Companies rely on talented employees to inject efficiency into day-to-day functions, further organisational goals, fill leadership roles, and foster a positive work culture. Yet, this talent is getting harder and harder to find. The world is witnessing an acute shortage of people with the varied skills that organisations are desperate to land. Consider this: there were 11.4 million job openings in the United States in April 2022 but the number of hires for the same month was a comparatively modest 6.6 million. This gap has persisted for months now. The reasons are many, including changing attitudes to the role of work in people’s lives and the pursuit of more meaningful jobs that align with personal goals.
In the face of such a crunch, organisations cannot afford to lose the talent they have. They must act now to make sure their skilled employees are motivated and happy to stay. Offering them opportunities to improve and develop their skills or learn new ones is integral to keeping the talent pool intact. That is evident in the fact that upskilling is one of the most sought-after workplace benefits today. In 2021, 61% of employees told Gallup for The American Upskilling Study: Empowering Workers for the Jobs of Tomorrow that upskilling opportunities were a decisive factor in staying at a job while 48% said they would switch jobs if they were offered skills training. In short, a culture of learning improves a company’s chances of retaining talent and hiring skilled workers in an extremely tight market. But to achieve this feat, they must get serious about skills and competency mapping.
What is competency mapping?
Let’s first understand what exactly is a competency. The word “competency” is often used interchangeably with “skills”. But there is a difference. A skill is a learned activity. It is just one factor of what makes a competency. Skill holds the answer to the “what” – it defines what a person needs so they can carry out a specific task or activity. Competency, on the other hand, provides the “how” – it defines how an individual performs a task effectively and how their behaviour helps them achieve the goal set for them.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln defines competency as “the combination of observable and measurable knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal attributes that contribute to enhanced employee performance and ultimately result in organisational success”. The institution defines each of these four components. Knowledge, it says, is an awareness of “facts, truths, and principles gained from formal training and/or experience”. Skill is proficiency in “mental operations or physical processes” developed through training. Ability is the “aptitude to perform physical or mental activities often affiliated with a particular profession or trade, such as computer programming, plumbing, calculus”. And personal attributes are behaviours or qualities acquired from one’s unique life experiences.
Therefore, competency mapping is the process of mapping the skills, competencies and other personal attributes of a particular role or an employee – so that employees can be matched with the role or project for which they are best suited. Competency mapping breaks down each job, role, or activity into an inventory of skills, knowledge, abilities, and behaviours. Because behaviours are not measurable, competency mapping uses behavioural indicators to work around this complexity. For example, if the core (generic) competency required for a job is teamwork, the corresponding behavioural indicators include collaboration, cooperation, trust, and respect.
Also critical to the competency mapping process is proficiency level, which defines the degree to which a person is proficient in a particular skill. Are they a beginner or an expert? A common method of measuring proficiency is a one-to-five scale, with 1 indicating the least proficiency and 5 the most.
A successful competency mapping exercise leads to a well-defined competency matrix that sets clear standards for the skills, behaviours, abilities, and knowledge an organisation requires in its employees and for each job or department.
A competency matrix is also referred to as a skills matrix. While we’ve established above that skills and competencies aren’t exactly the same thing, a modern skills matrix is incomplete without the inclusion of competencies.
The importance of competency mapping
Effective competency mapping can be a huge asset to an organisation because it helps streamline operations, improve productivity, and shapes strategy for everything from learning and development to recruitment, retention, and evaluation. Naturally, it comes with individual development benefits too.
- Recruitment: Competency mapping can be invaluable at every step of the hiring process. Clear job descriptions based on required competencies help attract the right candidates and save HR the time and trouble of going through a flood of irrelevant CVs. A competency-based interview improves the odds of hiring people with the right skills. Clearly defined and communicated expectations are a key factor in the competency mapping process. Including goals and expectations in offer letters to successful candidates during the recruitment process itself will make sure there is no room for ambiguity. Lack of clear expectations and accurate job descriptions creates fear among employees of being seen as incompetent and punished for it, says Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report. The survey reported that four in 10 workers weren’t aware of their job expectations while only 41% said their work matched their job description.
