The benefits of competency frameworks are often related to training, for example identifying skills gaps and bridging them. Donald Taylor looks at the types of competency frameworks available, how to deploy them, and their benefits.

How do you know whether your IT skills match what you need for your job? How do you know if others in your organisation have the skills their jobs require? Whether it's the end-user IT skills needed for email and word processing, or the complex skills and knowledge required to run an enterprise's IT infrastructure, often nobody has clearly expressed the IT skills needs of each job, nor checked them against individuals' skills.

That approach to IT skills, however, is changing. The change is being driven by organisations which want to be sure they have the IT skills they need in-house. That means understanding the skills each job role requires, understanding the skills that employees have, and then working to bridge any resulting skills gaps.

If this sounds like a training needs analysis (TNA), it isn't. There's far more to it. Whereas the focus of a TNA is developing a training plan, a full understanding of IT skills results in clear career structures and progression plans, more precise hiring policies, better deployment of personnel and, of course, more focused training.

Central to this approach is a competency framework which defines the skills and competencies for a particular line of work, defining both the relevant skills, and their associated behaviours at different levels of expertise. By providing a common language of skills across all these different aspects of working life - including training - a competency framework provides clarity in what could otherwise be a mess of policies and approaches.

A well-known competency framework for IT professionals in the UK is the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA). Now in use by over 2,000 organisations, and first published in 1999, the framework is now on its fourth version, released in December 2008.

Containing definitions for 86 skills, defined in detail across seven levels, SFIA has developed into a substantial body of intellectual property. That is not uncommon for a competency framework, which has to contain enough information to be useful. What differentiates SFIA from most other frameworks is its commercial model.

SFIA is an open-source framework, open to anyone, free of charge for non-commercial use. The framework is owned by the SFIA Foundation, a non-profit organisation with just one employee, operations manager Ron McLaren, and a board made up of representatives of each of the five joint shareholders: the BCS, e-skills UK, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, The Institute for the Management of Information Systems and the IT Service Management Forum.

Although the original work to set up SFIA in the 1990s was funded by the UK government, it is now these organisations that keep the foundation going, along with royalties from commercial users.

SFIA only describes what IT skills are. It does not prescribe what they should be. It makes no reference to training or qualifications, and it contains no information about jobs. SFIAplus, owned by the BCS, goes much further and adds information about training, tasks and qualifications, based on the over 20 years of experience that went into developing the BCS's earlier offering, the Industry Standard Model.

SFIA's non-national focus and simplicity has led to international adoption, and it is now used in over 100 countries, including the US. Local language versions are available in Japan, China and South America (Chile).

In contrast, other competency frameworks for the IT profession do contain some of the information available in SFIAplus, but each bears the stamp of its national or academic origin: APO from Germany, CIGREF from France, LOKET from the Netherlands, and so on, hindering international adoption. North America has no widely accepted skills framework.The closest is the NWCET's Smart Skills Database, last updated in 2003.

As well as these frameworks owned by not-for-profit organisations, commercial IT competency frameworks also exist. Many consultancies offer the service of developing bespoke frameworks, and it is also possible to buy an off-the-shelf framework, such as's ITG competency model.

This comprehensive job-competency model has, like SFIA, been developed over a decade, with updates involving user input. Like SFIAplus it includes job-role information and learning/training information.

Whatever its origin, an IT competency framework provides a wide range of benefits that goes beyond understanding the skills gaps to be filled by a training programme. Charteris, a strategic technology consultancy, adopted SFIA as the standard way to describe consultants' job roles during their regular staff appraisals.

'For Charteris there were several drivers to adopting the framework. One was a desire to spell out clear areas of career progression for their 150 highly-skilled consultants. Another was to focus the IT training budget on skills development aligned to development paths, in turn aligned to organisational goals. As Barry Hoffman, the head of HR at the time, says: 'For the first time we could be sure we were spending our training budget on things that were linked to performance goals.'

This ability to focus training spending as a result of implementing an IT skills framework is very much echoed by Paul Briggs of Norwich Union Life. Head of practices and skills when they implemented SFIA as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the structure of the IT department, he says: 'The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We now control our learning and development investment to focus on the right skills: development is business aligned.'

Both Norwich Union Life and Charteris used SFIA in conjunction with their own internal, non-technical frameworks, so that the companies were also tracking other 'softer' skills and behaviour, a not uncommon approach. Its experience with SFIA was so successful that Californian media company Sony Pictures Entertainment was inspired to go beyond technical skills and develop a soft skills framework. IT competency frameworks are not only used in the private sector.

The UK government plans to foster IT professionals in central and local government by establishing the Government IT Profession (GITP), underpinned by SFIA v4. Leeds City Council introduced SFIA as part of the GITP programme in 2006, and its 2008 staff survey revealed increases in all key staff indicators in the ICT division over the previous two years.

These included 92 per cent of staff understanding what is expected from them in their role, 82 per cent being happy with development opportunities, and 86 per cent being proud to be an employee of the service. The Council, however, points out that these improvements are the result of a combination of iniatives including, but not limited to, the introduction of a skills framework.

With established competency frameworks such as SFIA so dominant, does it make sense for individual organisations to attempt to create their own frameworks for IT?

Russell Cosway, acting head of ICT, North Cornwall District Council, cautions against it. 'SFIA comes with a considerable amount of history, links and intellectual property built in. You need to have a very good reason to abandon all that and create your own framework, and that's before you raise the whole question of keeping the framework up to date. The SFIA community does that together. It's a big job to do on your own.'

Whatever IT competency framework you use, implementing it successfully requires the right approach. In particular, although the advantages of using a framework comes from the ability to aggregate data across large numbers of employees, it is advisable to start small, working to establish what will and won't work in your organisation. As with all change programmes, senior buy-in is essential, and at the beginning your implementation should focus on a single benefit.

While there is a large range of possible benefits from implementing a skills framework, including the building up of benchmark data, objectivity in skills assessment and the ability to find and deploy skilled personnel more effectively, for the clarity of understanding of the employees using the competency framework, it is better initially to concentrate on a single, clear benefit. Very often this will be around training.

For employees, the benefit of assessing themselves against a competency framework is identifying training to fill skills gaps. Managers can benefit from seeing clearly what training is required, and prioritising it. For executives, the training budget is better used because it is focused on filling skills gaps for the job.

Norwich Union's Paul Briggs is clear in his advice on implementation: 'Get the business model right; establish the change as a formal programme with senior management commitment; include SFIA in your plans; have a dashboard of critical success factors. And what are you waiting for?'