What is HR Competence?


Competence refers to an individual’s knowledge, skills, abilities, or personality characteristics that directly influence his or her job performance. The concept of individual competence has a long tradition in the managerial field. Most of this work has focused on leaders and general managers. Other research has sought to specify HR competencies through interviews with executives within a single firm or from a limited set of firms. Many companies have tried to identify HR competencies by asking line managers within the company what they expect from HR and the kinds of competencies HR professionals should exemplify (e.g. what line managers need from HR) This approach assumes that each company may have unique expectations of its human resources professionals and that, as clients, line managers play a central role in defining those expectations.

Defining HR competencies company by company through executive interviews has some advantages. For one thing, it anchors the findings in behaviors, because the questions asked in the interviews can target actual cases in which HR professionals within the company demonstrated competence. It also tailors the process to the specific needs of the companies in question. However, the danger is that executives may not know what they don’t know. That is, they may identify only those competencies they have seen, when in fact other HR competences may have more importance for their firm if they only knew about them. This approach may also lead to biased results, depending on the sample of executives chosen for interviews. Executives’ managerial orientation, rather than the actual needs of the business, may influence their expectations of HR. For example, line managers that have never seen HR professionals in a strategic role may not be able to think of HR as anything other than administrative overhead. Firms generally have idiosyncratic requirement for implementing strategy. Therefore, while firm-specific studies may yield some interesting examples, these case studies alone will not provide an overall competency model for the HR profession

Three large-scale HR competency studies, conducted in the 1990s, have shed some interesting light on the status of this profession. In the first study, Towers Perrin collaborated with IBM to survey 3,000 HR professionals, consultants, line executives, and academicians about a broad range of HR issues. The work revealed a rather diverse perspective on HR competencies. Among the four groups surveyed, the most commonly identified competencies included the following:

* Computer literacy (line executives)
* Broad knowledge of and vision for HR(academics)
* Ability to anticipate the effects of change (consultants)
* HR’s education of and influence on line managers (HR executives)

The second study was recently sponsored by the Society of Human Resource Management Foundation. This work focused on the future competency requirement of HR professionals. Based on data from 300 HR professionals from different industries and companies of different sizes, this study concluded that core human resources competencies center on leadership, management, functional, and personal attributes that must be augmented by level and role –specific competencies.

The third and most extensive of the HR competency surveys was conducted at the University of Michigan School of Business in three rounds over a ten-year period (1988 to 1998). This work involved more than 20,000 HR and line professionals and identified human resources competencies across HR functional specialties, industries, firms, and time. The study aimed to create a competency template for the entire HR profession, not just for a single firm.

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