Competencies are not dead: 3 Reasons why competencies are still as relevant as ever

While competencies have long been central to almost all talent management processes, there have been doubts raised by some if they are still relevant in the VUCA, 4th Industrial revolution world we live in.

Critics of competencies tend to emphasize the dynamically changing nature of work, and characterize competencies as static lists of skills or knowledge that might not remain relevant. Other common criticisms of competencies are that they often do not serve a central purpose, are not used by managers in their day-to-day activities, or that they simply do not capture the complexities of modern work.

At TTS, we believe that competencies are not only central to best-practice talent management, but also enable IO Practitioners to add real strategic value to the organisations they serve.

Here are three compelling reasons why competencies are most certainly not dead:

#1 Competencies help you get close to the job (and organizational culture)

Competencies are generally viewed as amalgams of knowledge, skills, abilities and other elements like personality that enables work-related tasks or objectives.

When constructing competencies, one method is to work from the bottom up. What that means is to consult with SMEs, incumbents, managers and others who are familiar with a role or function in the business. A key advantage of this method is that competencies derived this way will be closely related to actual job realities. Therefore, bottom-up approaches emphasize fidelity to competencies known to be important for success in a given job.

Alternatively, top-down approaches to competency construction start with organizational values, strategy and culture. The focus here is not the fit to any given job, but rather a series of behaviours that the organisation would like to propagate across functions in order to achieve their strategic goals and maintain competitive advantage.

While top-down and bottom-up competency modelling are quite different, both methods are attempts to describe fit. In the case of bottom-up modelling, the emphasis is fit-to-job, while top-down methods focus on fit-to-organisation.

Bottom-up approaches tend to be produce competencies that are highly predictive of job performance, and that is why they are preferred in an assessment context. Top down approaches can give insights into organizational culture, values, and strategic levers.

#2 Competencies describe the evolution of work

While critics of competencies claim that they are static and cannot capture the complexities of modern work, it is difficult to imagine how IO Practitioners could ever begin to understand the dynamic nature of work without competencies. This criticism relies on a misunderstanding of how competencies work or are composed. Instead of static lists of skills, knowledge, behaviours and aptitudes, modern competencies are dynamic and ever-changing.

As a collective statement of what is needed for success at work or a given role, competencies capture how work is evolving, and also describe how requirements change with the times. An excellent example of this is a new set of competencies recently introduced by many test providers which can be broadly defined as “digital awareness” or “digital agility.” It is becoming ever more clear that future work will require people to be more digitally savvy and able adapt to the digital requirements of a job.

Competencies like digital agility provide powerful explanatory frameworks of how the world of work is shifting, and with it, the requirements to succeed into the future

#3 Competencies have multiple uses

One of the key advantages of using competencies in talent management is their sheer versatility. Few constructs available to IO Practitioners have such a diverse array of applications. Here are just a few uses of competencies:

  • Clear expectations: competencies related to job success allow for a clear path to success. Incumbents needn’t guess at what is required to achieve success—competencies light the way and set up realistic expectations for both managers and employees.
  • Succession planning: using well-constructed competencies allow organisations to identify gaps in their succession pathways as well as development opportunities to prepare individuals for succession.
  • Development: having an organisation-wide language of competencies means that development opportunities can be standardized and measured scientifically.

Closing thoughts

Despite claims to the contrary, competencies, and their place in contemporary IO Psychology, are definitely not dead. While it makes sense to constantly review talent management practices to ensure that they are future-proof, ignoring the utility of competencies would be, in our opinion, a grave mistake.

By helping to get close to the job, describe organizational culture, track the way work is changing over time, and applied to a multitude of talent management processes, competencies are core components of IO Practitioners’ toolkit.

If you would like to know how TTS helps clients to make better talent decisions using competencies, why not drop us a line at