Thursday, January 4, 2007

Of competencies and carbohydrates

Today I saw an e-mail message from one of my previous bosses. Actually, this person was my first boss in my career in HR. This mail brought back vivid memories of the 'interesting' interactions that we have had during my first year at work. While some of these interactions were 'not so peaceful' (because of the differences in opinion), almost all the interactions were very much intellectually stimulating. He was a person who could stretch me in areas that I am good at. Over the years, I have realized that I produce the highest quality work (also learn/enjoy the work most) when I am challenged in areas that I am good at.

While there are many interactions that I remember quite vividly, the one that comes to my mind first is the interaction on the approach for assessing behavioral competencies. Before I went to XLRI for my MBA, I was trained to be (and working as) a scientist. Thus, I was trained to question everything and to discuss/argue technical points comprehensively with all the people involved regardless of the level/position. While this worked fine in the area of physical science(where there is one correct answer/best solution for most problems), this habit got me into quite a bit of difficulties in a relatively 'fuzzy' field of human resources management(where there could be multiple 'acceptable'/'logical' solutions to the same problem - often based on different assumptions that can't be verified). It took me quite a bit of time to figure out the best modus operandi for me (that integrates my personal style with the nature of the filed) and this interaction happened before I made that transition.

We were discussing the different approaches to assess behavioral competencies for a group of people. Competencies are defined as a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes that lead to superior performance on a particular job. The approach that was being followed was to list out the knowledge, skill and attitude elements of each competency and to give an assessment on each of the elements. I was very new to the organization and I had joined the project mid-way. I felt that something was wrong with the approach though I could not articulate it well enough initially. Then it came to me in a flash. Competencies are like carbohydrates!. They are a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes. The key word here is 'combination'. The properties of a combination/compound (as opposed to that of a mixture) can't be explained in terms of the properties of its constituent elements (e.g. properties of carbohydrates can't be explained in terms of the properties of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen). Thus, we can't assess a competency just in terms of the assessments on its knowledge, skill and attitude elements. We have to look at the behavior that emerges from the combination of these elements and assess that behavior directly.

I still remember staying back late in the office and sending of an e-mail to the entire project team (including the boss) making this point in a rather colorful fashion. The mail had the subject line as 'Of competencies and carbohydrates...'. For rhetoric purposes, I had used a quotation from 'Through the Looking -Glass' (by Lewis Carroll) as the buildup to my argument. The lines I had quoted were

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--

and I then added 'Of competencies and-- Carbohydrates--' as the next line.

On hindsight, I realized that while this mail was logically sound, it was a quite tactless. The boss could have reprimanded me for sending such an e-mail. However, he did not do that. He actually wrote a mail back with the subject 'Why pigs have wings' (adapted from the same source , this particular line appears one line after 'Of cabbages-- and kings--' in the original text) providing another perspective on this issue. This lead to a good discussion and the issue was settled to the satisfaction of all the parties involved(For the curious - the solution was to assess only the behavior in the Assessment Centre and to but leverage the Knowledge-Skill-Attitude matrix as an input while facilitating the creation of Individual Development Plans to develop the competencies).

At that time, I did not fully understand the quality of his response (beyond the technical/ rhetorical merit of the argument, which I understood immediately). I came to appreciate the real quality of the response (in the overall context of the situation) only much later - when I was more experienced and I had started managing people (especially people similar to 'Prasad at the beginning of his career' ).


Michael said...

Well written. As someone who interacted with 'Prasad at the start of his career' I can savour the situation (though I was not of course the boss Prasad writes about). It would be good if the ex-boss - who Prasad refers to - could share his comments on this incident :-)

- Michael Fernandes

Michael said...

Well written! As someone who experienced 'Prasad at the start of his (HR) career', this brings back some good memories. Would be great if the ex-boss shared his thoughts...

anshuman said...

Interesting piece Sir. In fact someone I know was toying around with the idea of the "carbon - hydrogen - oxygen" method while I was strongly advocating the "Carbohydrate" method and even I had a tough time articulating myself. I wish he read ur writeup - anshuman kumar rath

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Mike. I did share this post with the 'ex-boss' and he gave a highly encouraging response.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Anshu.

Little Miss Muffet said...

What a coincidence that when I saw the title of this post 'Of Competencies and Carbohydrates', I was immediately reminded of Alice in Wonderland. Little did I know that you would refer to the very same book! An interesting post.

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you Kavita.