OVER THE PAST THIRTY YEARS, using competencies has become universal within human resources, integrated into activities from managing performance to determining compensation. More than 90 percent of companies now have competency models, and an entire industry exists to help HR professionals create, implement, and measure them.1 Yet their popularity belies the fact that there is significant confusion about what competencies are and almost no science showing that they work.

The confusion about competencies’ meaning and value likely stems from their amorphous definition over time. After Harvard’s David McClelland originally suggested competencies as an alternative to the job assessment process in 1973, they quickly evolved into a ...

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