What is competency mapping and why you need it in your company

competency mapping

Have you ever spent your free time trying to usher a small village of farmers into a space-faring people? It sounds like you’ve played Civilization. If you have spent the last twenty-five years doing something else with your time, Civilization is a series of turn-based strategy games which is famous for a number of things, one of them being its complex technology trees.

The game works more or less like real life. In order to use an advanced technology, you need first make the discoveries that this new technology is built on. So before building a ship, you need to master mathematics and astronomy. In other words, discovering new technologies opens the doors to the further advancement of your civilization.

Civilization isn’t the only place where you can see skills improve in a series of logical steps. Software developers, whether they realize it or not, experience a similar skill progression as they develop in their career. It is no surprise then that the intersection of the Venn Diagram of software developers and Civilization Players is pretty large. This brings us to competency mapping which is based on the same premise: progress built on a comprehensive series of logical steps (as seen in Civilization).

What is competency mapping?

Competency mapping is a strategy based on the evaluation of competencies of employees in an organization with the aim to design “a program that is repeatable, specific, and is expected to engage team members in their own professional development.” Competency mapping has a number of benefits for both the individual and the organization. First of all, it allows employees to understand what career development efforts they should be making and to what end result. From the perspective of the employer, competency mapping increases your awareness of existing skill sets as well as skill gaps in the organization. This helps you make informed decisions when it comes to:

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  • defining the scope of work for existing roles and new job openings
  • aligning the learning of your existing employees with your required skills
  • recruiting people with the right skill sets

As it’s becoming increasingly hard to hire tech talent, recruiters are constantly trying out new ways of making the grass seem greener on their side. It’s common knowledge that HR departments constantly work to outdo themselves in introducing new perks and benefits. At the same time, very few HR professionals actually think about what developers really want, need, and are attracted to: to learn new technologies, take up interesting challenges, and share knowledge.

Say goodbye to stale career paths

Do you know any artists who learned to paint so that they could one day manage an auction house? Probably not, as their passion is their art. If they wanted a career in management, they could have gone to business school. So why do businesses present senior developers with stale career paths where they can only become managers, architects or analysts? Should they really be offered one of these not-so-loved and socially unappreciated roles if their passion is coding? It’s common for burnt-out employees to ask to be migrated horizontally, be it to a different team or to a completely new role. In most cases, however, such requests are turned down because they need to stick to their current roles. Thanks to career maps, employees have an understanding of their growth opportunities and they know exactly what professional development efforts they should be making to arrive at their desired end result.

It is foolish to think that your developers are limited to the options that you give them. If you can’t give them the career they want one of your competitors probably can. It is a waste of time, money, and talent to let a good developer leave your company because you haven’t supported their success.

Career trees which are a product of career mapping provide a skill-based progress plan that would feel right at home in Civilization. Just like other competencies, technical skills are built on prerequisite skills which can be conveniently organized into a form resembling technology trees. After all, to develop frontend apps using Angular, you need to master JavaScript first. To use JavaScript efficiently to implement browser apps, you need to understand what dependencies there are between JavaScript and CSS, HTML, Web API. There are many examples of advanced skills being dependent on foundational skills. This is nothing new but various organizations typically adapt different approaches to some advanced technologies based on their context and structure.

Competency mapping: getting started

How do you use competency mapping and what benefits (both direct and indirect) does it come with?

Once you create a career tree tailored to the specifics of your organization, you can give uniform advice on how your developers can build their skill sets. A side effect of this result is that roles like “frontend developer” become organization-specific. This means that in different organizations, the said developer will possess a different skill set. While in some companies, their skills will be focused on JavaScript, in others they will likely be centered on creating graphical user interfaces and using HTML/CSS effectively. This discrepancy creates communication gaps which can luckily be eliminated quite easily. Focusing on particular skills instead of skill groups can really make a huge difference here.

Here is a skill tree we made for Java using our competency mapping tool – MapSkiller.

Java Career Tree MapSkiller used for competency mappingEnriching your career trees with an employee’s details can show you what competencies they have and what they can easily acquire if needed. This serves as a cue for your internal developers (especially juniors) as to how they can grow professionally and to what end. Moreover, companies can support their developers in acquiring certain skills which will be needed in the organization, e.g. for future projects.

Another way to make your competency mapping more efficient is to place your recruitment candidates on your career tree. This shows you how they fit your team and simultaneously fosters skill diversification. After all, hiring people with the right skill set who can also bring a breath of fresh air to your company is a double win.

This approach means you can move away from unhelpful labels and instead make positions skill-focused. As an example, a senior developer is someone who can do at least three things on a senior level, as well as mentor less experienced colleagues. This brings up an important question: does knowing something automatically make you capable of teaching it? What about soft skills? Is one career tree sufficient to describe a person? Turns out, it isn’t.

Senior developers aren’t just coding wizards. On top of mastering tech skills, you also need to learn to communicate, work as a part of a team, share your knowledge with your community, and so forth. All these skills need to be organized in a separate career tree which runs parallel to your tech skill tree. As a consequence, a senior developer is someone who not only has the tech skill set required of the position, but who also knows the principles of building agile software, has leadership skills, and is able to speak publicly (e.g. to run a demo for a client).

Every leaf of the career tree can be labeled not only with the technology required, but also supplemented with a list of books, articles, and presentations which help master the skill in question. Storing all this information in one place allows you to learn what is required as well as how to get there.

Ready to plant your career trees?

Technology is a living thing. New languages, libraries, and tools are constantly being created. Updating your career tree with these trends brings it to life. It grows and develops, just like a real tree would. Some branches get stronger, other remain weaker either losing their usefulness or are cut down. As long as you’re mindful of the changing landscape, you won’t be surprised by the way tech is evolving.

The final question to ask at this point is this: what happens when career paths in your organization are unregulated? That’s even better. As you’re implementing career trees, you can go ahead and implement them in an optimized and innovative way. Let your employees take pleasure in their work as much as they enjoy playing Civilization

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