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ATD Blog

What Is a Competency Assessment?

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Many people ask common questions about a competency assessment, such as, “What is a competency assessment?” “Why do I need one?” and “How do I get started?”

A Competency Assessment Compares an Individual’s Skills to Requirements

A competency assessment is the assessment of someone’s capabilities against the requirements of their job. Those requirements are defined in a competency model. To be valuable, competency models should contain only tasks and skills that are critical to success in the role, not every activity they perform in their job (which comes from a traditional job task analysis).

The assessment is performed on those identified tasks and skills for which a rating is selected based upon how they do that task, which defines their proficiency level. In other words, a competency assessment measures how (behaviors) someone does the what (task or skill). The individual’s selected proficiency level is then compared with the target level, defining proficiency or skill gaps for each task and skill.

For example, a manager assessment without a self-assessment will not provide the results you seek since there will be no buy-in to the results. Start with a self-assessment, add a manager assessment, and optionally add those from subject matter experts.

Competency Assessments Quantify the Size of Your Skill Gaps

Most organizations are blissfully unaware of the quantity and size of their skill gaps. They know they have them, but they don’t know how large or widespread they are, and they can’t inform organizational plans, priorities, and strategy. Think about that for a moment. If you don’t know what you can and can’t do, how can you be successful? How can you truly define your organization’s strengths, which opportunities you should pursue, or what you should do about it?

If you are a senior leader and you don’t have competency assessment data or skill gap analysis, you should be scared. You’re making decisions that are based on inadequate data. When it comes to understanding organizational capability, you don’t have to be in the dark. A competency assessment shows us the light. And then the best decisions can be made, including where we need to upskill and reskill staff.

Competency Assessments Tell You What Action to Take

If you are in a learning, talent, or effectiveness role, you are capable of eliminating this data void. Delivering competency assessments and using them to create a culture of learning such that upskilling and reskilling can happen continuously, should be part of your job description. Typically, that is ensuring that people have the skills required to do their current and future jobs. Without skills assessment data, you have no ability to mitigate skill gaps effectively.


Once you know who does and doesn’t have the required skills:

  • You can provide personalized learning to close those gaps.
  • You can pair high performers of a specific skill with those who have that skill gap to close gaps quickly with task-based mentoring. (Read “The Value of Task-Based Mentors.”)
  • Your talent acquisition strategy can be more focused so you hire those with the skills the organization lacks.

Competency Assessment Is Not “One and Done”

While some C-level executives think that you can do a competency assessment once every few years, that’s like saying you need only report company financials every five years. How could someone possibly want to invest? And in this case, how can you invest well in your talent, your greatest asset?

According to Rob Lauber, CLO at McDonald’s, “Change is happening so fast that by the time we upskill or reskill employees, some of those new skills are already obsolete. We are looking at a future where millions of people will constantly have to reinvent their skills.”

If you want to “say” you’ve done a competency assessment so you can check the box, then just do one.

But if you want to actually drive capability in your organization, you must create the cycle of assessment, ongoing development, and reassessment only on the tasks and skills you’ve worked on so that you have a current picture of capability at any time. Plus, you get the benefit of creating a culture of lifelong learning, driven by competency assessments, that drives real growth in your organization.


Additional Competency Assessment Uses: Career Development and Rapid Onboarding

A competency assessment can also be used by individuals to assess their readiness for other roles. People will no longer make assumptions about their readiness for a role or guess at the requirements—they will really know. They can use the personalized learning recommendations as a career development plan template to take specific action to plan for the role they desire. ( More About Career Planning)

A competency assessment during the first few days of onboarding tells the new hire exactly what it looks like to be good and great in the job. No more fumbling. It shows them what action to take to close any gaps so they can own their development. Not only will it speed their time to proficiency, but it will eliminate the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that leads to early exits within the first six months.

How to Get Started Assessing

You need at least two, but preferably three, elements for a competency assessment:

  1. a role-based competency model for those to assess
  2. a competency assessment system to facilitate scale, privacy, and capability analytics
  3. personalized learning to create individual reskill and upskill action plans.

The system is important because historically used tools, such as spreadsheets sent around, lack the privacy and control required globally (for example GDPR). And the volume of skills inventory data will be substantial. You need a system that will crunch it and create data visualizations you can use without manual effort, or else you’ll have lots of insightful data that is never used.

While you could capture capability data with only the first two elements, you can’t affect skill gap closure. Knowledge without an action plan will get you only so far.

Recognize the self-awareness that comes when an individual realizes that they can’t do their job as well as they need to. They will buy into that there is action they need to take. If you provide personalized learning they can use to create and work an individual development plan or action plan, you have a chance to set each person on a path toward continuous learning.

About the Author

Cheryl Lasse is SkillDirector’s managing partner. Her goal is helping people and companies achieve their potential. Cheryl has extensive experience with competency model development and implementation, and enjoys sharing her knowledge and passion with others. Check out the LinkedIn group Competency Models For Professional Development.

She believes people are intrinsically motivated to excel, if they are given access to a competency model for their role, the opportunity to assess themselves against that model, and personalized learning to help them close gaps and meet aspirational goals. This philosophy has been embodied in the Self-Directed Learning Engine, the engine behind the ATD Skill Tracker.

Cheryl has a strong background in consulting, marketing, and sales, mostly in technology companies, where training has played a chief role throughout her career. She holds bachelor’s degrees from Syracuse University in computer science and HR, and an MBA from the University of South Florida.

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Observe them, when they talk or when they are working, the natural inclination towards a segment of the workload, could be their area of interest, if not competency. If the candidate is a introvert, the observation should be sharper.
Otherwise, speed and quality of work execution, would normally underline the core competencies. assessment
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We have worked to "create a role-based competency model for those to assess", but we're struggling with the adoption of "a competency assessment system to facilitate scale, privacy, and capability. In part that goes back to a history of entitlement, "I checked the boxes now where's my promotion/raise..." With that history, some of our senior managers are totally resistant to any competency assessment system that resembles a checklist.
Any idea's on how to overcome that resistance?
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