With the rise of digital disruptions and “next generation” talent management strategies, nearly all HR and learning and development (L&D) teams are being pushed to work in concert together to create seamless employee learning, performance and development experiences. I truly believe that this is a great thing – the real beneficiary here is the employee/learner/performer (whichever term you prefer). However, the collaborative efforts between HR and L&D have brought out some long-standing differences between the two functions.

One of the pain points across these two similar yet different functions has been around the incorporation of competency frameworks in modern learning experiences. While HR teams have historically seen the value of strong competency models, performance improvement consultants and learning professionals have struggled with seeing how competency models support the design and development of relevant, modern and learner-centric curricula. The result is a passionate debate over how to link research-based competency maps into the design of authentic and valid performance-centric learning curricula.

Two Views on the Performer

Essentially, competency models and learner/performer-centric outcomes are two paths to define and benchmark the same performer population. To better understand the different paths, it is important to grasp the fundamental premise for each. It is important to note that when I refer to competency models, I am referring to those that are anchored in research across a range of organizations and have some degree of statistical analysis behind it.

Key Elements of Competency Models

Competency models and maps are designed to support the organization in defining associated competencies for roles, which include large groups of performers. They tend to be blueprints outlining the desired state for role performance in general terms of required knowledge, skills and abilities. They are designed to support the organization in:

  • Creating an objective framework for defining/assessing performance in a role
  • Assessing the readiness of individuals in a population to perform in a role
  • Providing general development guidelines for individual improvement

A key goal of a standardized competency framework is to establish a common language around what “good looks like” within a generic role or functional context. This common language is often used to reduce the subjectivity for the review, evaluation and development of employees in a role.

Key Elements of a Modern Learning Experience Using Outcomes

Modern learning experiences using outcomes are focused with the learner in mind. Learner/performance-centric curricula includes learning interventions/experiences that enable learners to close specific performance gaps between current state and desired state for role performance. They are designed to support the learner/performer with detailed relevant insights and actions in creating specific outputs, including: 

  • Gaining the knowledge required to perform critical tasks and activities in the role,
  • Developing the skills required to perform critical tasks and activities in the role,
  • Establishing and refining abilities critical to execution of tasks and activities in a role, and
  • Leveraging a system of performance support.

Performance consultants and learning professionals approach role excellence by identifying the critical performance outcomes with the outputs of top performers as the source of the data set. Then, to build a curriculum that meets the needs of the modern workforce, the learning interventions must include a mix of activities that meet a range of needs and the social learning roles.

Bringing It All Together: Building the Best Modern Learning Experiences

Both approaches can provide valuable results when it comes to designing modern learning experiences that you can gather value from. While the competency model can help organizations determine the readiness of its employees and identify areas to build skill sets, it does not provide the detailed, specific inputs required for a relevant modern learning experience.

When creating a learner/performer-centric curriculum, start with the top performers and the performer’s outcomes, but always keep sight of the structure of the competency model and identified competency gaps. In the end, a successful curriculum will be evidence-based and built on a foundation of specific, descriptive, learner-centricity and a clear description of what good looks like from the relevant performers.

The following are key best practices to consider:

  • As a learning professional, take time to learn as much as possible about the competency framework/ model and the diagnostic tools and research that backs it.
  • Leverage insights from the competency framework and diagnostics as potential inputs into the learner journey, a reflection on key competencies and potential areas to focus.
  • Ensure your modern learning further defines role excellence by focusing on job-relevant accomplishments and create relevant scenarios/performance narratives.
  • Throughout the experience, create learner-centric bridges from general competency descriptions to very specific job accomplishments within a particular role.
  • Where applicable, provide guidance for the learners on how to use the competency model in supporting their own development.
  • Create/curate additional resources to support learner remediation or stretch goals.
  • Provide clear mapping and coaching guidelines for managers to support continuous growth.
  • Provide practice and feedback systems that deliver learners with targeted insight into their own development.


In conclusion, competency models play a critical role in supporting the design of modern learning experiences but should not be the only framework in guiding the design of the learning solution. Because competency maps lack detail about performance outcomes and tasks for a particular role, they can miss the mark for developing relevant learning experiences. A performance-centric focus on outcomes is necessary to meet specific learner needs.

The key is realizing that competency maps can add value to augment the modern learning experience, and an analysis around specific targeted performance is critical to create the most relevant modern learning experience. If HR and L&D teams can collaborate together, rather than argue, the learner will value from a research-based and role-relevant learning journey that is designed to create measurable business results.