Building Capability

How to Design Effective Role-Based Competency Models


Competency models work best when they serve a specific master; that is, when they’re designed to support job roles. 

In this guide, we’ll talk about how to design and implement role-based competency models that accelerate performance, the business case for using them, and some of the pitfalls to avoid. 

How to implement role-based competency models

Competency models are not new in business, though they aren’t always utilised to their full potential.  

To get the most out of them, you want to: 

  1. Define the role 
  2. Define the competencies needed to do the role 
  3. Define the expected behaviours 
  4. Define competency maturity levels 
  5. Assess competency to understand performance needs 
  6. Develop competencies via learning 
  7. Give employees feedback on performance. 

1. Define the job role

We start by considering the demands of every job role or position in your organisation. Taxing work, we know, but once you’ve done it en masse once, you have the foundation to make incremental improvements in future. 

The aim is to go beyond a generic list of skills to a job analysis of: 

That last consideration especially ensures that the competency models you design—and job roles themselves—are strategically meaningful. That’s to say, no role is unnecessary in your organisation, and therefore, all employees have an impact. (Which in turn means any resources put into those roles are invested soundly.) 

Get input from stakeholders and subject matter experts like managers, supervisors, and top performers for context on how the role functions within a team and wider organisation. Key to this stage is uncovering how roles will change in future. So, consider: 

2. Define the role’s competencies 

Most competency models will have the same core format. That is: 

We’re starting with the first point, aka the competency levels within the model. These core competencies act as a grading schema; at a glance, it should be obvious what the standard of performance is just from the label. 

Most competency levels are described similarly to beginner, intermediate, and advanced, though some utilise job levels. For example: 

We wouldn’t recommend more than five competency levels in total, as you begin to muddy the waters with more. The detail will come in the next step. 

3. Define the expected behaviours 

Performance expectations are what make the competency model a tool that’s tailored for job roles. It’s also what allows you to utilise the model for other tools, like job scorecards

Each competency level will have at least one performance descriptor. The more complex the competency level, the more descriptors you’re likely to have. 

Infographic example of a five-level competency model

All descriptors should be measurable as an outcome or objective of the role. Think back to those defined job tasks—how does that work ideally get done? 

We designed Acorn Performance Learning Management System (PLMS) to support processes like this. We have a free capability library of over 600 capabilities and 1600+ competencies that you can download, edit, and repurpose as you need. These are available in our PLMS, too, so you can start work on them in the same place you’ll develop them (but more on that later). 

From there, you can map capabilities and competencies to job roles by way of our Cohorts feature (handy if there are many learners with the same job role). Acorn enables you to sync or create complete employee profiles for all learners, so you can even map capabilities to fields like department and job level.  

4. Define competency maturity levels 

Maturity is like a health check. It establishes the level at which competency is performed in relation to strategic goals, and is part of a greater continuous improvement process. 

In that way maturity is not for employees, but rather the organisation. The flow looks something like this. 

  1. Initial or ad hoc: There is limited acknowledgment, recognition, or use of capabilities within the organisation. 
  2. Defined or structured: Basic attempts to map competencies to job roles are made but without a formal or widespread process. 
  3. Repeatable or consistent: Competency development emerges with capabilities applied across roles. 
  4. Managed or integrated: Capabilities and competencies are integrated into talent management strategy. 
  5. Optimised: Capabilities and competencies are consistently reviewed and a central part of progress to organisational goals. 

The aim is to be at number five, though it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be at a lower level. Awareness is the first step towards change, after all.  

5. Assess competency to understand performance needs 

From awareness to assessment. Here is the true test of effective competency models, for you want to be able to identify gaps between current and desired performance. 

Acorn PLMS puts your competency model closest to the point of impact. Through our Momentum feature, you can automate performance reviews and digitise the documentation involved. The ultimate outcome (development) is then also centralised in Acorn, putting learning, development, and talent management in the one place. 

But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The first step is a competency assessment. We often hear the complaint that managing competency and capability information is hard, not least of all because it’s traditionally done manually within one spreadsheet with a million tabs or a million separate spreadsheets. Acorn enables both self- and manager assessments to establish the current baseline of performance, within the realm of competency defined by the role’s model.  

Screen capture of the Acorn PLMS capability and competency assessment report on the learner dashboard

Assessment results are displayed for both managers and employees to compare against performance expectations, as well as for HR, L&D, and OD professionals to view collectively at the workforce level (contributing to competency maturity). 

6. Develop competencies via learning 

Remember when we said that Acorn puts competency assessments at the point of impact? This is where the impact part of that equation starts to form. Truly strategic learning and development should follow a path that starts with gap analyses and ends with re-assessment.  

Remember again when we said Acorn enables you to map competencies to job roles? It’ll also prompt you to map content to competencies when setting up your model. This means that when you determine the current level of competency individuals are performing, you can immediately create targeted development plans.  

