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The Competency Question

SHRM is introducing a new competency model for the HR profession. However, some experts -- Dave Ulrich, in particular -- want to know more about the methodology used to create it.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012
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So, just how good of an HR professional are you? How about the people who report to you?

With its new HR competency model, Elements for HR Success, the Society for Human Resource Management wants to help you -- and thousands of your HR colleagues around the world -- find out.

"We wanted to create a comprehensive framework for the entire career path of an HR professional," says Alexander Alonso, SHRM's director of thought leadership, who is overseeing the initiative.

SHRM's model includes nine competencies: Eight of them are behavioral: relationship management, consultation, organizational leadership and navigation, communication, global and cultural effectiveness, ethical practice, critical evaluation and business acumen. The ninth one is technical: HR technical expertise and practice.

The model was developed with the input of approximately 33,500 HR professionals from countries throughout the world, says Alonso, who has a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology. The process began with an initial set of competencies derived from academic and practitioner literature, which was then tested and refined by 111 focus groups of HR professionals. Next, a global survey of 32,000 participants was used to validate the model, he says.

The final phase, says Alonso, will be determining whether proficiency in mastering the competencies can be tied to job and departmental performance. That effort will continue throughout the rest of this year and 2013, he says, and will be funded by SHRM's foundation.

SHRM's model is hardly the only set of competencies available to HR professionals, of course. For the last 25 years, University of Michigan Professor Dave Ulrich and his colleagues at Provo, Utah-based RBL Group have been conducting the Human Resource Competency Study, a highly regarded, recurring survey of HR professionals, business leaders and line managers from the United States and abroad (HRE assisted RBL in its latest research; the findings were published in the Jan./Feb. issue of the magazine) that's been used as the basis for formulating a set of competencies for the profession.

What separates SHRM's model from others, says Alonso, is that it's focused on practitioners at all levels, at organizations of all sizes.

"We wanted to provide a framework for entry-and mid-level HR professionals, not just those who are near or striving towards the top," he says. "Other models, including the RBL Group's, are geared primarily toward senior-level people at large organizations, including the Fortune 500."

However, Ulrich takes issue with that description.

"It simply isn't true that our model is geared primarily to the Fortune 500," he says. "Our data is based on input from HR practitioners and line managers at all levels, from the very top to the bottom. And it includes companies of all sizes -- half of the participating companies have less than 5,000 employees."

The latest model from the RBL Group outlines six HR competencies: credible activist, strategic positioner, capability builder, change champion, HR innovator and integrator and technology proponent.

"SHRM's a wonderful association and they have every right to create their own competency model," says Ulrich. "In fact, up until recently, we've worked in partnership with SHRM on our own competency studies, but they declined to participate in the latest one. I'm not sure why."

Another differentiator between SHRM's model and the RBL Group's, says Alonso, is that it does not require participants to participate in a 360-degree assessment as a starting point.

"Those assessments can be fraught with problems," he says. "The data can be skewed, depending on how the results are weighted, because one rater may have incomplete information on someone's performance."

Instead of a 360, SHRM's model allows participants to start the process with a scenario-based self-assessment. The participants' responses are then compared to those from a panel of HR experts, says Alonso. In the future, SHRM plans to offer 360s as an optional assessment, he says.

Jon Younger, a partner at the RBL Group, says the 360 is "invaluable" as a self-assessment tool.

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"When we use 360s, you see the responses of each individual, even if you don't know which individual gave those responses," he says. "It's impossible to skew it out of bounds if you're doing it right. If there is a skew, you're going to detect that."

SHRM needs to provide more information on how it validated its nine competencies, says Ulrich.

"Other than noting the number of participants, SHRM's website doesn't really share the methodology and criteria they used in determining that these are the right competencies for HR professionals," says Ulrich. "I don't know where their eight behaviors came from, for example. How did they validate them? I'd love to learn more."

In a follow-up email, Alonso writes that SHRM's process for creating the competency program is "rigorous" and is based on best practices for competency modeling as outlined by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Within the next few years, he adds, SHRM plans to offer additional validity evidence for its competency model.

He also reiterated the number of participants who took part in the validation survey.

"It would be foolish to discard the validity evidence gathered from 32,000 HR professionals worldwide," he writes.

In any case, competency models don't necessarily need to be rigorously validated in order to be effective, says Richard Wellins, senior vice president of Development Dimensions International in Bridgeville, Pa.

The sheer number of HR professionals who participated in SHRM's process suggests "there's a lot of consensus" on the model that the organization has adopted, says Wellins, who helped the American Society for Training and Development build a competency model for training professionals.

Many professions rely on competency models that haven't necessarily been validated, he says, adding that doing so is often expensive and time-consuming.

"Competency models, in general, are woefully weak on research that predicts their impact on job performance," says Wellins. "That's not to say they're not valid.

"In this case, I think SHRM has arrived at a very good definition of what constitutes success in the HR profession," he says. "Even if a model hasn't been validated with job performance, I don't see that as a huge weakness -- that's just not commonly done. I would lean toward applauding SHRM's effort."

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