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“To Be, or Not to Be Technical? That is the Question.”

By Jamie Winter, MA

Jamie Winter There are many deep questions for us to ponder throughout life. What is our purpose? What awaits us in the afterlife? Are we alone in the universe? Will the Cubs ever win a World Series? How should our organization address technical competencies? Wait, what? I’m not saying that this last question generates the same psychic angst as the others; I do know, however, that the answer is often debated along the hallowed halls of many corporate headquarters.

To Be or Not to Be TechnicalIn today’s fast-changing business environment, technology and highly specialized knowledge and skill sets are playing an ever-increasing role. These can provide organizations with a critical advantage to differentiate themselves from the competition. Unfortunately, the competencies (also referred to as success profiles) used to create a common framework for analyzing and understanding jobs do not adequately define technical roles and accountabilities, nor do they include the technical skills necessary for a widening array of positions. In addition, the rapid pace of change in technical skill sets imposes pressure on existing competency modeling procedures and the talent management processes they support.

I recently led a panel discussion on this topic with experts from Google, IBM, Smarterer, and DDI at the annual Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) conference in Philadelphia. (My wife sometimes says I need to get out more, and this is what I do. She might have a point.) Throughout the session, we wrestled with some key questions associated with the use of technical competencies.

For those of you who didn’t make it out to SIOP, here are a few key insights that came from the discussion:

  • There is a strong business case to define and leverage technical competencies based on the ubiquity of technology involved in most jobs. Whether one works in HR or IT, one’s digital IQ is more important than ever.
  • The focus of most technical competencies is on individual contributor roles.  While technical skills are still relevant as employees move into higher-level positions, their relative importance to other competencies such as leadership skills tends to decrease.
  • There are three commonly used approaches for defining technical competencies, which I’ve labeled as follows:
    1. The Placeholder Approach—Create a general “technical/professional knowledge and skill” placeholder for use in your competency framework. 
    2. The Checklist—Cover the technical knowledge and skill areas by creating a simple list of knowledge and/or experiences.
    3. The Detailed Definition Approach—Create detailed definitions for specific technical/functional competencies.

The best approach to take will depend on such things as the relative importance of technical vs. non-technical competencies for the targeted position, how quickly the technical knowledge or skill is evolving, and how the technical competency is being leveraged. For example, if you are working with job families in which a broad range of positions exists—requiring a wide variety of technical expertise—you may want to consider the placeholder approach to keep your model simple. If you are creating a competency model for a highly technical role (e.g., industrial engineer), you might consider the detailed definition approach. This detailed approach can then be used as part of a robust screening (if your model’s application involves talent acquisition) or development (if you have a developmental application for existing employees) process. If the technology is rapidly changing, you might consider the checklist approach as it is easier to keep up to date, and provides more details than the placeholder approach.

The typical shelf life of technical competencies is short and becoming shorter each day as technological advancements continue to progress at an ever-increasing pace. This raises the question of whether our traditional job analysis approaches (e.g., job observations, interviews, focus groups, and surveys) that have been around for decades are able to keep pace. Do we need to start looking at social media and crowdsourcing techniques to not only define technical competencies, but also assess job candidates?

Get more information on technical competencies and success profiles or contact DDI.

Jamie Winter is DDI’s Director, Global Testing and Targeted Selection.

Posted: 19 May, 2015,
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