Competency-Based Training

For many roles in the workplace, employers rely on a combination of classroom or online education, and on-the-job training/mentoring to ensure that workers are properly equipped to carry out their job duties. Yet inconsistent performance, lack of compliance, errors, accidents, and other issues still arise. Why does this occur?

What is learned in the classroom may not transfer well to the worksite. Not all workers have the ability to take a concept they learn in a theoretical setting and apply the principle when they are faced with a real-world scenario that may seem quite different. Even on-the-job training that has a new employee shadow a coworker for a few days or weeks can yield widely varying results based on the capability, attitude, and teaching style of the mentor. Often, there is no standardized way to track whether employees are learning and retaining the competencies they need to do their jobs safely and well.

At the end of the day, key questions remain:

  • Do employees know what is expected of them in both general and specific terms?
  • Do they have the skills required for their roles and assigned tasks?
  • Do those skills translate into the ability to perform in the real-world context of the workplace?
  • How are these factors being measured so they can be improved?

Competency based job training helps provide a framework to answer all of these questions. This form of training focuses on learning and applying necessary skills in the context of the workplace, allowing agencies to develop knowledgeable and capable employees throughout their organization.

Where to Begin in Creating a Competency Based Training Program

There are several initial assessments that should be undertaken before developing a training program. This month, we will explore the first step.

Step 1: Define Success

Identify what outcome the organization wants to achieve. Ideally, a highly targeted, competency based approach to employee development puts the emphasis on performance with a focus on what matters most to the organization. Areas of interest could be risk reduction, productivity, profitability, and other business metrics that can be readily measured. Being able to put a value on the outcome makes it more likely that stakeholders will be willing to allocate resources to the program.

Step 2: Explore the Gap

Developing a competency based program must include assessing current employee knowledge and skills. It’s not uncommon to discover that employees already have many of the skills they need. To avoid frustrating and boring employees with redundant training, it’s important not to create a program that covers too much of what they already know. On the other hand, you may also find some surprising gaps in knowledge that need to be addressed. For example, if processes or job requirements have changed significantly in the past few years, new employees may be coming in to an environment where they receive conflicting advice about how things are supposed to be done. This would indicate gaps in skills or knowledge across the workforce—including both long time and new workers.

Step 3: Identify Universal Competencies

What do employees really need to know to do their jobs well? Engaging the workforce in identifying key skills may be helpful at this stage. For example, experienced employees have likely seen common mistakes made by new workers. They may have good suggestions for competencies to add to the training program. Be sure to identify competencies that are:

(a) applicable to a large number of employees
(b) able to be learned
(c) trackable and measurable

For example, good communication is a skill that can be learned. Knowledge in this area can be transferred through training and developed with practice. Improvement can also be measured by tracking incidents and processes where poor communication is causing delays, errors, and conflict.

Generalities and Specifics Matter

Basics like understanding the employee handbook and knowing emergency protocols are broad areas of competence that apply across an organization. But it’s also beneficial to drill down and create competency profiles for smaller groups based on the specifics of the job. For example, installation and maintenance crews that work off-site may require in-depth training on a different set of skills than those who work within the facility. Creating separate modules that target specific business objectives by focusing on high-value skills can help make a training program show results more quickly.

Keep It in the Workplace

Since true competency can only be demonstrated in the context of the job, learning in the training program should occur in the workplace as much as possible. Learning in the environment of the job also helps ensure that the program is correctly targeted. It will become obvious fairly quickly if certain activities in the training program actually help get work done more quickly and efficiently or if they are just “busy work” that should be cut from the curriculum.

Allow Customization within the Overall Parameters

Because the goal is to provide a consistent standard of performance, every worker should be expected to gain all the competencies required for their job. However, there must be flexibility for customization in terms of the pace of learning. A modular, self-service program gives learners the ability to progress at their own pace. A typical module might include an overview and details about a given task, exercises, a quiz, and a performance evaluation.

One module may build on the next, but each should also be self-contained enough to be taken on its own. In this way, workers can prioritize areas where evaluation has shown an urgent need for improvement or skip modules if their competence in a particular area has already been demonstrated. When employees can participate more fully in creating and implementing the program in ways that make sense, they have a greater sense of accountability.

Always Include a Mentoring Aspect

Although self-service learning, self-evaluation, and automated reporting can be useful, the interpersonal aspect of the program is of critical importance. Learners must have regular contact with their supervisor or evaluator for review and follow up discussion to ensure the best outcome. This emphasis on feedback and ongoing communication will deliver a training program that is continuously improved. As employees become used to this feedback occurring on a regular basis and see their own progress, they become more confident and capable as a result.

Competency based training can include many of the tasks and responsibilities of a job. But safety is one topic that often deserves urgent attention due to the risks associated with poor competence in this area. For more information about incorporating competency training into your safety program, contact DKF Solutions today at