Attack of the clones: do competences create corporate monocultures?

The other day I wrote a post about the mismatch between organisations’ HR processes and the way people collaborate; and that got me thinking (again) about competences.

I’m no expert in competences or recruitment (or, let’s face it, much else…), but I have worked with them in one way or another for over twenty years, including thirteen years within a corporation which apparently had competences at the root of much of its decision-making – certainly deeply embedded in its HR processes.

Competences are a way of describing the skills someone needs for a particular role, tailored for a specific organisation. Much work, time and expense is spent designing and documenting the competence framework an organisation uses to describe its roles; consultancies make a lot of money helping their clients come up with a workable competence framework. (I know – I used to work for one of them!)

Competences are of course just a tool – a way of identifying particular traits and skills for a role, and testing against those skills. Using competences within a targeted interview process – with the interviewee describing how they have displayed specific competences in the past – actually makes sense to me. Particularly if you are recruiting a large number of vacancies to fill or have a large number of applications.

In these cases, if the role can defined in terms of competences, you can test for the competence; if you do role-plays, you can construct a scenario to see if the competence is demonstrated. So if, say, you are recruiting a large number of positions for a call centre, using telephone interviews, you can easily see if a prospective hire ticks the boxes you’re looking for.

But… the downside. By selecting employees on the basis of competences, you get a monoculture: a cohort of staff who think and act in the same way. For a lot of roles and most of the time, that may be fine. It probably simplifies your management processes. It makes life easier for you – you can may even be able to think of staff in particular roles as clones of one another. (I said easier, not best practice!) But if you select people to be all the same, you’ll get just that: a monoculture.

Biological monocultures are responsible for the paucity of the environment within plantations of coniferous trees; monocultures in agriculture have been responsible for famine and have seen crops destroyed by disease.

In organisations, monocultures – the mini-me clones you’ve selected – will think in the same way and behave in the same way. And when conditions change, they won’t necessarily be very good at coping with it. Because of course, the ability to manage change probably wasn’t one of the competences you’ve been selecting for.

I think this can be particularly damaging in management roles, and in roles which need creative thinking. You don’t want managers who all think and behave the same way. Indeed, thinking of managers I have worked with, those who are most able to think differently and work in different ways are probably the most effective. People who take a job and make it their own, adding their own take and their own spin – those who mould a role to themselves – are most successful. You’re selecting on similarity to the role’s competence model, but what it takes to succeed is the individuality that the manager can bring. Monoculture is the one thing you don’t want!

Organisations that survive or thrive through the intellectual capital their employees bring – all the new knowledge industries – don’t want their people thinking the same way. They want lots of ideas; they want difference.

Difference isn’t easy to select for. You can’t select for it outside the context of the team or organisation. If you want conformity, legions of staff thinking and acting in the same way, that’s fine. But if you want people who think differently, to create new things and cope with change – well, maybe competences aren’t the best way to find them.


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