Competency-Based Management--an integrated approach to human resource management in the Canadian public sector

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Date: Spring 2011
From: Public Personnel Management(Vol. 40, Issue 1)
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,371 words
Lexile Measure: 1610L

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With a new appreciation for the value of their employees, many organizations are moving rapidly to embrace Competency-Based Management, a relatively new approach to human resource management. Competency-Based Management involves the management of key HR activities such as staffing, learning and performance management, around a competency profile for the work to be carried out. This article describes how Service Canada, a key service delivery agency within the Canadian Federal Public Service, was able to bridge the two worlds of job analysis and competency modeling in order to successfully implement a working competency framework in a large unionized organization.

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Increasing productivity and efficiency in managing people has become a focal point, not only in private sector companies, but also in public organizations. (1) Although they are facing different challenges, public entities are required to quickly adapt to on-going economic, political, technological and environmental changes. Furthermore, in the context of globalization, traditional human resources practices are being challenged just as new approaches to human resources management are being implemented.

One of these approaches, Competency-Based Management (CBM), the management of key human resource processes around a competency profile for the work to be performed, has been underway in many organizations for the past 15 to 20 years. By using a common language, by reflecting the values and mission of the organization and by establishing clear expectations, CBM helps integrate human resource activities into the business strategies of the organization. This paper explores how Competency-Based Management was applied in the Canadian federal government, within Service Canada, a new service delivery agency.

Competency-Based Management: Focus on People

As part of their new focus on people, today's organizations have begun to place an increased emphasis on human resource planning and what is now often referred to as "talent management." These activities focus not only on examining the demographics of the employee population, but also on an analysis of the competencies (the knowledge, skills and personal attributes) required of employees in order for organizations to successfully achieve their mandates.

The identification and assessment of competencies, as well as the development of competency-based management frameworks to support activities such as "gap analysis," recruitment, learning and other key human resource processes, all reflect an acknowledgement by organizations that their workforce is key to their success in the modern workplace. As Lawler has pointed out, competencies refer to the "skill sets that are appropriate and unique to the organization and that will provide core competencies and competitive advantage." (2) Using competencies, organizations can not only highlight the knowledge, abilities and personal qualities needed for success in key jobs but can also identify the qualities needed for success across all jobs in the organization.

Improving Service Delivery to Canadians Coast to Coast

Service Canada is a new federal government organization, launched in September 2005, aimed at providing a one-stop service to Canadians seeking access to a wide variety of government programs. Spread out across the country, with a staff of over 22,000 employees, Service Canada is one of the largest federal government organizations. Canadians can call a single telephone information line which is staffed by fully-trained agents who ensure people are connected to the services they need. A Service Canada Web site connects them to online services around the clock and in 320 Service Canada offices and 120 Outreach sites across Canada, frontline staff meet personally with Canadians to provide service.

As the "social face" of government, Service Canada delivers programs ranging from employment insurance assistance to old-age pension payments to programmes aimed at youth, students and people with disabilities. Each year Service Canada processes more than five million applications for benefits and pays out over 65 billion dollars to Canadians.

Implementing Competency-Based Management Within Service Canada: Origins of the Journey

Service Canada's competency work began in 1995 in its predecessor department, Human Resource Development Canada. It was initiated by a small group of HR Advisors as an attempt to help integrate existing competency efforts that had sprung up across the department at the time. The aim was to develop a corporate CBM framework for the organization. In the mid-90s, CBM was widely hailed across both public sector and private sector organizations as a new and innovative approach to HR Management. Numerous conferences on the subject were held in North America and Europe and countless consultants were engaged by both large and small organizations to carry out "competency modeling" exercises. In the absence of any central or corporate direction on the subject, many departments and agencies within the Canadian public service, including Service Canada, also began to undertake their own individual projects.

Learning from the Past

The early framework or "architecture" for CBM in Service Canada was developed internally, based upon best practices from the private and public sectors. From the start, the intent was to develop a framework that provided for the integration of key HR processes around a competency profile. This can be seen in the logo (Figure 1) adopted early on in the process.

Service Canada's approach to CBM was also fostered by a healthy respect for the learnings of the past, specifically for the body of knowledge covered by the discipline of job analysis. This resulted in the development of a CBM framework based on the principle that "the job" was the fundamental unit in every organisation and that the ingredients of job success were the traditional "KSAOs" (Knowledge, Skills, Abilities and Other Characteristics) of job analysis. This awareness led to the department's definition of a competency, incorporating these elements, and to the decision on what a competency profile would look like.

