In IT, What You Can Do Is More Important than What You Are
Companies need to think in terms of skills, not roles, to help their employees advance.
Organizations are making increasing use of competences to chart and develop the potential of their employees. This ensures that employees actively seek to expand their knowledge and skills.
The IT world is constantly in motion. This is clearly demonstrated by comparing the "top 10 IT trends" of different years — there are few trends that feature in the top 10 two years running.
We also regularly see existing functions in IT changing or even disappearing as new features are developed. That's why the following adage applies to working in IT: "What you can do is more important than what you are." In more and more organizations, there is therefore a shift from tasks and functions to roles and competences.
Competences include the combination of knowledge, skills and behavior in practical situations. A competence framework is a coherent set of competences in a given domain. Most competence frameworks make a distinction between two dimensions: a content-specific classification depending on the domain and an indicator of the level of knowledge, typically ranging from beginner to expert.
There is a large number of competence frameworks, and these apply to the IT domain to varying degrees. In Europe, the e-CF (the European e-Competence Framework) has been designated as the standard by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN). The e-CF is also central to the European Framework for the ICT Profession (ictprofessionalism.eu), which is currently being developed and expanded.
Competences in Organizations
In practice, "competences" usually refer to soft skills or behavioral competences, such as communication, learning, leadership, and so on. These are generic and apply to the entire organization. In addition, there is usually a job matrix that describes tasks and responsibilities — once again, across the entire organization. The required subject knowledge is not usually specified in the positions in the job matrix or in the behavioral competences described, but is added at a departmental level.
"With a competence-based approach, employees will seek to expand their knowledge and skills"
Organizations are struggling with the question of how they can distinguish between different domains of knowledge to make their descriptions of the desired knowledge and skills more specific. What's more, in many domains, changes come so fast that detailed descriptions quickly become out of date — and this is particularly true for IT. Competence frameworks are a useful tool because they provide a subject-specific classification of the domain that considers knowledge as well as skills and professional attitude. In addition, they are sufficiently abstract to remain up to date. In such an approach, functional profiles are constructed by combining competences (at the desired level of competence).
In the field of IT, the e-CF offers good opportunities to do this. Various organizations have provided descriptions of job profiles, constructed from competences from the e-CF. One example is the 23 job profiles created by the CEN ICT Skills Workshop (ecompetences.eu/ict-professional-profiles).
Implementing a Competence-Based Approach
Implementing a competence-based approach in an organization is essentially a change process. The Lewin model (1946) recognizes three stages in this type of process: the period before the change (unfreeze), the change itself (change) and the period after the change (refreeze).
1. Before the Introduction
Organizations that want to use a competence framework to establish roles in the organization must first choose whether to switch over completely to a competence-based approach, or to first introduce a hybrid system in which competences play a (greater) role alongside a job matrix.
Organizations only choose a full transition within IT consultancy and services. The main reason for this is that employees in this sector are usually hired by other companies that ask for specific expertise and not for a function.
It is clear that human processes should be based on competences and not functions in this type of organization.
Competences also play an important role in small and medium-sized enterprises (often implicitly), which is a direct consequence of the lack of a clear job structure due to the much smaller size of the workforce.
Most other organizations use a hybrid system. In these cases, job profiles are used to compare the desired results with those achieved. Competences are used to drive employees' personal development. The reward is a mix of both aspects, with a particular emphasis on results. The choice to use a hybrid system is usually based on claims that "the rest of the organization (that is to say, those outside the IT domain) is not ready yet."
A competence framework can help control the development of competences. In practice, however, competence frameworks almost always need to be adapted to fit the organization. The changes required range from choosing which competences and levels of knowledge are relevant to making more extensive adjustments and additions. This is why small and medium-sized enterprises tend to select relevant competences, while government organizations stand out because they adapt and extend the framework to suit their own needs.
It is also important for organizations to have a clear strategy and vision for the future, allowing them to anticipate the development of their employees' skills. In addition,
it is important to ensure good communication in advance. In practice, many employees see the introduction of a competence framework as yet another reorganization. Organizations should therefore make it clear what they want to achieve. Many organizations carry out a baseline measurement in advance to create a basis from which to enter into a dialog with their employees.
2. The Transition
Introducing a competence framework takes time — three to six months are considered optimal. During that period, employees can accustom themselves to the new terminology, see what will change and see how they will be able to develop. It is important for employees to have regular contact with their supervisor during the transition period to discuss their role in the changing organization and their development. This helps employees know what is expected of them and continue their personal development.
3. After the Introduction
In practice, the introduction of a competence-based approach leads to employees taking more initiative. They gain a better insight into their development and actively seek to expand their knowledge and skills. In this field of influence, as well as supporting their employees, managers primarily have the task of targeting the right mix of competences in relation to the organization's strategy.
In cases where a competence-based approach has already been in place for some time, performance appears to have been improved, though this is often difficult to substantiate with figures. If a business case is drawn up prior to the introduction, this will be qualitative by nature.
A competence-based approach also means that maintenance occasionally needs to be carried out on the chosen competence set to evaluate whether the competences all still relevant and whether any competences are missing. For example, the Dutch government is currently working on a second version of its competence framework (see www.earonline.nl/index.php/Kwaliteitsraamwerk_I(v)functie).
Competences are not all that matters. A competence such as Application Development from the e-CF can be fulfilled in many different ways, and the organization will need to indicate the requirements and recommendations for fulfilling it. A body of knowledge—a description of what the IT domain involves—can play an important role in achieving this. Further to this, it should be noted that, in addition to the e-CF, a first version of a Foundational Body of Knowledge has recently been introduced ( www.ictbok.eu) as part of the European Framework for ICT professionals (ictprofessionalism.eu).
Even when using a competence-based approach, it is important to avoid being inflexible — one of the organizations studied had a small innovation group for this purpose, which, among other things, monitored innovations in the IT domain and drew consequences for desired competences.
The introduction of a competence-based approach makes a contribution toward the performance of the organization, although this primarily involves qualitative aspects such as improved talent management. This picture matches reports from the literature (see, for example, Markus et al. 2005), which show that the measurability of competences is not considered an issue in practice.
This article is based on a study carried out by the University of Applied Sciences Utrecht.