Competency Modeling

Competency modeling is a method of collecting and organizing job information and worker attributes into broad competencies. Competencies are descriptions of the characteristics and qualities that a person needs to possess to perform a job successfully. Although the practice of competency modeling is relatively new to the field of industrial and organizational psychology, the idea of defining and assessing competencies is not. In 1966, Blake Root and Ray Roberts described the competencies needed for training directors. In 1972, J. M. Dornan outlined five primary competency areas that managers should develop to be maximally effective. In 1973, a study by David McClelland suggested that psychologists focus their efforts on assessing an individuals’ competence at tasks rather than measuring their intelligence. Today, industrial and organizational psychologists see competency modeling as an extension of job analysis in a more pragmatic business context, in which in-depth analysis is neither supported nor warranted.


A competency is an attribute of an individual that is needed to meet job requirements successfully. For example, a required competency for a sales executive could be a drive for results. A well-designed competency model describes specific performance standards and identifies behaviors that anchor a competency to levels of performance. To perform well in a job, an individual typically must be proficient in a number of competencies. Although there is no hard-and-fast rule as to how many competencies may be linked to a job, typically a range of 8 to 12 competencies should be sufficient and practical for any given job.

Competency Modeling

A competency model is a set of competencies that are necessary for effective performance. Competency models typically cover a broader range of jobs than traditional job analysis and may be divided into job levels that cut across an organization (e.g., individual contributor, first-level manager, midlevel manager, senior manager). Competency models often explicitly include a consideration of the values, strategies, and objectives of the organization. Partly because of the strategic significance of competencies, many organizations adopt a critical set of core competencies that are required of the organization’s members across all jobs and all levels. Core competencies are typically embedded within all of the competency models for an organization and tied to the organization’s culture, viability, and identity.

Competency Modeling Processes

There are a variety of approaches to developing competency models. One method involves the use of focus groups conducted with subject-matter experts. This process provides the developer with opportunities to interact with incumbents, supervisors, and organizational leaders to retrieve rich, qualitative input and gain support and buy-in for the resulting competency models. Behavioral event, or critical incident, interviews may also be conducted with job experts. These interviews allow the interviewer to gain in-depth, behaviorally based information about what is required of an individual on the job and which key behaviors drive success and failure. Developers of competency models may also choose to use questionnaires, which tend to provide more quantitative information and can be used for competency models that require more rigorous development (e.g., for selection purposes). Although traditional job analysis processes are considered more rigorous than competency modeling processes, if the objective is to link jobs to organizational goals and strategies, a competency modeling approach is generally preferred.

Competency Modeling Outcomes

Competency models may be developed and implemented to meet a variety of organizational objectives. The reason the competency model is being developed often predicates the manner in which it is organized and presented. Some organizations opt to develop a single, broad-based, organization-wide competency model. Others choose to develop job-specific competency models for each position or role within the organization.

Broad Competency Models

When an organization-wide approach to competency modeling is used, technical and functional distinctions between job roles and positions are not included in the overall competency model. The organization may choose to add additional competencies by level or by individual functional groups. Another broad competency model approach involves the development of key competency models divided by organizational levels, such as individual contributor, first-level manager, midlevel manager, and senior manager. The broad competency model approach can aid in organization-wide succession planning and employee development efforts because the competencies needed at all levels of the organization and in all positions are transportable.

Job-Specific Competency Models

A competency model may also define a set of competencies required for a more narrowly defined job or position. When organizations define talent requirements for a specific part of the business, these models are very helpful. Job-specific competency models often include functional and technical competencies, and the behavioral standards are even more specific to the individuals performing the jobs. The downside is that developing job-specific competency models across the business can be time intensive and costly. One way to handle this challenge is to develop core competencies that apply across a range of jobs and leave it up to individual business units or functional areas to define more job-specific competencies.

Uses of Competency Models

Competency models can be thought of as an infrastructure on which an organization can base selection, development, and evaluation efforts. Competency models and performance standards can be used to structure the following talent management systems:

  • Performance appraisal systems, in which competencies are included along with specific results of performance; results may be seen as the what of performance, and competencies define how the results were achieved
  • Multirater (360-degree) performance feedback systems, in which competencies and performance standards are rated by colleagues
  • Individual assessment processes and assessment centers, in which competencies and performance standards are used to organize evaluation and feedback
  • Training and development programs, in which competencies serve as an organizing framework to ensure there is adequate coverage of a range of critical skills for the business
  • Organizational succession planning programs, in which potential successors are identified and groomed based on their level of proficiency, measured against organizational competencies

Finally, organizations may use competency models as a springboard for organizational change. A public utility organization (telephone, electricity, natural gas), for example, which previously thrived during times of government regulation and limited competition, might develop a new competency model for the organization to prepare it for the future challenges of deregulation and increased competition. The competency model it develops could incorporate competencies that address customer service expectations and cost-reduction efforts. Though these constructs may be new to many of the organization’s members, by beginning to evaluate and assess employees based on this “stretch” competency model, the organization will drive home the importance of the new standards of performance. In this manner, the strategic competency model will drive forward the change that needs to occur in the organization at a specific, behavioral level.


  1. Cooper, K. C. (2000). Effective competency modeling and reporting. New York: American Management Association.
  2. Schippmann, J. S., Ash, R. A., Battista, M., Carr, L., Eyde, L., Hesketh, B., et al. (2000). The practice of competency modeling. Personnel Psychology, 53(3), 703-740.