Building on this, a competency came to be defined as: "Any knowledge, skill/ability, or personal quality, demonstrated through behaviour that results in service excellence." Additionally, the structure of a competency profile in the organisation was designed to reflect "core competencies" required of all employees (personal characteristics for the most part), "group competencies" required for certain job roles (primarily abilities and skills), and "task competencies" related to specific jobs (primarily knowledge). As leading industrial psychologist Kenneth Pearlman has said "good competency modelling has the ability to resonate with and communicate to managers in a way that is meaningful to them." But, he added, "effective modelling" also applies "conventional, rigorous job analysis methods." (3)

Why the concern abut job analysis, particularly at a time when competencies seem to be the primary focus in the workplace today? Job analysis is important because it provides an objective picture of the job, not the person performing the job, and as such, provides fundamental information to support all subsequent and related HR activities, such as recruitment, training, development, performance management and succession planning. Job analysis serves two critical functions with respect to these processes. It helps ensure that decisions made with respect to HR processes are good decisions, i.e. fair and accurate (e.g., selection of the right person for the job, appropriate decisions about training, performance management, development, etc.) and it helps ensure the defensibility of decisions made (e.g. demonstration of the bona fide requirements used as the basis of selection). The identification of competencies for a job, based upon a rigorous job analysis, helps ensure the defensibility of human resource tools used to assess those competencies, including selection tests and interview tools.

Mindful of the need to ensure the job-relatedness of its competency work, Service Canada's CBM framework used, as its basis, the existing job classification system in place within the Canadian public service. Essentially, this involved a process of competency profile development for key jobs in the organization, supported and informed by the job descriptions for each of these positions.

By focusing its competency efforts at the level of the job (i.e. core, group and task competencies) and building upon an established job analysis system, Service Canada was able to build a solid and enduring foundation for its competency initiative. In this way, too, Service Canada demonstrated how the two worlds of job analysis and competency modeling could be bridged (as opposed to favouring one or the other) to provide a defensible, integrated and practical approach to human resources management in a large government organization. In contrast, multiple competency projects across the Canadian Public Service, indeed in the private sector as well, have come and gone, as Service Canada's CBM framework took root and became the way in which HR business was conducted within the organization.

The Question of Scales

An additional feature of the early work carried out to develop a CBM framework in Service Canada was the decision to use a simple five-point universal Likert scale to differentiate levels of competence (see Table 1)

Most competency efforts use scales to show how competencies can be possessed at different levels, but for the most part, organizations build scale descriptors within each of the competencies they identify. This results in a great deal of fine detail and often voluminous reading for the practitioners of the competency "tools." However, as Rankin has pointed out, "Competencies should be designed with the realization that their users are fallible human beings. The human mind is unable to handle large amounts of detail. Expecting users to cope with several competencies, each of which has to be understood at many different levels of performance, is unlikely to succeed." (4) In contrast, Service Canada's modular approach to scale usage proved to be a practical approach to differentiating competency levels, while still providing sufficient utility to users who needed to make competency based assessment decisions for various HR processes.

Core Competencies for All Employees

As indicated previously, one of the key decisions made in building a CBM framework within Service Canada was to identify a set of core competencies that would apply to all employees. The decision to go with core competencies was taken early on, guided by the belief that one of the greatest values of CBM was that it provided a means to reflect and operationalize organizational values. For example, the core competency "Client Focus" (see Table 2) reflected the service oriented and learning culture of Service Canada, a competency required by all employees.

Competencies for Every Job

Beyond the core competencies, however, and as suggested earlier, it was determined by the HR team designing Service Canada's CBM framework, that in developing competency profiles, it was important to reflect competencies right down to the job level. In other words, neither core competencies, nor competencies for job roles or families were sufficient in order to adequately manage an organization's HR activities. What was needed was a "multiple-job approach" to competency development, one that reflected the full spectrum of competencies needed to carry out any one job, from abilities and skills, to personal qualities, to knowledge requirements. As Mansfield has pointed out "The multiple-job approach to developing competencies offers the dual advantages of a common conceptual framework and customization for individual jobs. This is the only approach that facilitates comparison of competency models with each other and comparison of employee profiles with multiple jobs." (5) It is this model that Service Canada eventually followed, integrating the range of competencies needed for all jobs within the organization within a national competency dictionary.

