December 2001 | Commentary | Viewpoint

Drilling Down to Core Competencies

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With increased competition in a sluggish economy, many companies are getting back to basics by re-focusing on critical operational elements and recommitting themselves to the principles on which their businesses were built.

Have you taken a step back to examine your company and determine what truly makes it better than the competition? Not in terms of product or service offerings—but the internal focus of the organization. In other words, what are the competencies that serve as the foundation for your business?

Competency by Definition

In its simplest terms, a competency is a collection of behaviors that, when exhibited by an employee, creates exemplary performance in a job, task, or role. Companies use competencies to clearly define or codify what is expected of an individual in a particular job.

As an example, most customer service agents must possess 10 job competencies: problem solving, decision making, flexibility, technical knowledge and skills, verbal communications, written communications, interpersonal sensitivity, monitoring, persuasion, and team membership. These competencies form the basis of competency-based recruitment and selection, training and education, and performance management. Competencies have become a foundation for many companies in human intellectual capital management.

A core competency is one that everyone—from the company president to a customer service representative—is expected to exhibit on a daily basis. They are used to evaluate individual, team, and organizational performance, and are the driving force behind successful job performance.

Here is why core competencies are so valuable:

1. Competencies are an integral part of the recruiting and hiring process for new employees. Potential job candidates should be selected based upon their ability to demonstrate the attributes deemed most valuable at the company.

2. Competencies help instill company culture. Through the ongoing training and development of existing employees, competencies provide continual reinforcement about an organization's values and culture.

3. Core competencies are used to identify the uniqueness of a company. Consistency in describing an organization's philosophies and goals will create a "common language" among employees.

4. Employees who demonstrate core competencies have a more holistic approach and are better able to serve the company. These employees understand the proverbial "big picture" and are well suited for cross-training, transfer, and promotional opportunities.

Core competencies are the glue that keeps a company together. Take, for example, an operation that has call centers or subsidiaries scattered across the country and around the world. Competencies transcend physical distances and operational differences to perpetuate a company's goals, culture, and mission. Essentially, they provide a common ground for companies to rely on.

Establishing Core Competencies

How can you establish core competencies for your company?

  • Look and listen. Competencies can often be determined simply by asking questions and gathering feedback.
  • Ask employees about their goals, job responsibilities, and feelings about the company.
  • Review everything—from literature pieces to your web site to see what "intangibles" you promote. You'll see the emergence of a theme or commonly used terms that define your organization.

Becoming a competency-based organization requires commitment in terms of time, capital, and change. It also requires dedication and support from executive leadership.

But core competencies are not meant to stand alone. They work best when coupled with a company's mission and value statements, together defining the distinct characteristics and goals of an organization. After all, it is impossible to envision a company's future without knowing what makes it special and unique today.

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