February 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 1 // Commentary // 1COM1

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Competencies: A New Language for our Work

One of the most critical strategic issues facing the Cooperative Extension System is how to create an infrastructure that promotes innovation and continuous learning. Linking individual competencies that lead to superior performance to the strategic directions of the organization will help us anticipate the new knowledge, skills and behaviors needed in the future in order to respond to complex problems facing our clientele. This commentary suggests that competency models are powerful decision making tools and CES should consider expanding the use of competencies as we strive to achieve relevance, usefulness and quality in our educational programs.

Barbara Boltes Stone
Associate Professor and Extension Specialist
for Planning and Performance
Texas Agricultural Extension Service
Texas A & M University
College Station, Texas
Internet address: bv-stone@tamu.edu

Sally Bieber
4-H Home Economist
Louisiana State University
Agricultural Center, St. Landry Parish
Opelousas, Louisiana

Facing an environment of increased accountability, the Cooperative Extension System (CES) is sharpening its focus on how to succeed in today's changing environment and how we can better communicate those successes to the public. Bob Robinson, Administrator, Cooperative State Research and Extension Service, has suggested that the terms relevance, usefulness and quality are essential when preparing for and communicating our successes. Another term that should be added--competency modeling--signifies a new language about work and has the potential to redefine the Cooperative Extension System so that the educational work we do can continue.

Competencies are the application of knowledge, technical skills and personal characteristics leading to outstanding performance. Competency models are designed around the skills individuals and groups need to be effective in the future and are used for making human resources decisions.

To be truly effective, competency models must have strong and irrevocable ties to the strategic issues of the Extension organization. One of the most critical strategic issues facing the CES may be how to create an infrastructure that promotes innovation and continuous learning. Identifying the competencies that will help us anticipate new ways of perceiving and thinking about complex problems should be our foundation as we strive for relevance, usefulness and quality in our educational programs.

Competencies is not necessarily a new term in Extension. Some states have identified core competencies for particular jobs. In 1993, the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy Personnel and Organizational Development Sub-committee developed a list of relevant core competencies used as part of a national needs assessment to determine existing competencies levels and staff development needs. CES should consider expanding the use of competencies as a foundation for organizational change and improved performance for three reasons.

First, the link between individual performance and organization performance drives competency-based learning systems. Competency development focuses on areas in which an individual, team or work group demonstrates outstanding performance and links them to strategic directions. Competency modeling can be a vehicle for moving the Extension organization forward.

Second, competency development is a highly participatory process. Extension professionals have the opportunity to identify the knowledge, skills and behaviors they will need to get the best results as well as skills and functions that are no longer effective.

Third, the most important reason for Extension organizations to consider competencies is that competency models are powerful decision-making tools. Professional development specialists and administrative staff in businesses and agencies worldwide are finding competencies help make forward-looking human resource decisions by clarifying the knowledge, skills and behaviors needed in the future and by serving as a foundation upon which to build employee selection, training, professional development, performance appraisal, and succession planning.

Competency modeling can yield long term benefits through employee selection. First, core competencies for a given position that will meet changing demands are agreed upon. For example, competencies leading to superior performance in a rural community may differ significantly from those associated with outstanding success in an urban setting. A job announcement is posted and applicants are interviewed based on the competencies. Behavior- based interviewing techniques determine if the individual demonstrates the ability to combine and leverage the skills in such a way that they have the potential to become outstanding Extension educators.

Competency models are also commonly used in training and development. What learning needs to occur to be effective Extension educators in the future? Since the competencies of individuals and teams are closely linked with strategic opportunities, organizational training priorities can be identified that strengthen our skills and increase our ability to be responsive to the needs of our clientele. Competency-based training encourages Extension educators to assess their level of competence in a given area and participate in training that is relevant, useful and often customized to their learning style.

Linking strategic vision and competency-based human resources decisions benefits both individuals and the Extension organization. Because the language of competencies is forwarding thinking and participatory, Extension educators learn to anticipate and recommend appropriate competencies to ensure that education program design and delivery are relevant and useful to their audiences.

By identifying strategic competencies and determining training priorities to address high profile issues, we can deliver new and meaningful benefits to our clientele more quickly while demonstrating the value of the Cooperative Extension System to a broader public. It has been suggested that the single most important human resources issue for meeting the challenges of the future is developing our on-going ability to learn (Hamel and Prahalad, 1995). By mastering competency-based tools and applications, we can establish the link between where the Cooperative Extension System is going and what we will need to learn to get there.


Hamel, G. and Prahalad, C.K. (1995) Competing for the Future. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts.