Implementing employee competency assessment in the IT industry [interview – case study]

Jolanta Kozak
Implementing employee competency assessment in the IT industry [interview – case study]
12 min.

Competency assessment is a perfect tool thanks to which we can easily improve skills of our team and relatively quickly bring tangible benefits to the company – which, in fact, is one of the key HR objectives.

Competency management is a well-known method to strengthen the achievement of a company’s strategic goals by focusing on developing the activities that will support key competencies in the organization. To explore the subject properly, we decided to ask our specialists i.e., Katarzyna Kowalska (eLeader HRBP) and Katarzyna Milanowska (Finanteq’s HRBP) about how to guide a company through the implementation of a competency assessment, what to pay attention to, and how to make the job easier with the right IT tool.

The importance of the competency assessment

Paweł Więsek (Productive24): It seems that the trend of analyzing the competencies of our employees is becoming an inseparable part of the entire process of personnel management. In your opinion, what is the most important while conducting an employee competency assessment?

Katarzyna Kowalska (eLeader): Competency assessment is a part of human resources management, which helps to identify the competencies of our team in comparison to the role requirements. Thus, it is designed to support the achievement of organizational goals through the implementation of adequate activities, including development ones. By benchmarking existing competencies to desired ones, we create a “photograph of the organization” that helps to identify its potential. It informs us what are the key competencies of our team members, on what level are they, and what they should develop or improve to better perform their duties.

The competency assessment provides information on what employee skills are in the organization, and which of them are missing or insufficient, but necessary for the company to achieve its strategic goals.

Therefore, we assume that the competency assessment is above all a development tool, that spreads awareness among employees of their strengths and competency gaps. By using this type of research and by analyzing key findings, we can better set individual development goals, improve efficiency and more effectively manage intellectual capital in our organization. Thus, the study is crucial for the Board of Directors, the Management Team, and of course, for us i.e., the HR department. It is a clue for proper analysis of training and development needs and what’s more, it’s a source of numerous priceless tips, e.g., about the employment structure or remuneration in the company.

Katarzyna Milanowska (Finanteq): Development processes are of a long-term nature, especially those related to so-called soft skills, where we need to work on the employee’s awareness and attitude. The effects may be visible only in the long run. Thus, it is worth periodically monitoring if there is any progress in terms of the competencies that we are working on. A well-designed tool is helping us to collect the information necessary for a leader, HR department, or Management Board. What’s more, it gives us an insight into the competencies of individuals, selected departments, or even the entire organization.

Benchmarking and competency matrix

Paweł Więsek: How do you interpret the data? As I understand, to properly analyze the results, you are using some kind of benchmarking, aren’t you?

Katarzyna Kowalska: Benchmarking is one of the first elements to be set up while implementing the survey. To set the right standards and place the results on the ”map” of desired skills for a selected position it is necessary to prepare a model or a competency matrix i.e. a standardized set of skills required in the company or given department. Preparing a matrix is compulsory. More accurate than the model is a competency profile which determines the range of skills and knowledge, as well as attitudes, necessary to effectively perform the duties of a particular position. Comparing the results with the model competencies allows for correct interpretation.

When to conduct an employee competency assessment?

Paweł Więsek: What is the best time to conduct an employee competency assessment? Are there any specific time points?

Katarzyna Milanowska: I do believe that competency assessment should be set up individually for each organization, i.e. fully tailored to its needs and capabilities. This applies to both the scope and the frequency. Conducting the assessment once every six months may work for one company, while for the other it will be reasonable to conduct it each quarter. Therefore, it is extremely important to think carefully about the purpose of such a survey and pick the right tools, which will effectively support the entire process.

Katarzyna Kowalska: It is also a good idea to analyze competencies under specific circumstances, e.g. before launching a new project or entering a new market. Thus, the company can precisely assess whether they have the necessary resources to achieve given goals. In other words, check what employee competencies match with those needed for undertaking new initiatives. Hence, the assessment will either help to identify individuals, that will be perfect for a particular task or make a decision whether some additional training is required or maybe the company may need to recruit external specialists. Competency assessment plays a significant role during personnel selection or any personnel decision-making processes.

The rationale behind the employee competency assessment

Paweł Więsek: We already know why and when a competency assessment should be conducted. Can you tell us a bit more about the additional benefits of conducting them? Perhaps you may inspire our readers on how to convince the management board, to implement this type of assessment.

Katarzyna Kowalska: Of course! Conducting a competency assessment has a bunch of benefits, for the organization, management team, and the employees themselves. It is impossible to list them all, but let’s shed some light on the most important ones. 

