Competencies - the key to every transfer

The 2008 Stuttgart Competencies Day

Over 240 participants attended the first ever Stuttgart Competencies Day in the “Haus der Wirtschaft” – including students and company representatives from Steinbeis University Berlin. Johann Löhn, the university’s president, spoke about the important relationship between academic study and participation in real-life company projects – something he has insisted on since the founding of the university in 1998, before the concept of “competencies” became so prevalent. All-round excellence is definitely expected from students at Steinbeis University Berlin – just as personal, social and practical competencies are needed alongside expertise to survive in today’s workplace. Werner Faix, director of the university’s School of International Business and Entrepreneurship (SIBE), outlined the day’s theme in similar terms, describing “competencies” as the ability to deal with complex, forward-looking challenges independently in an organized, creative manner – a conviction probably shared by all the speakers.

Facilitating the event, Werner Faix moved smoothly between topics, alternating between humor and seriousness. Merging a mixture of talks around a coherent topic, he described the current “war for talents” in plain terms: a battle for the best. For competencies, for the most capable – for the most talented. The winner of this war? Whoever has the best ways to find talent and help people unfold and grow. Competencies: a broad concept, but one vital to our future.

In his introductory talk entitled “What are competencies?”, John Erpenbeck, Professor for Knowledge and Competencies Management at the SIBE, highlighted that the focus on competencies is nothing new. Humans have always needed competencies when encountering something new. However, the modern “competencies” movement, which began with White, Chomsky and McClelland around 1960, has taken on an unforeseen magnitude. This reaction is an attempt to understand an increasingly confusing, insecure and chaotic world, demanding more and more independent, organized, creative responses to extreme uncertainty. The very term “competencies” is in danger of becoming a meaningless buzzword if not qualified and defined in relation to specific actions. These days, even the ability to read and do basic math is discussed in terms of reading and math “competencies”. What remains crucial is that the genuine acquisition of any skill entails internalizing a set of rules, values and norms – in other words, learning through emotions and motivations. Competencies cannot be acquired without emotional uncertainty – mere education has very little do to with real skill development!

Nowadays, all large companies have their own competencies models, mainly used to appraise and train employees. But what about SMEs? Norbert Kailer, director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Organizational Development at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria – well known throughout Europe – tackled this question and raised a few possible answers. Looking at the main findings, it was clear that despite significant time pressure, a small workforce and limited financial means, SMEs increasingly see competencies development as a vital issue. The response is often to provide on-the-job training – particularly when it comes to improving customer loyalty. On the flip side, companies sometimes think they’re investing enough in competencies development by sending employees on seminars and courses. Kailer spearheaded a series of simple yet effective methods for systematic competencies development at a number of SMEs. His success proved the wisdom of his approach.

Annette Schulten from the Steinbeis School of International Business and Entrepreneurship at Steinbeis University Berlin explained how the school has made a point of integrating new insights from theory and practice into its degree programs. The aim? Not just to improve levels of expertise among students, but to assess and strengthen their competencies, too. The well-known KODE® and KODE®X systems play a crucial role here. The high number of students, their excellent final results, and the extremely high proportion who immediately obtain good jobs after graduation – all this proves the effectiveness of the Project Competencies course. Not only that: success here indicates how this approach could benefit other areas of study.

Assessing an employee’s competencies isn’t just about tests and scoring systems. It can – and should – focus on the people and their backgrounds. At least according to Thomas Lang-von Wins from the Bundeswehr University in Munich. Looking at employee backgrounds during skill appraisals is a reliable way to uncover individual strengths. It also stimulates proactive development. In short, this approach can be used to assess and develop employee talents. Lang-von Wins made his message loud and clear: simply hiring employees with different skill sets is a thing of the past. Today, the focus should be on fostering skill development, creating an environment supportive to learning, and opening up new learning opportunities – to support and encourage independent learning.

“Public authorities have often brought about (or prevented) more permanent change to society than rulers, politicians, diplomats or generals.” Timo Meynhardt, director of the Center for Leadership and Values in Society at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, opened his talk with this surprising quote from Hans Meier, providing plenty of food for thought for the audience. In his talk entitled “Competencies versus bureaucracy?”, he discussed the example of the German Federal Employment Office. Since its reorganization, it has focused on assessing and developing the competencies of its customers, using a custom version of the KODE® basic competencies system. This approach has shown focusing on competencies is vital during re-organizations, although by no means easy: instilling a culture focusing on competencies can take a long time!

Four more real-life examples showed the resounding effect the subject of competencies has had in the workplace. According to Thomas Schrettle from the Swiss Research Institute of Small Business and Entrepreneurship in St. Gallen, modern efforts to maintain top-notch service via strategic management have underlined how this approach can help find new answers to an old question – “Why are some companies more successful than others?”

Claus-Peter Hammer from Siemens Professional Education explained in detail how the company has set up a new on-the-job competencies development scheme, run in cooperation with Steinbeis University Berlin.

August Musch from Steinbeis Beratungs– zentren GmbH reported on the development of a competencies test for consultants based on the KODE®X technique, established in cooperation with SAPHIR Kompetenz GmbH. The certificate acts as an endorsement of consulting competencies, thus giving holders an advantage in this highly competitive industry. It also makes for improved transparency and makes it easier opening the door to customers.

In a stimulating discussion peppered with interesting examples, Armin Trost from Furtwangen University introduced his approach to modern competencies management to Alfried Quenzler from Audi. “Talent Relationship Management” accounts for personal preferences and allows the company to pull suitable employees from clearly defined target groups. This means candidates can be individually introduced to the employer – in this case, Audi – and also makes it possible to put in place staff retention instruments. An engaging exchange with one clear message: competencies development is more than worth its price.

One thing’s for certain: the 2008 Stuttgart Competencies Day raised great expectations for the future. Will these be fulfilled? We’ll know by the time the next Competencies Day takes place on 25 November 2009. Competencies management has become crisis management. How will these developments progress? We can but wait and see.


Prof. Dr. John Erpenbeck
Steinbeis University Berlin School of International Business and Entrepreneurship

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