April 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 2 // Tools of the Trade // 2TOT2

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A System's Approach to Professional Development

The Texas Agricultural Extension Service has made a significant commitment to competency development in order to prepare Extension educators for the future. This article describes how the concept of competencies can be introduced, implemented, and leveraged in order to improve individual performance and make an organizational impact.

Barbara Boltes Stone
Associate Professor and
Extension Specialist for Planning and Performance
Texas A & M University
College Station, Texas
Internet Address: bv-stone@tamu.edu

Competencies were introduced in 1996 in the Texas Agricultural Extension Service (TAEX) as the basis for the professional development initiative. Competencies are defined as the application of knowledge, technical skills, and personal characteristics that lead to outstanding performance.

Competencies are identified by asking employees "What are those things we all share that makes us successful?", "What knowledge and skills will we need in the future to continue that success?" and "How does the best work get done?" The data collected are used to build competency models.

The model is a representation of our assumptions about what knowledge, skills, and behaviors are important to the future success of the Extension organization. Models can be built for individuals, specific jobs, teams, units, or the entire organization. When implemented, competency models can be applied to a number of human resource (HR) systems: (a) pre-employment preparation, (b) interviewing and selection, (c) orientation and training, (d) career development, (e) performance appraisal, and (f) succession planning.

The Texas Agricultural Extension Service (TAEX) has made a significant commitment to competency development and its application in preparing our Extension partners for the future. Significant resources have been shifted to boost positions in support of the TAEX Competency Project, provide training opportunities for those leading the effort, and communicating the "competency agenda" throughout the organization.

To date, Texas Extension has placed limited emphasis on establishing requirements and certification related to competencies. This approach has been avoided because of negative connotations associated with "competence vs incompetence" and concerns associated with testing to determine one's level of competence. Rather, competency development has been approached as an opportunity to develop our on-going ability to learn as individuals and to accelerate the mission of the organization.

Why Competencies?

The field of competency development is growing in popularity with administrative management in businesses and agencies worldwide. One important reason to collect data and build competency models is that they are powerful decision making tools.

For example, one application of competency models with potentially long-term benefits is employee selection. Using competency-based interviewing techniques, hiring managers can determine if an individual has the knowledge and skills needed to be effective in the future and demonstrate the potential to become outstanding an Extension educator. District Extension directors in the TAES will receive training on conducting competency-based interviewing as an initial step in introducing competency-based employee selection.

Competency modeling is a highly participatory process. In Extension, the educational work we do continually changes in order to meet the needs of clientele. Faculty and staff must help identify the knowledge, skills, and behaviors they will need to get the best results as well as what skills and functions are no longer effective. Because Extension educators play a large role in identifying and then assessing their level of skill, competency development helps build organizational commitment and trust.

Extension educators will be more effective because they are involved in the process. They gain insight into areas of personal improvement; they have a clearer idea of the most important aspects of their job; and they have data that may help them retire activities and behaviors no longer adding value to their job or that are not consistent with the strategic direction of the organization.

Collecting Competency Data and Building Competency Models

TAEX is identifying competencies across the entire organization, as well as within job families and program areas (Extension agents, specialists, Consumer and Family Sciences, 4- H/Youth Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources, etc.) The systems approach to competency development has included:

  • identifying areas of opportunity,
  • targeting potential audiences,
  • collecting competency data and associated behaviors,
  • building competency models, and
  • communicating the new language of competencies.

Once a model is developed, Extension professionals will assess their level of knowledge and skills in relation to the competencies related to their assignment. Supervisors will provide input and offer assistance in preparing individual development plans (IDP). The performance appraisal system will be considered in the process in terms of enhancing individual performance so that it leads to outstanding organizational impact.

It is important to note that no one individual is exemplary in all competencies. Out of this composite of "success factors" comes areas for improvement for everyone. Leveraging high performance rather than devoting a disproportionate amount of time to lower performance is part of the process of re-thinking the performance appraisal process to reflect a competency-based approach.

Implementing Competency-based Training

A major focus for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service is to use competency modeling to shift from activity-based training towards an impact-based model. The competency-based curriculum design will include orientation for new Extension professionals, core training, organizational initiative training, and management/leadership development. A monograph describing the process for implementing competency-based training in TAEX, entitled "Building Training and Development around Core Competencies" is in progress.


Identifying competencies and building competency models is rigorous and time consuming. However, when competency models are applied to human resource systems such as selection, training, performance appraisal, and succession planning, the results can be profound. Establishing a competency-based human resources system has the potential to promote continuous learning and create an infrastructure for moving the organization forward. In Texas Extension, we have found that launching an effort such as this requires a great deal of research and planning to determine how the concept of competencies can be introduced, implemented, and leveraged in order to make an organizational impact.

Author's Note: This report represents current thinking on the fundamentals of competency development and describes how Texas Extension is taking a system's approach to improving individual and organizational performance.