Competencies sans connections vital | Sunday Observer

Competencies sans connections vital

25 July, 2021

Results can be delivered only when the right person is handling the right job. This is possible only when competencies are considered in hiring and not connections. Various stories we hear in the private and public sectors highlight the clarity needed in ensuring the right set of competencies. Let’s discover this further in today’s column. 


The choice of connections over competencies has been a perennial issue in the global political arena.  The kith and kin of those who are at the helm appear to be the favourites, with regard to filling key positions. It is easy to promise but difficult to practice, based on the many stories we hear. 

As the Indian media reported a few years ago, the inaugural Modi government in its very first order, issued on the day he was sworn in prime minister, had barred ministers from handpicking “personal staff”. This was  unprecedented and showed Modi’s intent to ensure that none of his ministers fancies a “hidden agenda”.

No one, not even Indira Gandhi, went to this extent to keep a check on ministers from overstepping their briefs. It was also supposed to bring an end to the “appointment” of family members as personal staff, which had been a practice with many ministers over the years. Whether the same ethos remain today is worth exploring. 

Can we say the same thing about Sri Lanka? I will leave it to the readers to judge. One thing is clear in no uncertain terms. A significant section of society is looking forward to professionalism at all key levels, as a vital part of “exemplary” governance. 

Competency canvass

The word ‘canvass’ has many meanings assigned to it, according to any typical dictionary. I would go by the idea that it is a “large piece of fabric (usually canvas fabric) by means of which wind is used to propel a sailing vessel”. In other words, something that propels in giving direction and protects in guarding against outside forces.

Components of competency

Competencies are the measurable or observable knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviour critical to successful job performance. It begins with attitude and then comes aptitude which can be further subdivided into knowledge and skills. In other words, these three form the three main compartments in the competency canvass. Let’s discuss them in detail.

Attitudinal component of competency 

This in fact is the most complex, and most crucial component. Some authors simplify things in calling the three components of competency as knowledge, skills, and attitude (KSA), in highlighting the behavioural aspects as the attitude. According to Hogg & Vaughan (2005), an attitude is “a relatively enduring organisation of beliefs, feelings, and behavioral tendencies towards socially significant objects, groups, events or symbols. It has a heavy behavioural component. 

Interestingly, there is a model that combines the behavioural aspect with others. It is called the ABC of an attitude.

Affective component: this involves a person’s feelings or emotions about the attitude object. For example: “I am scared of spiders”.

Behavioral (or cognitive) component: the way the attitude we have influences how we act or behave. For example: “I will avoid spiders and scream if I see one”.

Cognitive component: this involves a person’s belief or knowledge about an attitude object. For example: “I believe spiders are dangerous.”

Types of behaviour are typically evaluated in terms of consistent adherence to a set of behavioral standards. Examples of behavioral competencies and associated standards include:

Customer focus

Builds and maintains customer satisfaction with the products and services offered by the organisation.

Focuses on the customer’s business results, rather than one’s own.

Seeks customer feedback and ensures needs have been fully met.

Delivers products and services when and where the customer needs them.

Explores options when unable to deliver a requested product or service and pursues solutions until the customer is satisfied.

Business alignment

Aligns the direction, products, services, and performance of a business line with the rest of the organisation.

Integrates executive direction into every decision and consultation.

Seeks to understand other programs in the department, including their services, deliverables, and measures.

Advocates for and positively represents other programs and services when working with customers and stakeholders.

Knowledge component of competency

Knowledge essentially refers to the understanding of a particular subject. It includes information acquired through experience or education. It also refers to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. In other words, knowledge is what is known in a particular field or in total, facts and information.Ikujiro Nonaka, a veteran researcher of knowledge management, describes two types of knowledge - tacit and explicit. Let’s start with the easily seen one. Explicitness is also known as coded knowledge.

It is the one which is available in soft and hard forms in textbooks, manuals, CDs etc. It is easily communicated and shared, as in product specifications, a scientific formula or a computer program.

Tacit knowledge is based on personal experience. It is hard to explain and, therefore, difficult to communicate to others. It could be a craft or profession, a particular technology or product market, or the activities of a work group or team. As tacit knowledge is within individuals, the challenge is how to capture individual-based knowledge to make it explicit and common knowledge for use across the entire organisation.

We have many examples of tacit knowledge getting trapped without being properly translated. Take the case of an indigenous physician. He might touch a patient and heal. Whereas the “golaya” (student) might be taking notes of his teacher’s behaviour and trying to learn which may be not fully successful. Why some of the ancient technologies used to construct stupas, dagobas, tanks and canals are not available now could be easily attributable to non-transferring the tacit knowledge of our ancient forefathers to a coded form.  

Skills component of competency

Even in a corporate scenario, resigning of a well-experienced manager might create a dearth of knowledge unless a proper plan is in place to ensure translation of at least some of his/her tacit knowledge to his/her successor. This can be a critical knowledge challenge in order to ensure business continuity. 

 A skill or ability refers to a natural or learned capacity to perform an act. A skill is also, the learned capacity to carry out pre-determined results often with the minimum outlay of time, energy, or both. 

It was Robert Katz (1974) who classified management skills as technical, human and conceptual. 

Technical Skills pertain to what is done and to working with things. They comprise a person’s ability to use technology to perform an organisational task. An engineer using his/her engineering expertise is one such example. 

Human Skills refer to how something is done and to working with people. They comprise a person’s ability to work with people in the achievement of goals. An engineer using his/her persuasion skills in motivating his/her team is an example. Essentially they refer to interpersonal relations. 

Conceptual Skills involve why something is done and to a person’s view of the organisation as a whole. They comprise the ability to understand the complexities of the organisation as it affects and is affected by its environment. These can be defined as the ability to coordinate and integrate the organisation’s diverse activities and are most important at the top of the organisational hierarchy where strategic or long-term decisions are made.

Uses of competencies 

Competencies offer a variety of uses in getting the best out of employees. Several such specific uses are listed below: 

In developing job descriptions with clear identification of knowledge, skills and behavioural requirements In recruitment and selection.  where proper assessment of the candidate is required In employee performance management, where objective evaluation is essential In training and development,  where identified competency gaps should be filled In career and succession planning, where required competencies at next level should be identified  In compensation, where due recognition should be involved with competency-based pay 

One may think that it is all in the HR domain. Yet, the fact remains that every functional manager has to work with people and hence their competencies are of high importance.

Way forward

Competency canvass assists us in clearly identifying the components of a competency with the associated components. Sri Lankan managers have to be more objective in clearly identifying the required competencies of their team members. Else, it will be a case of rushing to deciding on people based on mere opinions. 

Sri Lankan organisations can enhance their hiring professionalism by way of ensuring the preference of competencies over competencies. It will pave the way not only for higher organisational performance but also for better employee satisfaction. 

Even at the national level, the key challenge of picking the right person to handle the right job can be meaningfully handled by adhering to some of the fundamentals of Human Resource Management. When it takes place, competencies will definitely be more significant than connections.