Building CBM in a Unionized Environment

The Canadian federal public service has long been a unionized organization and developing a new initiative within this environment, such as CBM, meant that union consultation would be key to the successful implementation of any such venture. The benefits of CBM, in ensuring the transparency of human resource processes, was clear to union representatives from the beginning. This was evidenced in a comment from one representative who remarked, "What's there to argue about?" following a presentation on CBM. Indeed, CBM is a human resource activity that is unique in providing advantages, not only to an organization as a whole, but to every individual employee as well. Union support for the CBM initiative was further re-enforced by involving union representatives, along with job incumbents and supervisors, in the development of the first competency profiles for the key front-line jobs within the organization. Union consultation and involvement will continue to be a key component of the development of CBM in Service Canada.

CBM in Service Canada Today

Today, centered on its national competency dictionary, Service Canada's CBM framework includes a definition of competencies, a standard format for a competency profile, the universal five-point rating scale and an Intranet-based "Web Suite." In addition, Service Canada has developed more than 140 competency profiles (each based on a job description) covering more than 12,000 employees. Service Canada's CBM Web Suite is accessible to all employees and provides information on CBM as well as tools such as the national competency dictionary, competency profiles, competency self-assessment questionnaires for employees, assistance on developing learning plans and the "National Learning Inventory" which links all departmental learning and development activities to competencies. The site also provides online tools and information for managers to assist them in applying competencies to staffing and other HR processes.

Day to day, competencies now appear on the selection notices used to staff positions within Service Canada, employees use the same competencies to identify learning needs on the job and these competencies are also used as the basis of performance management discussions between employees and their supervisors. Additionally, CBM also plays a key role to assist in the assessment and reclassification of employees in those positions. More than 10 years after launching this initiative, competencies are being used as part of the routine HR operations of Service Canada and serve as the foundation for human resource management in the organization.

The Future

While the foundation for CBM has been established, much remains to be done. Work is continuing to educate and train users, to develop profiles for new jobs, to update the dictionary and to enhance the HR tools on the website. Additionally, another challenge for the initiative, as indicated at the start of this article, was to have the senior managers of the organization endorse this new approach to HR management so that it truly became "the way we do HR business around here." Although widely used across the organization, CBM was applied on a voluntary basis by managers, so that there remained pockets of the department where competencies were not consistently used. The main reason for this situation is that numerous organizational changes over the years had prevented senior management from fully turning their attention to initiatives such as CBM. With senior management support, competencies could finally serve as the single foundation for HR management within the department.

A key step in this process has already occurred. Only recently, a presentation on CBM and its status within the organization was made to Service Canada's senior management's team human resource committee. The result of the presentation was a clear consensus by the management team to move the endeavour forward. With the endorsement of senior management in place, the next step planned is a communication strategy to ensure that managers and employees across the organization are aware, both of the CBM framework and the tools and processes available to them, and of the need to ensure an integrated and consistent use of CBM across Service Canada. An additional step will be the development of a governance structure for CBM, outlining how key decisions related to the subject, such as changes to core competencies, will be made by the organization.

Conclusions and Implications

While there is not, at this time, quantitative data available within Service Canada to say that CBM is better or more efficient than traditional HR processes, it does seems intuitively obvious that by linking all HR processes around a common language, an organization should be able to achieve greater efficiencies across its HR processes. As a minimum, managers in Service Canada using CBM believe that they are significantly increasing the transparency of their HR transactions and, as a result, are creating a workplace that fosters the respect of employees and makes their organization an employer of choice.

What are the implications of Service Canada's work for other organizations? As indicated earlier, it is clear from this work that the two worlds of job analysis and competency modeling can not only co-exist, but even more so, can provide a synergistic benefit to the human resource management practices of an organization.

