Framing the future

23rd June 2011

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IEMA has launched its competency framework for the environment profession. Paul Suff finds out how it can help practitioners and employers

The launch of the IEMA competency framework, known as the Environmental Skills Map, follows extensive development work by the Institute. “We’ve been working really hard over the past six months on finalising the framework, working with members, employers and training organisations,” explains IEMA director of membership services Claire Lea.

The list of organisations taking in part in the consultation on the framework includes: BP, Heineken, Rolls-Royce, EAUC (Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges), EDF Energy, Acre Recruitment, Atkins, Entec, Airbus, GSK, Amey, Clancy Docwra, University of Exeter, Bureau Veritas, BAE Systems, Skanska, EBRD, and Allen and York. IEMA’s Professional Standards Committee has been overseeing the development process.

The IEMA competency framework fits neatly with the Institute’s vision for the profession, which is focused on placing environment professionals at the heart of change. “IEMA wants the profession to be the best trained and the most competent, and the framework will assist in achieving these goals,” says Lea.

Chief executive Jan Chmiel told the environmentalist in March that part of its strategy to support environment professionals as they become “change agents”, driving the sustainable business agenda, was the introduction of several frameworks. The IEMA competency framework is designed to give members and other environment professionals a clear picture of how to achieve their own aspirations, for example of how to move from an operational role to a leadership one.

What are competencies?

Competencies are the skills, knowledge, abilities and personal attributes that are essential to perform certain functions and which are critical to succeed in specific roles. They are what are expected of an individual in areas and levels of performance.

A competency framework defines the knowledge, skills, and attributes needed by the people working in an organisation or particular profession.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development – the professional body for the HR community – the following (in order) are the main areas of application for competency frameworks:

  • underpins personal reviews/appraisal;
  • greater employee effectiveness;
  • greater organisational effectiveness;
  • more effective training needs’ analysis; and
  • more effective career management.

IEMA’s overarching competency framework for the environment profession enables environment professionals and employers to accurately map their suitability and effectiveness for a role. Recruiters, for example, can assess applicants against a range of criteria and behaviours, while environment practitioners can easily see whether they have the skills, knowledge and abilities required to fill different roles, enabling them to better map their career progression.

Fitting the vision

The traditional role of the environment professional has been to focus on compliance and operational issues, ensuring that environmental impacts are effectively monitored and managed.

As the environment and sustainability have moved up the business and policymaking agendas, this role is changing. Environment professionals increasingly have, and need, to play a more strategic role, integrating environment into all levels of decision making. This changing role is the heart of IEMA’s 2014 vision.

Achieving the vision consists of a threefold strategy, one of which is to: “set standards for, facilitate or otherwise provide, the best training and development relevant to the environment profession, and produce the most competent environment professionals available”.

The Institute acknowledges in its Our vision document, which was published in 2009, that it faces a challenge to equip all professional members with the core set of multidisciplinary knowledge and skills necessary to make a real difference to the environment, as well as ensuring members keep their knowledge and skills up to date as part of a programme of continuous professional development.

The IEMA competency framework goes some way to addressing that challenge. “Environment professionals will have a clear framework for planning their own personal professional development. This will be supported further later this year when the next stage of the framework is launched. IEMA will focus the delivery of membership services on supporting individuals developing the competencies – it’s about supporting environment professionals to be the best that they can be,” says Lea.

At all levels

The IEMA competency framework (download here) consists of four levels: Non-graduate/Graduate entry, Operational, Managerial and Leadership – plus a “Specialist” level that straddles both the Leadership and Managerial levels.

Each level has 14 competencies, split into the following five broad categories:

  • Knowledge and understanding – this category consists of competencies under five headings: “Fundamental environmental and sustainability principles”, “Environmental policy issues”, “Environmental management and assessment tools”, “Environmental legislation” and “Business management”.
  • Analytical thinking – competencies are arranged under the “Analyse, interpret and report data and information”, and “Develop sustainable solutions” competency headings.
  • Communication – competencies are themed under the headings “Implement effective communication” and “Engage stakeholders (internal and external)”.
  • Sustainable practice – three competency groupings: “Implement sustainable thinking”, “Deliver environmental improvement” and “Managing business resilience”.
  • Leadership for change – competencies are concerned with the abilities to “Lead change” and “Influence behaviour”.

IEMA members and environmental professionals can then drill down to see what competencies are required for each level, under each category.

Someone entering the profession, either as a graduate or via a non-academic route, will, for example, know what employers will expect if they want to move into an operational role. These include being aware of relevant environmental legislation and knowledge of how to assess compliance.

