version, as apparently nothing was changed. The goal was to simply try to get the very large organization to “agree on topical areas” and so they did that. Sort of. Kind of. But had they created a competency model? Of course not.

Which brings us to today. And the conversations that I have been having the past few days about all of this. It seems that some 2.5 years later that “competency model” is now working its way through various pieces and parts of this VLO. Into all of the suborganizational areas – such as one “great big division.” And that “great big division” has apparently developed an entire internal training program (expensive) for VLO, all somehow “aligned” with the KM “competencies” of the KM “competency model.” That aren’t competencies and not a competency model.

So where do we go with this one? Don’t get me wrong, I think that training is good. Really, I do. But I guess that my question hovers around wondering at what point the “failure” will occur. What failure? Glad you asked!

The thing is that VLO has been struggling with KM implementation for years now. Really struggling. Sure they’ve had some successes, but not really the kind of successes that they could have IF they tried to implement KM the way that it “should” be implemented. They have a very fragmented (to say the least) KM strategy. They’ve published several VLO-wide documents that are supposed to be addressing KM…but the thing is, they don’t. And instead of spending the time to develop a really good KM strategy that folks can follow, they focus on things like their KM “competency model” or some “guiding principles” that don’t really do much guiding (put forth by the same VLO senior manager). Instead they focus mostly on….drum roll anyone?….on IT tools. And when they get past the discussion about implementing those tools, it mostly degenerates into discussions about content management. The content that goes into those IT tools.

And there are a whole lot of “elbow injuries” happening in VLO (elbow injuries is what you get from patting yourself on the back to frequently). But drill down inside of VLO, and there are lots of folks really struggling with their KM implementation.

My point about the failure is this — I truly believe that putting out a “KM competency” model that is in fact nothing more than a list of course titles will do nothing to help those struggling. Worse is that there will be those who will hold that model way up high and will insist that everyone drop what they’re currently struggling to do and to demonstrate how they are supporting those “competencies.” And so it begins. No strategy, no emphasis on doing the right thing and no real concern for ensuring that the right thing is getting done. And those within VLO who in fact recognized that the “KM competency model” and associated competencies, weren’t…well, message received loud and clear: It apparently isn’t important to “get” KM or to do it right. It’s clearly more important to push to the outbox whatever, whenever…as long as you act like you’re busy and act like it’s the right thing, nobody will really care. And that’s the failure – the failure of (again) leadership.

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
There are just SO many lessons that can be pulled from this one. How about that absent a KM strategy, any road will take you to where you don’t need to go? Or perhaps that before you begin to attempt to create a KM “competency model” that you should actually know what one is and how it should be developed? Or how about that apparently leaders still don’t really “get” KM? Or we could go with the obvious one – that a good leader will ensure that they have folks working for them that know what they’re doing and are willing to stand up and tell their leader when they believe that the leader is wearing no clothes?

About Dr. Dan Kirsch