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Competency-based approach to HR management: the experience of Abu Dhabi Customs

18 June 2021
By the General Administration of Abu Dhabi Customs

The General Administration of Abu Dhabi Customs (hereinafter referred to as “Abu Dhabi Customs”) has recently undergone a major organizational change in order to keep pace with technological developments and to meet the digital transformation objectives set by the Abu Dhabi Government. One of the key instruments of this change was the adoption of a competency-based approach to human resource management.

Organizational goals

An organization’s performance is usually based on the competencies of its employees. Therefore, one of the main tasks and challenges of human resource management is to identify and develop competencies that are required to achieve the goals set by the organization, these must therefore be clearly stated.

Abu Dhabi Customs, under the leadership of its Director General, H.E. Rashid Lahej Al Mansoori, has set itself the vision to be one of the leading Customs administrations in terms of modernization and is implementing a five-year strategic plan, spanning from 2019 to 2023, as part of which 53 initiatives have been or are in the process of being implemented.

During 2019-2020, the Administration achieved a significant milestone by being the first government agency to digitize all its services, which are now accessible via the one-stop platform for government agencies known as “TAMM”. During the same period, it also implemented some provisions of the World Trade Organization Trade Facilitation Agreement, achieving a 92% compliance rate with the Agreement, certified a number of new AEOs, increased the use of pre-arrival declaration by operators, integrated its own IT Customs systems with two operations systems (inspections and workflow management) and reengineered its processes. These and many other initiatives enabled it to lower the financial costs associated with the cross-border movements of goods, reduce the clearance time and help the business community become more efficient.

HR transformation

To make such developments possible, an HR transformation programme was launched in 2019 under the leadership of Dr. Ebrahim Al-Khajeh, Director of the Customs HR Division. The programme was seen as laying the foundation for pursuing the Administration’s strategic goals. It aimed at implementing a modern Human Capital Management (HCM) system, in other words a system that could attract, develop and retain top talent to satisfy the future needs of the organization.

Such a system creates an environment that allows individual employees to excel by identifying each person’s skills and competencies and matches employees with a position that allows them to maximize their potential. The identification and development of competencies – professional, operational and managerial – rests at the centre of the “investing in people” approach.

Identification of competencies

A competency consists of several components, including motives, attitudes, values, skills, talent, intelligence, abilities, knowledge, know-how, experience, social roles and self-image. Some experts refer to high performance competencies and divide them into four groups: cognitive, motivational, directional and performance competencies. Another classification is the division of competencies into hard (functional) and soft (personality) ones. Some authors also distinguish managerial competencies, team competencies, emotional competencies or key competencies as those that are important for all employees of the organization or that transcend the individual branches and can be applied in various fields.

When identifying competencies, the HR Department focused on what are known as “core professional competencies”. These include technical knowledge not only on enforcement, classification and procedures matters but also on emerging technologies, data flows and formats, and e-commerce models.

Several methods and techniques were used to analyse jobs and job roles, and ultimately develop tools such as a new and enhanced competency framework, which identifies the skills needed to perform a job, provides job descriptions, includes a competency dictionary and outlines a training curriculum for each competency. For example, performance evaluation and psychometric testing were conducted by the HR Department team. Employees were also asked to fill in a survey questionnaire. During the process, the team benefited from WCO advisory support through a diagnostic mission in 2019 and a virtual technical expert mission in March 2021.

Competencies reflect the organization’s values and mission, forming part of its culture. Identified core competencies needed to be infused into this culture and their development continuously monitored in order to achieve the planned objectives. The definition of all competencies was further expanded to encompass both managerial and non-managerial roles within the organization, and to provide guidance on how to recognize competencies through the tasks the employees perform.

Core competencies were then embedded into each employee’s job description based on the role that each one plays within the organization. This sent a clear message throughout the organization that these competencies are critically important to the Administration’s success and made it possible to align the personal short-term goals of the employees with administration-wide objectives.

The enhanced competency framework identifies the behaviours, knowledge and abilities required for the successful implementation of the five-year plan. Once the competencies are defined, it is necessary to measure their level, i.e. to find out to what degree the competencies in question are developed in the individual employees. To do so, the HR Department developed an assessment tool which is itself linked to a learning solution. Each member of staff who takes the assessment tests is provided with a personalized report which includes core competency and skills gap analyses and lists the best-fit learning solution to bridge any gaps.