- Professional development: Competency mapping allows organisations to identify gaps in existing and desired competencies and proficiency levels and address these inadequacies by offering goal-focused learning, upskilling, and training support. Providing clear pathways to professional development and career growth is critical not only to retaining high-performing employees but also to attracting new talent. For employees, competency mapping increases their awareness of what is expected of them, helping them manage their careers in a way that leads to greater opportunities for promotions and more fulfilling roles within the organisation.
- Appraisals: Assessing employees on their proficiency in a set of competencies makes for a fair, merit-based evaluation system, which will not only be appreciated by the staff but will also improve productivity and performance. The standards set in the competency matrix will allow managers to communicate the strengths and weaknesses of each team member and advise them on how to address their shortcomings – with the organisation’s support, of course. Encouraging honest feedback from those being evaluated and acting on that information will bring greater transparency to the process.
- Succession planning: Employees who show leadership skills and qualities can be groomed for future leadership roles with the help of competency mapping. Gaps between current and desired proficiency levels in required competencies can be addressed so that the candidates are ready to step up to the challenge when the time comes. In the absence of a strong competency matrix, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to effective leadership is, again, a lack of clear expectations. The previously mentioned State of the American Workforce report by Gallup says managers, compared to their team members, are “four points less likely to say their job description is clear or that it aligns to the work they do”.
- Resource allocation: Competency mapping makes project planning easier by helping companies allocate the right people for the job, significantly increasing the project’s chances of success.
5 steps to effective competency mapping
Competency mapping takes commitment and patience. This step-by-step guide can help:
- Draw up a skills list
Identify and analyse your employee’s skills. For the most accurate findings, organisations can use a mix of questionnaires, interviews, surveys, self-evaluations, supervisor evaluations, and work history reviews to gather information. A skills list is the first step to creating a skills and competency matrix. The modern skills matrix is an easy-to-use-and-update improvement on its traditional counterpart, which is almost always a data-heavy spreadsheet likely to put anyone off. You may visit the MuchSkills page if you need help creating a modern and effective skills and competency matrix.
- Identify competencies
The next step is to identify and classify the competencies required for each job, role, project, or department. There are many classifications, including but not limited to functional competencies (hard skills such as data visualisation, digital marketing), behavioural competencies (ownership, empathy), organisational competencies (an organisation’s unique selling points such as user-friendliness, innovation), and core competencies (the generic competency required for a specific role, such as customer service, organisational skills, strategic planning).
- Identify behavioural indicators
The next step is to define each competency by assigning appropriate behavioural indicators. Let’s say there is a project that involves leading a team with members from diverse backgrounds and the core competency that is required is diversity and inclusion. Empathy, respect, fairness, and ethical conduct are some of the behavioural indicators you might find in the competency matrix. This means that the person most suited to leading such a team should display these behaviours in the workplace.
- Set proficiency levels
Within an organisation or department, different individuals display different levels of expertise in a given competency. Hence, the need for a system to measure or rate proficiency levels. There are two steps to doing this in the competency mapping exercise. Step 1 involves assessing the Desired Proficiency Level (DPL) in a given competency for a specific role, function, or project. For example, on a scale of one to five – where 1 means novice, 2 learner, 3 practitioner, 4 expert, and 5 master – the company believes the employee or team in charge of that job/project should display a minimum proficiency level of 3. Step 2 involves assessing the Actual Proficiency Levels (APLs) of employees, using the same scale. MuchSkills offers a smart 3x3 expertise scale in which the three grades of ‘beginner’, ‘intermediate’, and ‘expert’ are further subdivided into three grades each so you get the most accurate overview of an individual’s skills and competencies. With knowledge of both actual and desired proficiency levels, companies can address existing competency gaps and help employees reach desired proficiency levels before the problem turns critical.
- Get the experts on board
At this point, a draft competency matrix is now ready. But organisations can finetune and improve it considerably by taking the help of industry experts and incorporating their suggestions. This will also ensure that the standards set in the competency matrix are aligned with industry standards. The final competency matrix is now ready and all that’s left to do is to implement it.
Before we wrap up, here are a few things to remember when designing a competency matrix. One, simple is better. Too many competencies and multiple methods of rating and measuring can create confusion when the primary objective is to bring clarity. Two, organisations would be wiser to focus on development rather than evaluation. A competency matrix is more effective when it uses its findings to strengthen learning and usher in development and growth.