Masterclass - core competencies

What are they? A core competency is what you and your organisation are (ideally) uniquely good at. For Wal-Mart, supply-chain management and pricing are two killer core competencies.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

 Managers like competencies because they sound crisp, scientific and businesslike. HR practitioners have grabbed the idea and developed competency headings to describe what individuals do at work. They have thus become a simple solution to the complicated problem of managing performance. But as we all know, complicated problems rarely have simple solutions.

Where did they come from? In 1994, Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad published Competing for the Future, one of the decade's best-selling business books. The authors argued that competitive advantage arose from skills and disciplines unique to your enterprise. Rather than worrying about product ranges, companies should focus on exploiting their specific areas of expertise. Everything else can be axed or outsourced. Extrapolating from this theory, managers and HR gurus started analysing people's performance under competency headings. Thus were launched a thousand appraisal conversations on the themes of 'persuading people', 'team-working', 'adaptability', 'customer focus' and so on.

Where are they going? Competencies have not proved up to the job. Life is more subtle than crude labels allow. These headings imply that everyone should be competent at almost everything. Leading HR thinkers now believe that rather than releasing ability, rigid competency frameworks may constrain it. We should be less specific about what we're looking for and offer instead an end-goal for people to shoot at. How they get there (through 'persuading people', 'team-working', etc) is unimportant.

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