Career and Competency Pathing:
The Competency Modeling Approach

By Maggie LaRocca

Competencies are behaviors that encompass the knowledge, skills, and attributes required for successful performance. In addition to intelligence and aptitude, the underlying characteristics of a person, such as traits, habits, motives, social roles, and self-image, as well as the environment around them, enable a person to deliver superior performance in a given job, role, or situation.

Competency modeling is the activity of determining the specific competencies that are characteristic of high performance and success in a given job. Competency modeling can be applied to a variety of human resource activities. This research paper will describe how organizations identify their core competencies and how they are applying this competency data to improve performance. It will also explain some emerging trends in competency modeling.

Developing Competency Models
Competencies enable employees to achieve results, thereby creating value. It follows that competencies aligned with business objectives help foster an organization's success. Organizations must understand their core competency needs - the skills, knowledge, behaviors, and abilities that are necessary for people in key roles to deliver business results.

According to Boulter, et al (1998), there are six stages involved in defining a competency model for a given job role. These stages are:

  1. Performance criteria - Defining the criteria for superior performance in the role.
  2. Criterion sample - Choosing a sample of people performing the role for data collection.
  3. Data collection - Collecting sample data about behaviors that lead to success.
  4. Data analysis - Developing hypotheses about the competencies of outstanding performers and how these competencies work together to produce desired results.
  5. Validation - Validating the results of data collection and analysis.
  6. Application - Applying the competency models in human resource activities, as needed.

Using Competency Models
In 2000, Schoonover Associates and Arthur Anderson conducted a study to determine how organizations are actually using competency data and to provide insights into real-life practices that lead to success. Respondents were asked to indicate the prevalence of competency use within their organization, describe their level of expertise in using competencies, characterize their use of competencies, and indicate the importance, satisfaction, and effectiveness of their experiences. Key findings indicated that:

  • Users were spread across all major business sectors and organizations of varying size.
  • The use of competencies, in order of their effectiveness, includes hiring, job descriptions, training, performance management, development planning, and career pathing.
  • The more sophisticated users of competencies were much more satisfied with outcomes.
  • Common barriers that undermine success include lack of expertise in building models, limited support by top management, competing priorities, and lack of resources.
  • Best practices include ensuring a linkage between the competency initiative and the organizational strategy, focusing on integrating competencies with all HR processes, and focusing on implementation and ongoing evaluation.

The findings from this study were distilled into one guiding principle, which is "Competency applications, like all significant change initiatives, will be successful when best practices related to development and implementation are consistently and relentlessly followed."

Competency Models at HP
Hewlett-Packard Company considers the development of competency models as a critical factor in its future success. One recent program at HP (2003) focused on using competency models to improve the overall quality and performance of its sales force. Working with Reza Sisakhti from Productivity Dynamics, the Sales Competency Modeling Program team followed the approach described in the graphic below.

Figure 1. Sisakhti Approach

This project started by creating straw models for various job roles, using input from key stakeholders in particular geographies and businesses. These included the role requirements, key competencies for successful performance, and logical learning roadmaps and career paths.

The straw models were then validated through reviews and one-on-one interviews with practitioners, including managers and expert performers. During the interviews and subsequent analysis and validation, consideration was made for role similarity/overlap, account size and line-of business differences, and geographic variations.

The program generated a Learning, Development, and Career Planning Toolkit, comprised of role-specific competency models, competency inventory and gap analyses, learning opportunity roadmaps, and suggested career paths. To date, several thousand employees and managers in the sales function have undergone competency assessments, and the sales teams are rigorously using the learning roadmaps and career pathing information to improve overall performance.

Another competency modeling project at HP (2004) focused on improving performance of the people in HP Workforce Development who are chartered with providing performance oriented solutions for the rest of HP. Competency models were created or each key WD job role. These models separated competencies into three levels: foundational, core, and role excellence.

As a result of this effort, new foundational training courses, along with other performance interventions, were developed for WD professionals, and the competency models were fully integrated into WD's performance management processes. According to members of the project team, "The journey continues, and opportunities abound for improvement and further refinement. We have already shifted the actual performance of the workforce closer to desired performance, but there is still a great deal of work to do."

Future Trends in Competency Modeling
As organizations increasingly focus on human assets as a competitive advantage, they expect higher levels of performance from their employees. Schoonover and Anderson (2000) anticipate the use of competencies as a strategic intervention to continue, and even to accelerate.

Moreover, Schoonover (2000) predicts that breakthroughs in information technology will have a big impact on HR activities such as competency modeling. Until recently, available software applications addressed various HR activities separately. Some applications are now starting to incorporate job descriptions, competency models, performance assessments, and development opportunities into a single integrated system so that data can be shared between the various processes.

According to Schoonover, "The ways human resource activities are performed must change substantially to respond to business challenges. New technology applications will be the most critical enabler."


Blair, D. & Greenwood, D. (2003). WD Competency Models and Roadmap. Slides presented at an HP Workforce Development & Organizational Effectiveness eBrown Bag Series. Retrieved February 14, 2004, from portal/htm

Boulter, N., Dalziel, M., PhD., & Hill, J. (Eds.). (1998). Achieving the Perfect Fit. Houston: Gulf Publishing Company

Martin, J., Goldsmith, C., Hodges, K., Parskey, P. (2004). Looking in the Mirror - Performance Improvement for Performance Improvers. International Society for Performance Improvement. Retrieved February 14, 2004, from resource_portal/htm

Schoonover, S., Schoonover, H., Nemerov, D., Ehly, C. (2000). Competency-Based HR Applications: Results of a Comprehensive Survey. Retrieved February 7, 2004, from

Schoonover, S. (2000). Applying Technology to Maximize Human Assts. Retrieved February 7, 2004, from

Author Note

Maggie LaRocca
Learning Program Manager
Hewlett-Packard Company


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