KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Knowledge management lessons from job interviews

with 14 comments

I’ve just completed a training course in “Competency Based Interviewing”. I’ve been trained in this before some years ago, but took the latest version of the training since it will soon be mandatory for anyone who sits on a job panel to have done the course, so it was time for me to brush up my skills in this area.

For those not familiar with the approach, the basic premise behind competency based interviewing is that traditional technical based job interviews often fail to elicit information that gives you a realistic indication of how well someone will do in a new job. This is because doing a job well can be as much about behaviour as it is around technical knowledge. The personal or behavioural characteristics needed to do a job well are called competencies, and for competencies its not enough to know them in theory, but the best predictor of whether you have them is whether you can describe how you used them in the past. Examples of competencies might be interpersonal communication, negotiation skills, organizing and planning work etc.

So, to take the example of negotiation skills, a typical interview might ask you how you negotiate  or how you would go about a hypothetical negotiation, whereas in a competency based interview you would be asked to describe a real negotiation you were involved in and what you actually did, and what actually happened.

Another important feature is that these behaviours can change over time based on experience – but often also require a concerted effort of self reflection, feedback and commitment to action.

Another feature about competencies is that while people naturally have different levels in them, they can also be learned through experience and conscious effort to improve, so the interview also looks for evidence of self-reflection and learning from what didn’t work and then whether this was applied in the future.

The use of competency based interviewing and testing is backed up by a fair bit of research and experience, and is the norm in many large organizations, including in UNICEF (in fact these were adopted by many private sector organizations back in the 1980s).

What is a little more surprising for me is that we often struggle to apply a similar approach when looking at  aid organizations, or even more specifically at programming approaches or practices. There seem to be a few key lessons which we could use to also assess the capabilities of teams and organizations, as well as to particular approaches or practices in development. In short:

1. One of the best predictors of whether something will work is whether it worked in the past. (Not whether in works in theory)

2. Why it worked in practice (or didn’t) might be best analyzed not by the theory of the approach that was followed but by what actually happened and how this contributed to the success of failure.  This requires self-reflection AND feedback from others.

3. An important element of improvement is looking at what didn’t work and extracting lessons from it. BUT extracting the learning isn’t enough – for a lesson to be really learned it then needs to be applied successfully in practice (otherwise it is still hypothetical learning).

4. Another element of the interview process that applies well to assessing an approach or team is observe first, assess later. That is collect all the observations you can first before you make an assessment. In job interviews first impressions can count for a lot, but they can also be misleading, so in  competency based interviews you are trained to observe and record only, and then assess only once all the data has been collected. This is good advice for programme assessments too.

5. Many eyes are better than one. Interviews have a panel of interviewers because each panelist may see different things and come to different conclusions, so having several people helps get a more complete picture of a candidate. Similarly they should compare data first before comparing assessments so as not to unduly influence each other. Also great advice for programme assessments – use multiple viewpoints – compare observations first, then draw conclusions. Of course many assessment methodologies embody this  -BUT often the assessment is already creeping into the researchers mind before the evidence is formally analyzed, and this inevitably leads to (unconscious) bias in the assessment.

I’m sure there are many other lessons too, but there were a few take-aways for me that are useful for work on identifying and applying lessons learned.

If you are interested to learn more about competencies and competency based interviewing here is an old guide from UNICEF (undated but I’d probably place it around 2005). The current guide, with our updated framework and example questions is not available online -probably for the obvious reason of not giving candidates too much of a jump on possible questions! But the old guide gives you a good sense of what the apporach is about.

Written by Ian Thorpe

January 27, 2011 at 10:40 am

14 Responses

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  1. Just an added point to your post, for thought. Most interviewing styles focus on what candidates have accomplished in the past, as an indicator of how competent they will be at assignments in the future. I feel that interviews don’t probe enough to uncover the potential a person has to add more value to an organization. Seems to me many interviewers assume that if a candidate has not actually performed in the particular position before, that he is not qualified for the job. The job title and it’s list of functions are quite capable of being done by someone who has not held that title before. A person’s skills sets, adaptability and learning abilities predict performance in a variety of functions. Further it is just plain smart to probe into other skills and experience the candidate might have that could be leveraged to the benefit of the business.
    I’m not disagreeing with your views), but adding another dimension to the objectives of interviewing.