That looks like: 

  1. Building individual development plans at speed. Most corporate learning solutions throw more content at learners, but Acorn enables you to serve timely and relevant learning pathways for all employees with competency mapping. When your workforce is consistently building competency, you create a sustainable execution engine that fundamentally changes (and optimises) how work gets done.  
  2. Supporting on-the-job training. Given competency assesses the application of capabilities, and since the urgency of work can often trump the luxury of learning, you need to place learning in the context it will be applied. Any on-the-job programs can still be based within your PLMS; mentoring matches, as an example, can be based on competency and job experience stored within the system. 

7. Give them feedback on performance 

Think of any performance and talent management practices as a loop; recruitment, career development, succession planning, and the like all flow into one another. You start with a competency assessment, you end with one. Rather than closing the loop, though, this restarts the cycle and gives you the information with which to determine: 

  1. Performance improvements and business impacts (with tangible, quantitative data to boot) 
  2. The efficacy of training methods, and therefore, the strength of L&D investments 
  3. Maturity of capabilities, namely what is a business strength and which areas may be strategic weaknesses. 

Again, Momentum has been built to specifically optimise performance management. It enables you to define the milestone moments in the learning journey from the moment of conception (i.e. competency assessment). You can set the frequency for review and nominate the stakeholders who need to be notified (aka, employee and manager).  

This can support any performance management process, not just your development plans (though the fact Momentum lives within Acorn PLMS does make it superior for L&D).  

When hiring, role-based competency models are a guiding compass when evaluating suitability. The level of detail afforded by proficiency allows hiring managers to ask questions about attitude, aptitude, and experience. Depending on the formality of your recruitment process, you can run competency assessments based on these models within Acorn, giving you a quantitative performance analysis and a more objective way to contrast candidates. For successful candidates, that can be transferred to an onboarding and/or development plan that reinforces or develops required capabilities—all within Acorn. 

The business case for role-based competency models 

The competency model defines ideal performance in two ways. 

  1. It outlines what “good” looks like for employees in their roles. 
  2. It creates a standardised way of evaluating performance. 

A benchmark, baseline, or starting line for performance safeguards any talent or capability strategies you have in place. 

Let’s first consider the ever-growing skills and capability gaps. The World Economic Forum’s 2023 Future of Jobs Report found a churn of 23% of jobs is expected in the next five years, from both emerging and declining roles. Roles that revolve around administration and technology will change the most, yet cognitive abilities like analytical and creative thinking remain among the most important skills. That’s in contrast to a PwC report that showed 26% of responding employees were considering changing jobs in the next year. 

The same WEF report found that six in 10 employees will need training by 2027, but only half of them currently have access to adequate training. The key word there is adequate—not impactful or meaningful, simply adequate. Many employees don’t have clarity on how their roles will evolve over time, making them less likely to seek out training at all, let alone in time to remain effective in their roles. 

All of whichthis is to say that employees need direction and guidance when it comes to performing effectively in their roles. You can’t offer adequate, never mind meaningful training, without strong job descriptions. Strong job descriptions come from a sound understanding of business goals, and what collections of skills, knowledge, behaviours, processes, and systems are needed in those jobs to achieve said goals. 

Ergo, competency models offer: 

Where organisations go wrong with role-based competency models 

There are a few, common missteps that can be made with competency models. 

First, applying one generic model to the whole organisation won’t a) accurately reflect the nuance of skills, knowledge, behaviours, tools, and processes or b) derive valuable or useful data to make talent decisions. Failing to put in that initial grunt work puts you on the backfoot, and essentially makes the competency model another business relic. 

The second misstep is really a double feature: Using a static model and doing the work within a million spreadsheets (or, dare we say, within one spreadsheet with a million tabs). The former is an issue of adoption and the latter a problem of legacy which can manifest like: 

That leads to the third issue, which is a disconnect between the information ascertained by gap analyses and said learning solution. The more steps taken to migrate or reconcile data, the more likely manual error becomes, and the longer it takes to get development plans up and running.  

Think of it like tending a vast library without a catalogue or digital system. Imagine each piece of information as a book. Without an organised or accessible system, you’re constantly shuffling through stacks, trying to find specific books. Someone else may even be trying to find a book you’re holding, wasting their time. In short: Too much time is spent tending to the data, rather than analysing it. 

Lastly, and as with all capability-building measures, competency models aren’t sticky if they’re not embedded within learning. Say you only use a model for the occasional performance review, or to design a new role and then never touch the model again. In the first scenario, you create space for subjectivity bias in those performance reviews, and people are potentially held to inconsistent or irrelevant standards. In the second, you can’t be certain the role’s capabilities accurately reflect business. 

Key takeaways 

Role-based competency models define what “good” performance looks like. To clarify, that’s not an arbitrary “good”, but rather one that is derived from your business goals and the time frame in which your organisation wants to achieve them.  

Every job role should have its own competency model. Don’t be put off doing that at scale; instead, work smarter, not harder. 

  1. Start by defining individual job roles based on required tasks, skills, knowledge, and behaviours. 
  2. Define the role’s competency levels to architect the model. 
  3. Outline the expected behaviours for each level of competency.  
  4. Map competency maturity levels for assessment. 
  5. Assess individual competency to understand performance needs. 
  6. Develop competencies with targeted learning opportunities 
  7. Provide cyclical feedback on performance, and re-assess competency. 

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