As indicated by Schippmann et al at the conclusion of a major review carried out by a committee of Industrial/Organizational Psychologists on competency modelling and job analysis, "what the future might hold is a blurring of borders as the competency modeling and job analysis approaches evolve over time. Thus the next generation of approaches in each case may result in a blending of best practices such that there are more similarities than the differences that exist today." (6) Service Canada's work on competency-based management serves as one example, at least, of the wisdom of their prediction.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Service Canada's work has also been taken far beyond the boundaries of the organization with presentations on the CBM initiative being provided to other government departments, to HR practitioners in private sector conferences and to public service officials from other governments, including the USA, Mexico, China, Poland, Russia, Malaysia and the Congo. With a rare working model of competency-based management in place, Service Canada has much to offer to the rest of the world in demonstrating the value of this new approach to human resource management.

By Arieh Bonder, Carl-Denis Bouchard and Guy Bellemare, PhD

Arieh Bonder

Human Resources Branch, Service Canada

140 Promenade du Portage

Phase IV; Level 0, OB117

Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, K1A 0J9

(613) 233-1021

Carl-Denis Bouchard

Canada Public Service Agency

90 Sparks Street

7th Floor

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, KIA OR3

(613) 992-2870

Guy Bellemare, PhD

Universite du Quebec en Outaouais

Pavilion Tache

C-3712, Post Box 1250, Station Hull

Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, J8X 3X7

(819) 595-3900, ext. 1783


(1) Slitter, J., Bouchard, C.D., & Bellemare, G. (2005). Managing Police Resources: A Competency-Based Approach to Staffing. Journal of Financial Crime, Cambridge University, 12, 327-33

(2) Lawler, E.E. (1993). From Job-based to Competency-based Organisations. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 15, 13-15.

(3) Pearlman, K. (2002). Competency Modeling: Mirror into the 21st Century Workplace-or Just Smoke. Presentation at the 26th Annual International Public Management Association Assessment Council Conference on Personnel Assessment, New Orleans, July 2, 2002.

(4) Rankin, N. (2004). The New Prescription for Performance: the Eleventh Competency Benchmarking Survey. Competency and Emotional Intelligence, 1-48

(5) Mansfield, R. (1996). Building Competency Models: Approaches for HR Professionals. Human Resources Management, 35, 46-51.

(6) Shippmann, J.S, Ash A, Battista M, Cart L, Eyde L.D, Hesketh B, Kehoe J, Pearlman K, Prien E.P, Sanchez J.S. (2000). The Practice of Competency Modeling. Personnel Psychology, 53, 703-740.

Arieh Bonder is senior personnel psychologist with Service Canada, in the Canadian federal public service, where he is responsible for developing assessment techniques and advising managers on personnel selection issues in an organization of more than 22,000 employees. Bonder is also the national coordinator of competency-based management for Service Canada. Bonder is a member of the Canadian Psychological Association and is a past chair of the federal government's Inter-Departmental Committee on CompetencyBased Management.

Carl-Denis Bouchard is director, human resource management accountability and reporting, in the Canada Public Service Agency (CPSA). The CPSA is a central agency within the Canadian public service which serves as the center of excellence for the management of people within the federal government. Previous to this, Bouchard was director of resourcing for Service Canada, where he was responsible for the implementation of new human resource legislation related to staffing in the public service and for the development of strategies and policies related to staffing for the department. He is also, currently, a PhD student in the Industrial Relations Program of the Universite du Quebec en Outaouais.

Dr. Guy Bellemare is professor of industrial relations in the Industrial Relations Department of the Universite du Quebec en Outaouais, Gatineau, Quebec. His research focuses on social innovations in the workplace with a particular emphasis on work carried out in public and semi-public sector organizations, social-economic enterprises and private sector service organizations. He also carries out research on self-employed workers and supervisory practices and is also working on revitalizing theories related to the field of industrial relations.

Table 1: Service Canada CBM Scale

0 Cannot Rate--Insufficient information to assess.

1 Introductory--Little or no knowledge/proficiency. Rarely
demonstrates. Needs significant development.

2 Basic--Basic knowledge/proficiency. Sometimes demonstrates.
May need development.

3 Proficient--Knowledgeable/proficient. Usually demonstrates.
Little development required.

4 Very Proficient--In-depth knowledge/proficiency. Demonstrates
most of the time. No development required.

5 Mastery--Expert knowledge/proficiency

Table 2: Client Focus--Definition and Behaviours

Client Focus
An underlying concern for helping internal and/or external clients
and for being responsive to their concerns

* Demonstrates respect and concern for every client

* Provides quality service

* Works with clients to achieve results

* Consistently delivers on commitments


Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A269776282