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If one more person talks about competence mapping I will scream

May 1, 2009

Yesterday I outlined a series of known effects that produce errors in perception and judgement in humans. I argued then that attempts to train people not to commit such errors was itself an error and a good example of the idealistic approaches to management that seem to dominate much of the management and training literature. I think in part this comes from the dominance of behaviourist and competence based approaches to human management and some of the modelling and related approaches that underpin the pseudo-science cult that is NLP. Fortunately the latter seems to be in decline but there is still an ideological problem here and its linked to the unwillingness to account for context that also failed too many an approach to management.

Now I remember some of this, back in the 1980s I was involved in a big project in Datasolve (which became Datasciences which was taken over by iBM). We were increasingly service based and selling required knowledge of services. The idea was to find people in support and development rules who has the ability to sell and given them a one year trial period, where they could take a risk. If it didn’t work out then the individual could return to their original position. It was (and remains) a great idea and had some success. One of its products, a support person in the bureau payroll business went on to be top salesman in the unit and is now COO for BT out in Hong Kong. We met up again for the first time in many years at the Hong Kong Sevens a few years ago.

Now my call at the time was that if someone wanted to do it, then we should send them out for a week with an existing salesperson and if at the end of that they still wanted to, then let them on the programme. My view was that observation of reality would shake a few people out of the deep seated support belief that all sales people were flash-harry-know-nothings who earned too much money. My father used to do the same things for idealistic 18 year olds who had watched too many episodes of All Creatures Great and Small and needed to face up to the reality of a vets life before committing their future to it. After a few dialogues along the lines of its sick, I can cure it but it will be too expensive might as well shoot it and take the glue money was cathartic.

However that was not good enough for HR and we got an expensive assessment centre run by a firm who had sales people who could sell fridges to the inhabitants of the frozen north, or a pig in a poke so ironically we got what we deserved. A whole competence model was created for a salesperson and a series of performance tests and exercises were established for a full day programme. Throughout this a group of our existing salespeople and one general manager (myself) observed the process, scored the individuals and at the end of the day decided who was in and who was out.

The problem for me with this is two fold. Firstly, a simulation environment is very different from reality when you are dealing with human systems. I scored highly in sales tests when I was younger and i can do it, but I don’t enjoy it and the stress would kill me. Related to that, most of the consultancy sales situations I was in thereafter bore little or no relationship to the simulation environments. Secondly in all the years I have worked with and managed salespeople (or any other profession for that matter), while I have seen certain characteristics that could be said to be typical, the presence of those characteristics did not mean that success would follow. Not only that several highly successful individuals had none of the characteristics and failed simulations and tests, they needed real situations to be effective.

So for me competence modelling is another of those confusions of symptoms with causes, and a failure to use apprentice and other experiential models which have more potential. This is a theme to which I will return!

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