Employee competency management while being properly implemented and executed is directly affecting the achievement of the company’s strategic business goals. Measuring the competencies of candidates is beneficial for many parties. For example, for the employer as it impacts the efficiency of staff selection. Then, for employees as it allows them to understand the expectations and adequately use their potential or even give impetus for further development. Last, but not least, for the entire organization as it is another element of communication with employees leading to some major management improvements.

What’s more, conducting a performance appraisal along with the competency assessment allows companies to identify team competencies and skill gaps. If the competency gap results in significant losses, the tool will perfectly catch it. That is why the assessment should be conducted regularly. Otherwise, it may be impossible to identify and focus on what to improve, and it has some major consequences. Can we really create an effective development strategy without including these aspects? It sounds at least quite difficult, doesn’t it?

Katarzyna Milanowska: Implementing a competency assessment program is a clear sign for the employees that the company is committed to developing skills and expanding knowledge, and that the learning process is a crucial part of the development of the entire organization. By having access to information on employee competencies, you can properly create their development paths and monitor their progress. This increases the chance that the learning process will be thoughtful and effective, and any skill gaps will be quickly identified and eliminated, for example, by involving the employee in other tasks or by providing necessary training.

How to introduce a competency assessment in the company?

Paweł Więsek: What is your experience in implementing a competency assessment? How to plan this process?

Katarzyna Kowalska: I think I’m the right person to answer that question, as I was participating in that process since the very beginning. Our first attempts to introduce competency assessment in the company date back a few years. HR department played a significant role in the entire process. We knew that managing our human capital without relevant data coming from, e.g., competency assessment, won’t bring desired results.

I remember that when the idea of conducting an assessment came up, we discussed it with our management. After we had presented the plan and its benefits for the organization, we immediately gained approval. During the pilot survey, we decided to delegate it to an external company, which was also responsible for preparing the relevant forms. At that time, we focused on the survey of managerial skills. Thus, CEOs and all leaders were involved. As the competency survey is also, or most importantly, a form of communication within the organization, each participant received feedback during an evaluation interview.

At that stage, we already had some serious conclusions, which not only gave us a bright picture of the manager’s competencies but also information on what the organization should do to grow and improve its functioning. It was extremely valuable, and the managers could finally receive real feedback from their team. The pilot test was also very useful for the Management Board.  It helped them to better understand how to design their own competency model and use it effectively.

Right back then, we knew that the survey will be repeated. Thus, it was easier for us to decide on the scale of the process to involve the entire organization and conduct it at our own expense. It was mostly a result of having a great understanding of our internal processes, so we exactly knew what to study. It was also a moment when we decided to create our own competency matrix designed for a particular position within the project teams. Of course, developing the matrix required a series of consultations with the representatives of various departments and listing the most important employee skills i.e., core competencies. Because in companies like ours – in the IT industry – the diversity of positions, and therefore of required competencies, is really wide, the development of competency models was demanding and time-consuming.

Speaking of survey preparation, we decided to break down each competency into levels where the lowest represented a complete lack of skill, while the highest was for the expert level. In the study, we used behavioral descriptions. We specified the behaviors that represent a certain level of competence. We’ve carefully examined the tasks of each position and searched for the competencies needed to perform those tasks effectively. As a result, in the very first survey, we described a dozen competencies, which were then broken down into some more levels. Some competencies (i.e., general for the company) applied to all employees (e.g., communication, collaboration), some were shared among groups of specialized positions (e.g., creating testable code for different programming languages), and some were addressed strictly to managers.

Along with each competency, we’ve determined the business hierarchy – the relationship between employees necessary to conduct the study. Thus, we included the superior-subordinate relationship (both ways) and collaboration within the same project team (270-degree assessment). The results, which included an anonymous summary of each competency along with comments received from colleagues, were shared with employees and their immediate supervisors.

Katarzyna Milanowska: It is worth adding, that although the idea of conducting a competency assessment came from the HR department, it wouldn’t be possible to accomplish such a project without the participation of the representatives of other departments. Thanks to them, all needs and capabilities of the entire company were included. The openness and support of people who shared their experience in working with teams and indicated what was important to them from the leader’s perspective was the key factor that guaranteed the successful implementation of this tool.

Paweł Więsek: How did you conduct this assessment?

Katarzyna Kowalska: As we didn’t have adequate tools during our first trial, we decided to pick the easiest way of collecting the data, i.e., Excel spreadsheets. However, it is worth mentioning that during the data collection and analysis, we almost immediately noticed the flaws of the chosen solution. The amount of data was huge, so organizing it and drawing up some valuable conclusions caused a lot of difficulties. Due to that fact, the entire analysis got a bit longer and more complicated.

After conducting the survey and interpreting the results, we realized how many technical challenges and issues were involved in the process. Therefore, we decided that for the next assessment, we will use a proper tool to streamline and organize the entire process. Our choice of software that will reflect our expectations in terms of performance appraisals fell on the Productive24 platform, more specifically the HRM system. This tool, not only perfectly handled ongoing processes but was also able to evolve and change according to our needs. Productive24 perfectly mapped and executed several complex activities resulting from the research process we designed.

Competency assessment application

Paweł Więsek: Were any of the software’s features more important than others? What did you pay special attention to while choosing a tool?

Katarzyna Milanowska: What we really cared about at first, and I think Kasia has already mentioned that earlier, seems to be trivial, but in fact, was very important. We are talking about the simplicity and transparency of the system. An additional, vital requirement was to collect the most comprehensive information about our employees in one place.

Thanks to the digitization of the process, conducting competency assessments as well as analyzing the results were faster, automated, and reproducible. With each assessment, the leader or employee could evaluate previous results to measure progress.

Katarzyna Kowalska: Exactly! We wanted a tool that would include these elements and make gathered data easy to interpret and compare. A complex logic of algorithms “sewn” into the solution responsible for the entire calculations is automating and streamlining our process, allowing us to create and conduct performance appraisals on any scale. This huge improvement has almost completely freed us from manual and ineffective work, letting us focus on future process improvements. At this point, it’s worth mentioning that adapting the forms to a specific job position was crucial for us. We wanted the questionnaires to be easily modified, so we can fully adapt them to a given role or position of the employee. As a result, the implementation of the system generated some major savings in terms of both the time and workload necessary to prepare various versions of the survey.

Another vital issue was related to granting access rights to our employees, both respondents and those that will analyze the results. In Productive24, right at the beginning of creating a competency model, users may set up access rights to determine who will have access to certain parts of the assessment and define the roles of the employees depending on being either respondents or researchers. The flexibility of the solution allows us to easily modify a competency matrix to properly adapt it to a certain job position and changing research needs.

Katarzyna Milanowska: In addition, it was also very important for us to automate the process. Based on our experience, we didn’t want the process that requires activities on a large scale or complicated logistics. We wanted to reduce the time necessary to conduct research and analyze the results as much as possible. Therefore, the communication in such a project is mostly automated, keeping our tedious work reduced to a minimum and simplified.

Competency assessment report

Paweł Więsek: What about collecting the responses and further analysis?

Katarzyna Kowalska: Improving this area of performance appraisals was no less important to us than conducting the survey itself. Thanks to Productive24, we eliminated the vast majority of manual work in analyzing the results. There is no data mess, which often occurs in companies that use spreadsheets or what’s even worse in my opinion; paper forms to conduct an assessment.

Thanks to Productive24, we eliminated the vast majority of manual work in analyzing the results.

After the employee submits the survey, his or her answers are automatically uploaded to the system, allowing for quick analysis. An important part of the solution is the possibility to conduct some additional analysis of the competency assessment results, by a leader. At the end of the process, a summary report containing the results with a detailed description of both strengths and weaknesses, as well as areas to improve, is generated. The analysis of the results is broken down into individual components. What’s more, instead of wasting time scrolling down hundreds of sheets, we can use advanced filtering or easily search for a given phrase or data. This is a great improvement for us i.e. HR professionals responsible for not only conducting the survey but also for the quick processing and delivering the results. Likewise, we are 100% sure that questionnaires uploaded to a system are securely stored and fully confidential. 

Katarzyna Milanowska: Let me add that thanks to the possibility of conducting the entire survey within a single system, we can create a database with a full history of the employees (their previous assessments). Thus, the process of monitoring and developing their skills during employment is much easier. Thanks to a single application, we have more comprehensive information about employees, not only by looking at individuals but also by taking into account the bigger picture i.e., the entire organization’s perspective.

Katarzyna Kowalska: Productive24 gives us (i.e., the HR department) insight into so much information about each employee, so we can individualize the approach to the specific person, even though we have several hundred specialists on board. Relieving us of the tedious and time-consuming work also increases our ability to conduct the assessments of employee competencies more often and regularly, as well as to better prepare them in terms of content.

The future of employee performance appraisals

Paweł Więsek: What do you think, will employee competency assessment remain an important part of HR, in the future?

Katarzyna Kowalska: I think so. Nowadays, many companies use competency models and competency assessments in strategic team management. Relying on the competencies and talents of employees is undoubtedly an effective way to achieve company goals. Although the implementation of competency management is a rather tedious, laborious process, and the results are visible only in the long run, it is definitely worth the effort. Competency assessment is an essential component of a “learning organization”. It provides continuous and up-to-date access to employees’ skills. Strengthening competencies allows for building effective teams and helps to individually guide its members to develop their skills adequately to their natural predispositions. This type of approach has a positive impact on the processes, optimizing the performance of the whole company or its certain departments.

Paweł Więsek: Thank you so much for the interview, and I wish you every success in your future work.