Competency Frameworks

by Julia Miller

Designing a competency framework

There are five stages involved in designing a competency framework:

  1. Project planning
  2. Research to build a set of competencies
  3. Writing the competency statements
  4. Checking the framework and statements with others
  5. Review.

If your framework is to be successful, you need to have it endorsed by your senior team from the start.

Organisations often employ external consultants who have experience of designing competency frameworks. Consultants can be particularly useful if they have worked within your own industry sector. However, they will not know your own business as well as you, so it always best to work jointly on the design of the framework.

If you are going to employ external consultants, look at other competency frameworks they have developed first.

1. Project planning

You need to scope the work involved and decide the overall structure of your competency framework. Some organisations build their frameworks around domains (competency groups). Each domain has a number of key competencies with competency statements and for each statement there are associated examples of evidence.

It is important to make sure that you aim for no more than 12 competencies for each role. If you cluster these 12 into four domains of three, for example, it helps to make the structure more accessible for the users.

There are examples for you to look at in the Examples page, but some commonly-used domains are

  • Team orientation
  • Communication
  • People management
  • Customer focus
  • Results-orientation
  • Problem-solving.


Competencies are often divided into levels, as we can’t expect everyone to operate at the same level of competence from the beginning. A new manager, for example, would not be expected to show the same degree of competence at leadership as an experienced senior manager.

Moving from one to level to another is a clear development need that can be built into an individual’s learning plan or appraisal. So, consider how many levels the framework might usefully have. Level 1 can be restricted to simple behaviours.

Competency frameworks often have three levels. Core competencies may be divided into

  • Intermediate
  • Advanced
  • Expert.

Technical competencies may be called

  • The supervised practitioner
  • The practitioner
  • The expert.

A point to consider: would you need the same competencies throughout the cycle or would different ones be needed at different points?

Other approaches

If you are involved in managing or creating a project team, it might be helpful to build a competency framework around the life cycle of your project.

2. Research

There are various methods that people use to identify how the best performers achieve success. These range from the highly sophisticated to the less so. They include the following:

  • Repertory grid analysis, a structured conversation that elicits how a person rates elements mapped on a grid. This would normally be facilitated by an external consultant.
  • Critical incident analysis, which identifies those incidents that have an important effect on the final outcome.
  • Interviews with individuals or focus groups to determine what they do and what, in their view, underlies success in the job. Interviews often involve open-ended questions about job responsibilities and activities. These direct interviews might be supported by interviews with your boss, colleagues and so on.

Other successful methods include performance logs and work assignments.

You can also look outside your organisation at other examples from your industry sector. If you are the manager of a technically-focused team, talk to your technical institute, who may well have core competency examples you can build on. They can often supply you with a template for your own technical field. They might advise that you design business competencies as well.

You can also use competencies produced in support of occupational standards and vocational qualifications and then use these as a pathway towards attaining a qualification.


There doesn’t have to be masses of evidence. Anecdotal evidence, with some idea of frequency, is more useful.

3. Write your competency statements

You need to identify common themes from the interviews and form them into competencies. There are usually between six and twenty competencies in total, with statements against each one. Each statement relates to a detailed behaviour.

  • Make sure your competency statements are based on the key knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours that need to be demonstrated, but don’t make them too detailed. They shouldn’t be telling you exactly how to do a job.
  • They don’t need to be too long or too complex. They should be no more than a paragraph in length and should focus on action and performance.

Once you have written your statements, you then need to define a rating scale. Make sure that your scale gives responses based on frequency and can differentiate between people. Encourage people to ask: ‘Does the individual demonstrate these behaviours on a typical day?’

Ratings could include such phrases as:

  1. Needs improvement
  2. Meets expectations
  3. Exceed expectations

Short checklist

Going through this checklist will help you ensure that your competency descriptions will work in practice:

  • Are my statements based on observable behaviour?
  • Is the behaviour measurable in terms of frequency?
  • Are the competencies aligned with the objectives of my team or department or organisation?
  • Are they written in such a way that I can differentiate between poor and excellent performance?
  • Is the language easy to use and jargon-free?

It can be useful to start with leadership competencies before moving on to other levels within your organisation.

Identify your core competencies first, and then think about the others.

4. Field test and deliver

Involve the people who will be using your framework by

  • Involving them in the design and implementation – use the checklist
  • Holding group briefings to explain the approach
  • Training your managers about the practicalities of using the competencies in assessing, managing and developing their staff
  • Providing information to everyone in your organisation about the framework
  • Raising awareness by publicising it throughout your organisation.

As your use of competency frameworks progresses, start to integrate them into your HR practices. Use them to develop Personal Development Plans and skills gap analyses; this is often done as part of a 360 Degree Assessment. You can also base Assessment Centres on your framework to measure people’s competencies.

5. Review

Competency frameworks need to be reviewed periodically. As they tend to be based on what good performers have done in the past, you need to reconsider them against your organisation’s changing environment. Make sure you think about new ways of working and how that will affect the knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours that you will need.


Make sure, as well, that you don’t slavishly follow one set of competencies and end up with clones in your team. Aim for a balance

  • Between keeping your competencies relevant and reviewing them too often
  • Individual strengths and weaknesses within your organisation (you want your team or organisation as a whole to have a balanced range of competencies).

Some common questions

  1. I am going to be interviewed by someone who is building a set of competencies. What kind of questions are they going to ask me? Do I need to prepare any data for them?

You should be given guidelines about any data you will need to provide, but they tend to include such written documentation as

  • Any business, strategy or sales and marketing plans
  • Some examples of the work you are asked to do
  • Your job description.

You will also be asked your views about what you think your job entails, what you do on a regular basis and the situations that you face. You may also be asked about your views on your manager’s job or those of your colleagues or peers.

  1. How specific should my statements be?

They can be either generic or specific, but the best competency frameworks are linked to the culture and objectives of your own organisation. Remember that each organisation has its own unique jobs and functions and therefore it is likely that each organisation will have its unique competencies.

  1. How many categories of competency might there be in my organisation?

There are usually three main categories: leadership, business and technical.

  • Leadership: these competencies are about leading and managing others and are usually common across the organisation.
  • Business: these usually include such areas as communications and teamwork. They are usually common across the organisation.
  • Technical: these are usually unique to each business unit. For example, finance will differ from information technology.
  1. Can I use the same competency as other teams for all my staff?

You can apply a competency profile to a specific employee, to a group within a department or within a function. The more the work is broadly similar across an organisation, the greater the chance that you can apply the same competencies within the organisation. The more varied the jobs are, the more likelihood that there will be a variety of competency profiles and applications.

  1. How do they relate to a job description?

Although job descriptions contain a list of basic skills, knowledge or attitudes, they do not relate to the competencies and behaviours that someone needs to demonstrate that they do the job satisfactorily.

Remember that a competency is not an entire job. There will usually be several competencies for each position.