Competency Published Articles

Competency Confusion

The widespread confusion about the meaning of Competency’ is hampering the growth and recognition of the best performance improvement movement in 50 years.

The competency movement has been gaining momentum, in Ireland and elsewhere. Issues of defining, measuring, and developing competent levels of workplace practice have been debated and addressed by educators, trainers, government officials, employers, professional associations and consultants over several decades.

What does Competency’ mean?

There are widespread myths, misunderstandings and confusion about the term. Traditional competency (technical) is viewed as having three component parts knowledge, skills and performance abilities. That is, in order to be a competent performer at work a person must be able to apply their knowledge, skills and performance ability within a specific work setting.

But the picture gets more complex with the recognition that personal, interpersonal and team competencies are equally important in the competency mix. People are no longer seen as job- holders with life long career prospects, but rather are viewed as packages of capabilities. More complex problems at work demand strong interpersonal relationships and interdisciplinary teamwork. As work becomes more specialised, the need to work as part of a system or team will be even greater. Increasingly, workplace practices are seen as a series of problems to be solved or projects to be handled. Employability supercedes employment. Change, globalisation, technology, all add fuel to the expectations, roles and competency make-up of every individual.

In light of this changing character of performance at work, continuing professional education’s focus on individuals technical capability is no longer sufficient. Education and testing for competency will need to focus on people’s ability to work in teams, as well as their personal and interpersonal capabilities.

Although soft and hard approaches to competency may appear to be very different, the two can, in fact, come together and compliment each other. Any qualified accountant, for example, is able to make calculations and give quality financial information. But the accountant you choose as a member of your inter-disciplinary management team may have to fit in with, and compliment, the other members of the team. The chosen accountant will be able to do the calculating and have behaviours, attitudes and characteristics that are desirable for that particular team.

Personal, interpersonal and team traits and characteristics, of course will not help a professional accounting body qualify an accountant and occupational technical standards and exams will not tell you much about the accountant’s personal, interpersonal and team capabilities, motivators and temperament.

The Meaning of Competency’

Chambers dictionary tells us that ‘Competency‘ is a noun but it is often used as an adjective: a word we add to a noun to suggest a condition or quality. The problem, however, is that the competency movement has gathered pace ahead of the dictionary definition. In terms of work, the dictionary meanings are; suitable, sufficient, fit, and efficient. These terms are ambiguous. Suitable and sufficient, for example, imply that the person has reached the state of bare acceptability sometimes called threshold competency.

Fit and efficient, by contrast, suggest rather more than threshold competence. In modern English usage, competent people are efficient and effective in their work performance. Therefore what’s the confusion? The confusion is that although, by definition, competent’ means being able to perform effectively, in practice it is often used to mean a number of different things Ñ• some of them total contradictions. Hence the confusion, and the arguments continue. Different meanings include:

Competent (adjective): as in a competent sales person’. In this context, it means the ability to perform to a pre-set sales standard. Particular work sectors and industries often have an implicit concept of what competent performance means for particular occupational groups. Consequently, competent’ is often taken to imply a minimum level of performance across a very narrow range of activities. Such as in the use of the term barely competent’ or threshold competence’

By contrast, however, the more recent advocates and implementers of the competency approach understand the concept to mean the ability to meet best-practice’ performance requirements. Competencies should only be measured against best-in-class performance. Competency-based measurement tools like 360 feedback uses information about what a person can do and (how they do it) to make judgements about their ability or potential to do the job. These judgements are made using well-defined criteria. The assessment is criterion referenced’

Competence (noun): the state of being competent. For example, management competence’ or the competence of our supervisors’. Clear written definitions of what being competent’ means is critical. Different companies and industries will have their own measures.
Competency/ies (noun): an underlying characteristic of a person that results in effective or superior performance. This is a more holistic newer approach to mapping competencies and can refer to specific behaviours and may be expressed as motivators, temperament traits, skills, and aspects of self-image, social role or body of knowledge.

A Possible Solution

Understanding the problem requires an understanding of the causes of the problem and a clear definition of what the problem actually is. Part of the confusion comes from historical terminologies such as standards’ (they’re really outcomes of performance). The term tasks’ really means the activities that people perform at work and its meanings should really be confined to this area. If we mean personal qualities and characteristics’, we should use more values-based terms.

Further confusion is added by people who regard skills’ as competencies. And there are still people who prefer to describe the competence of people by inferring it from what they have learned, the experiences they have had, and the type of person they are. Even their age is sometimes used. If somebody has an MBA a degree, are they automatically competent? If somebody has 15 years experience, does this automatically suggest they are more competent than a less experienced person?

The competency movement is gradually moving away from its historical roots, and competency frameworks are being built around what a person, a team or an organisation can actually do/the outcomes of activities results rather than the underlying dispositions that determine these activities.

In summary, let me say this. The competency approach can be a powerful force in creating business advantage but it is in danger of being dismissed because of the clash of approaches, terminology, previous historical approaches etc. In another article I will outline an all-embracing approach to this dilemma. When there is confusion all round, a system, (any system) is far superior to no system.

© 2000 John Butler