Likewise, an environment professional seeking a more strategic, leadership role will now be able to see what knowledge, expertise and skills employers will demand. This ranges from understanding environmental processes and limits and their impacts to being able to influence, persuade and challenge others to lead and promote sustainability.

The fact that the framework can support environment professionals at different stages in their careers is emphasised by Iain Patton, chief executive at the EAUC, which supports sustainability in higher education.

“Our members range from relatively new environment officers to seasoned environment directors. Their jobs are not the same, but the framework provides a ladder structure to show how each can step up,” says Patton.

In practical terms, the framework means that individuals entering the profession and aiming eventually to become leaders must improve their communication competencies, moving from being able to “determine effective communication methods” and “engage with stakeholders” to being able to “use communication to drive sustainable business practice” and to “champion effective stakeholder engagement”.

As Lea explains: “The framework provides clarity about the full range of skills an environment professional needs to be effective. It communicates to employers and recruiters the real value that environment professionals can add to an organisation, with a broad set of competencies, not only good technical knowledge – although this foundation is important.”

Getting there

Training providers are now developing appropriate courses to help professionals acquire relevant knowledge and skills, particularly where there are gaps in existing provision. Lea says IEMA will, on its own or in partnership, develop the necessary support for environment professionals up, down and across the framework.

“The feedback we have had is that there is a lack of good-quality, relevant training and professional development support for those aspiring to, or operating at, the senior levels. This is something that IEMA wants to address,” she says.

Training providers also believe there is scope to develop further courses in line with the framework.

“The framework is likely to create huge potential for short courses, possibly by training providers going into organisations to deliver them,” says Rosemary Horry, a senior lecturer in environmental management at the University of Derby, which currently includes the IEMA Associate certificate as part of its MSc.

However, there are plenty of resources and training opportunities already in place to assist IEMA members and environment practitioners keen to improve their competencies as they ascend the framework.

The IEMA Associate certificate, for example, delivers four of the five competencies – “understand environmental and sustainability principles and their relationship with organisations”, “explain environmental policy issues”, “describe environmental management tools and their application”, and “explain key environmental legislation and compliance measures” – required at the “Operational” level under the “Knowledge and understanding” category.

The new version of the IEMA handbook, entitled Environmental management in organizations – which was published in April and is a core text for the Associate Open Book Assessment – will support individuals developing the knowledge at the operational and managerial levels.

The IEMA mentoring programme, which is aimed mainly at Associate members wanting to become Full members, is another mechanism that can help practitioners acquire knowledge and skills, as mentors are there to support and challenge candidates to enable them to develop the necessary competence to progress their status. It involves matching Associates with a senior professional who is already a Full member or a Chartered Environmentalist.

Another option is IEMA’s continuing professional development workshops – which run regularly in the regions. The “Get your message across – environmental communications” workshops, for example, will provide the necessary communication skills at an operational level to acquire the competencies set out in the “Communication” column of the framework.

Exciting future

Developing and implementing a competency framework for the entire environment profession has been a challenge, but employers, trainers, recruitment professionals and the practitioners have warmly welcomed its launch. A major retailer has already expressed interest in using the framework.

Andrew Tew at Acre Resources believes the framework goes a long way to helping environment professionals take control of their own personal development and step into senior positions.

“Companies want to fill senior roles, such as a chief sustainability officer, with people who can demonstrate business skills, particularly commercial understanding, that go beyond technical understanding. The competency framework emphasises the need for such knowledge,” explains Tew.

At a lower level, Tew also thinks that the framework will make it easier for organisations to select the right applicant for a managerial or operational role, for example. “It’s still fairly common for environment practitioners to report to line managers with a background in health and safety, and often they do not fully understand what skills and knowledge they need in their environment staff. The framework should assist them in selecting the right individuals,” says Tew.

Anna-Lisa Kelso, director of learning at training company Environmental Academy, agrees that the framework will assist both employers and environmental professionals.

“This document will make the routes of continuing professional development and career progression clearer for both the learner and the employer. I look forward to seeing how it can be further developed by adding links to different qualification levels on the Qualifications and Credits Framework (QCF) and different courses available from IEMA-approved training providers,” she says.

Fiona Draper, principal consultant at Santia Training, also sees the development of the framework as a positive step: “As a mentor and IEMA tutor, I believe the framework will help both existing and aspiring members to plan their career path and training needs.”

Horry at the University of Derby similarly describes the framework as a “great way forward for the environment profession”. “It will promote increased environmental knowledge and thinking in the workplace, which is something we desperately need,” she says.

Patton at EAUC agrees: “It’s a real tool to drive sustainability deeper and higher in an organisation.”


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