Direct observation of the manifested behaviour of employees was also used. Employees’ end‑of‑year individual performance evaluation was based on a technique called 360 and 270 degree feedback. Every employee was evaluated and, at the same time, was called on to evaluate others (line manager, peers and subordinates). When subordinates are evaluating their manager and colleagues are evaluating their colleagues, this eliminates much of the bias that erodes the integrity of performance evaluations. Each employee becomes more aware of what a competent employee should look like and, more importantly, which behaviours should be adopted throughout the organization.

Mid-year psychometric assessment was also implemented to identify further gaps in knowledge and know-how that needed to be filled. Questions were built around each of the core competencies, providing an unbiased approach to identifying gaps. The psychometric assessment coupled with the performance evaluation generated enough data to determine precisely which employees are excelling in these core competencies and which ones are lagging behind.

Artificial intelligence – that is, the ability of a machine to display human-like capabilities such as reasoning, learning, planning and creativity – is used to analyse the data generated from an individual’s performance evaluation, psychometric testing and training outcomes in order to devise a development plan to help him or her gain the skills needed to be successful. In this case, Abu Dhabi Customs is partnering with a technology provider specialized in such assessments.

Learning Management System

A smart Learning Management System was launched to enable all employees to participate in training remotely through either interactive training courses or virtual training sessions conducted via an e‑learning platform that helps keep trainers and trainees well connected.

A training curriculum to assist staff in enhancing or developing each of the core competencies was also developed on the platform. The approach was customized for each position in order to respond to individual needs and circumstances. It enables, for example, non-managerial employees who might move into a more supervisory role in the future to acquire the necessary skills, or staff newly appointed to a managerial position to take on their new role with confidence.

Virtual reality training academy

The HR Department also worked on establishing its own virtual reality training academy to train Abu Dhabi Customs inspectors in fieldwork at seaports, land borders and airports. Here again, the curricula aims at enabling newly transferred or newly appointed officers to acquire identified core competencies and evaluate their skills.


As part of the recruitment process, questionnaires were designed for each competency using the STAR interview response method. STAR stands for: situation, task, action and result. This allows the candidate to provide practical examples or proof that they possess the experience and skills for the job. The objective is to ensure that all future employees demonstrate the type of behaviours that the Administration deems important.

Psychometric tools are also used to ensure an unbiased evaluation of the psychological characteristics of candidates, such as personality, creativity, intelligence, motivation and values. The tools make use of artificial intelligence and enable recruiters to filter candidates in a systematic way in order to identify the most suitable individuals.

Technologies at the service of human capital management (HCM)

The HR Department itself decided to update its management tools. It successfully consolidated and integrated into a single HCM system 14 separate HR systems related, for example, to the record of absence and attendance, annual appraisals, training, recruitment, payslip system and so on.

The search for a new human capital management system resulted in the decision to go with a cloud-based HCM instead of an on-premise HCM solution. The latter is installed locally and generally requires recurring fees for support, training and updates, whereas the former requires shorter implementation time and ensures improved reliability and cost optimization. It allows Customs employees to access HR services from anywhere at any time through a PC or any smart device, including smart mobile phones.

It also provides the HR team with virtual access to employee records, health benefit information, vacation requests and payroll information at any time, anywhere. The team estimates that it has increased productivity by around 15% since adopting a cloud-based HCM solution.

The implementation of this new system revealed some unexpected benefits when the COVID‑19 pandemic began to grip the world in mid-2020. The digitization of all HR-related documents and services made it easy to implement a minimum contact policy, and the use of a cloud-based solution enabled every employee to access these from home. A chatbot allowed for the speedy resolution of complaints and enquires, which helped to maintain employee satisfaction.

Maintaining momentum

Despite achieving many important milestones, Abu Dhabi Customs remains aware of the need for continuous improvement in resources management in order to ensure quality in the execution of processes and improve staff efficiency over time. Processes and systems are to be developed in line with the needs of the trade environment and businesses, and the challenge is to make the best use of the competency framework and keep it updated on a regular basis.

Momentum fuels motivation. The key is to keep finding creative ways to motivate the workforce. Keeping them engaged and enthusiastic about the future of the Administration will help it achieve its ambition of becoming a leading Customs Administration in terms of efficiency and modernization.

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