I don’t claim to be the father of systematic, risk-based competence management systems – but I was present at the birth! On these pages I’ll be giving some thoughts about practical approaches to managing competence, but first, the key question:
What is competence?
“Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder.” Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle (1969)
The concept of competence has different meanings. It is not always immediately clear which of the many forms of competence is being used or discussed. Four influential (but confusing) definitions during the last decade can be summarised as:
- predictive competency – i.e. testing the characteristics and aptitudes that are likely to differentiate superior performers.
- organisational core competencies – i.e. aggregates of capabilities, where synergy is created that has sustainable value and broad applicability for an organisation.
- proven competence – i.e. a real and demonstrated ability to successfully carry out some activity which is totally identified.
- adaptive competence – i.e. ‘metacompetence’ or the ability to read a new situation and adapt/apply appropriate competences.
Predictive competency derived largely from the work of David McClelland, a Harvard psychologist involved in psychometric testing, (and founder of the McBer consultancy). His 1973 article Testing for Competence Rather Than for Intelligence stimulated interest, and a former student, Richard Boyatzis, popularised the term competency in his 1982 book The Competent Manager.
Many large companies apply the concepts in one form or another – but usually only for their high-potential personnel. “As a job becomes more complex the less excellence is a function of task mastery and more a function of other, less tangible qualities” [Hunter, Schmidt & Judiesch, Journal of Applied Psychology, 1990].
Most corporate systems, however, do not use the sophisticated tests envisaged by McClelland, but rely on assessment (or self-assessment) against ‘competency statements.’ One major company, for example, has a Group ‘Competency Framework’ which describes in detail by corporate function “the things that people need to be good at if they are to be effective in the jobs and meet the needs of the organisation.”
Organisational core competencies
In the second definition, organisational core competencies are characteristics of the organisation as a whole, not of individuals. Prahalad and Hamel, two business academics, introduced the concept in a 1990 Harvard Business Review article.
A core competency is “an area of specialised expertise that is the result of harmonising complex streams of technology and work activity.” The example used was Honda’s expertise in engines. Core competencies provide a set of unifying principles for the organisation, they are pervasive in all strategies, they provide access to a variety of markets, they are critical in producing end products, and they are rare or difficult to imitate.
The concept became highly fashionable in the mid-1990s.
Both the above definitions were widely used in hazardous industries in the period following the Cullen Report, but they concerned probability rather than proof of competence. Duty holders needed proven competence, and therefore turned to the third definition. In most cases, they borrowed from the VQ structure to define competence as: “the ability of people to perform work to a set standard in employment.”
In this definition, competence is judged by what people produce in the course of their work, not what they put into it. This means that competence focuses on the outputs from activities, not inputs. It is not what they know or have learned about, but what they implement when they do the job. It means that what the workers produce is considered and compared with a standard, to check that it exceeds the minimum acceptable level of performance.
Adaptive or meta-competence
Over the last decade or so, a fourth variation has emerged and has been applied widely to professional roles where practitioners create and define their own tasks.
In a 1991 article, Fleming described The concept of meta-competence as “that which allows someone to locate a particular competence within a larger framework of understanding.” Others define it as the ability to read a new situation and adapt or apply appropriate competences.
It is not about answering questions posed by predictable tasks in known worlds. It is about dealing with uncertainty and incomplete evidence, asking the right questions, and developing the means to resolve problems. At its most basic, it may be seen as “learning to learn”, “flexible transfer and application of knowledge and skills across contexts”, or “thinking outside the box.”
Beyond competence – an integrated approach
All four definitions have advantages and disadvantages. The first can lead to subjective, judgmental assessment if it is not tied to a rigorous testing strategy. The second is difficult to translate into individual assessable behaviours. The third can become a bureaucratic nightmare and may seem inappropriate for knowledge workers or professionals. The fourth can be difficult to assess in a meaningful way for organisations.
My approach uses the proven-competence definition as a starting-point, but applies it within strategic frameworks, and translates ‘superior performer’ qualities and even ‘metacompetence’ into proven-competence terms. In other words, I go beyond competence and integrate the four concepts into a holistic approach where competency standards and performance measurement are aligned rigorously to critical business processes.
I try to keep abreast of advances in learning and competence theory, but my approach is firmly grounded in 40 years’ practical experience of what works and what does not in different organisational or occupational contexts.
A case study is available, describing a real-world example where ‘beyond competence’ was applied in practice. If you’d like a copy, please contact me.