    January 27, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    • The training I just completed did go into this in a little more detail than I have in this post. The general consensus on this was that if a candidate meets the minimum technical requirements but doesn’t have the most in-depth technical knowledge or experience then it is possible for them to grow in the position, BUT that if a person doesn’t have, or show that they are in the process of developing the behavioural characteristics required for a position then they are unlikely to successful and could cause problems for the team they are joining.

      Ian Thorpe

      January 28, 2011 at 9:20 am

      • I understand what you are saying and quite agree with you. However, how do assess someone who is changing careers and has transferable skills that could equally be applied to the new role.


        January 28, 2011 at 2:48 pm

      • In this case many of the “behaviours” that are tested through this method are transferable between different careers streams, even if the relative importance of each may change (skills such as leadership, interpersonal skills, negotiation, coping with pressure, entrepreneurial thinking, embracing diversity, analytical skills etc.). That’s actually one of the strengths of this type of technique – the examples you give might be from a different sector but they can still demonstrate the required competencies.

        Ian Thorpe

        January 28, 2011 at 3:15 pm

  2. Am I the only one thinking that point four is slightly hypothetical if the intended user of the advise is a human being?
    Perhaps the opposite: being MORE aware of your pre-assessments will lessen the likelihood of being stuck with your initial impression. (What kind of ‘data’ you’re after is a pre-assessment in itself)
    Just a thought. Interesting read though. Thanks for posting

    Sceptical Secondo

    January 28, 2011 at 1:59 am

    • Actually in the training we were taught to write down copious notes about what we see, but not about how we interpreted it, and we practiced it including reviewing notes to see what is observation and what is evaluation/assumption.
      I think it’s true that this doesn’t eliminate personal biases creeping into the decision, but it helps by putting off the “official” assessment as long as possible.
      A point 6 I almost added to this list was to be aware that all such processes are essentially subjective however well designed they are and so we need to try to be self-aware of our biases creeping in, take whatever reasonable measures we can to avoid them (such as points 4 and 5) and also to accept that our conclusinos are not bulletproof, just the bestwe can do with what we have got.

      Ian Thorpe

      January 28, 2011 at 9:11 am

      • Hi Ian. Thanks for responding. I’m still not convinced however. Given what you’ve also yourself written on complexity, isn’t the guiding principle resembling the example of trying to solve a complex problem by addressing it as a puzzle?

        Sceptical Secondo

        February 2, 2011 at 12:19 am

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  5. great post. Having been on both ends I like the new system, although I find it is really hard to judge a candidate through an interview..


    January 31, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    • Agree with you Angelica, some organisations start to do extensive tests before the competency based interviews to add other data points to the evaluation of candidates.

      I guess it is part of the selection process to get previous performance evaluations, references, writing samples/tests, academic qualifications and eventually an interview to complete the picture as good as possible.

      Sebastian Rottmair

      February 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm

      • Yes, in fact another thing I didn’t mention that came out in the course was that the interview is only one part of the selection with the other elements you mention also being important. Reference checks and performance evaluations were hotly discussed since these are also an important way to judge actual past performance and behaviour.

        Interviews are also not the only way to test competencies. Assessment centres that include situational role-plays as well as interviews are thought to be even more reliable – but also too expensive to be used for all recruitments.

        Ian Thorpe

        February 2, 2011 at 1:17 pm

  6. Excellent article and very insightful. What would you recommend if a job-seeker found themselves facing a poor interviewer? Is it possible for the job seeker – especially if one is shifting careers – to restructure the interview toward a competency-based approach, both to improve the process and illustrate their competencies?


    February 7, 2011 at 11:04 am

  7. […] Knowledge management lessons from job interviews « KM on a dollar a day. […]

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