Agile competence management as a fiction – why it is the case, but does’t have to be

This week, Avenir Consulting organized a meeting of practitioners in Zurich on the topic of „agile competence management“. It was a very exciting exchange, which showed that many companies are struggling with similar challenges (dynamics of competence requirements; trend towards simplification; role change in HR, etc.). The exchanged „good practices“ were also very inspiring in this context. Nevertheless, I have to say that the exchange for me was too much oriented towards the „competence management“ solution and focused far too little on the actual problem.

Competence management is not the question, it is an (old) solution

In my view, we must return to the initial question. The question of why. Based on the need and added value. After all, competence management in general and a competency model in specific are neither the right question nor the concrete problem. These are old, tried and tested solutions, which cannot be said ex ante whether they are still correct in the future. This is the same as when you look at a typewriter and then think about what could be modernized. One would probably find many answers like weight reduction, deletion function or automatic paper feed. But would one come to the invention of the smartphone by looking at the typewriter?

Separation from the integrative perspective and attention to the particular problems

So let’s take a step back and consider what are the underlying needs? If we go back to this, we can see that competence management has so far met or at least addressed many needs at the same time: In recruitment, job advertisements have been tailored to the competency model. These have then also (supposedly) objectified the functional classification and the wage system. In personnel development and personnel assessment, actual and target competencies were ascertained in order to identify development potential for employees. Career and talent management have also oriented themselves towards this, in order to enable internal succession planning. This and much more was dealt with under „integrated competence management“ and then celebrated in the literature as a model for success. However, the exchange this week has (again) shown me that this integration has barely established itself and is now a central obstacle to making competence management more agile.

So let us move away from this intellectually highly exciting task of integrating the competency model everywhere and ask ourselves what effect do we want to achieve in the first place? What kind of problem do we want to solve? The problem is not the same anywhere, even though competence management seems to be the current solution everywhere.

Why the agile competency model is currently a fiction

If we initially focus only on recruitment, remuneration, evaluation and development, the surface already shows that highly different problems have to be solved in these four central areas of human resources. Recruitment, for example, involves about having the right person in the right place at the right time. Remuneration focuses on a fair and legitimate wage system. Depending on the approach used, the assessment is divided into a (salary-relevant) performance indicator and/or a potential indicator for personnel development. Development, in turn, focuses on the adequate development of employees.

So far, competence management has found the same answer to all these problems: a competency model. And the plausible assumption was that the integration of this model into all areas of human resources ensures holistic consistency. Apart from the fact that this integration has hardly ever worked as planned in any company, this integrative approach hinders the agility of the solution. This doesn’t change if the whole thing is digitized and automated, so that all systems are adapted with one click. The IT systems may be mentioned as a superficial obstacle to agility, but the inertia stems mainly from the long negotiation and compromise process to determine the content of this integrative model. Such a process cannot be overcome with IT, as long as the attempt is made to tackle such different problems at the same time with one solution.

How agile competence management does not have to be fiction

Promoting agility therefore requires that the problems be solved particular. Complexity cannot be solved with a complicated system, even if we automate it highly. For example, we can use big data and artificial intelligence to develop the most elaborate weather detection system, but we will never know what kind of weather we will have in a week, month or year because the world is too complex. For the above-mentioned problems such as recruitment, remuneration, evaluation and development that means addressing the basic problems particular and finding a simple, agile solution for each of them. This does not mean, however, that this must be done in isolation. Rather, it makes sense to develop interdisciplinary solutions. Not only within different HR disciplines, but even better together with the customers and partners in the organization. Nor does it mean that the solutions to the different problems should not have a common denominator. On the contrary. Of course, a mutual, integrating reference framework is still needed. However, this should no longer represent a competency model that is usually too comprehensive and too generic to generate a benefit for the business line. A purposeful orientation is needed to ensure coherence between the solutions without at the same time preventing these solutions from being adapted particular and agile. An example for a potential approach to this can be seen in an action-oriented value model, as presented by Merck at this year’s MOOCathon.


Agile competence management is currently a fiction, because or if the integrated competence model is still used as an elementary solution. The integration of a competency model into all key areas of human resources makes competence management too complicated and too static for a complex, dynamic world. It seems appropriate to take a step back and consider which problems actually need to be solved in the particular task fields. These problems can then be solved interdisciplinary and with „customer’s point of view“. Thereby, the aim is to as simple as possible, so that the solution can be adapted flexibly.

In order for these individual solutions to be coherent with each other, a common purpose is needed. This sounds similar to a competency model, but has to be clearly distinguished from it. Such an orientation framework should only provide a normative basis to ensure that the different solutions are compatible with each other in such a way that no undesirable disharmonies or irritations in the system are created. This framework therefore serves as a basic orientation and suspends the definition of generally valid competence requirements, which are often too comprehensive and too generic at the same time.

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