The basis of competence ideas

(1st in my logic of competence series)

Let’s start with a deceptively simple definition. Competence means the ability to do what is required. It is the unpacking of “what is required” that is not simple.

I don’t want to make any claims for that particular form of words — there are any number of definitions current, most of them quite reasonable in their own way. But, in the majority of definitions, you can pick out two principle components: here, they are “the ability to do” and “what is required”. Rowin’s and my earlier paper does offer some other reasonable definitions of what competence means, but I wanted here to start from something as simple-looking as possible.

If the definition is to be helpful, “the ability to do” has to be something simpler than the concept of competence as a whole. And there are many statements of basic, raw ability that would not normally be seen as amounting to competence in any distinct sense. The answers to questions like “can you perform this calculation in your head”, “can you lift this 50 kg weight” and “can you thread this needle” are generally taken as matters of fact, easily testable by giving people the appropriate equipment and seeing if they can perform the task.

What does “what is required” mean, then? This is where all the interest and hidden complexity arises. Perhaps it is easiest to go back to the basic use of competence ideas in common usage. For a job — with an employer, perhaps, or just getting a trades person to fix something — “what is required” is that the person doing the job is competent at the role he or she is taking on. Unless we are recruiting someone, we don’t usually think this through in any detail. We just want “a good gardener”, or to go to “a good dentist” without knowing exactly what being good at these roles involves. We often just go on reputation: has that person done a good job for someone we know? would they recommend them?

The idea is similar from the other point of view. If I want a job as a gardener or a dentist, at the most basic level I want to claim (and convince people) that I am a good gardener, or a good dentist. Exactly what that involves is open to negotiation. What I’m suggesting is that these are the absolute basics in common usage and practice of concepts related to competency. It is, at root, all about finding someone, or claiming that one is the kind of person, that fulfils a role well, according to what is generally required.

People claim, or require, a wide range of things that they “can do” or “are good at”. At the most familiar end of the spectrum, we think of people’s ability or competence for example at cooking, housework, child care, driving, DIY. There are any number of sports and pastimes that people may be more or less good at. At the formal and organisational end of the spectrum, we may think of people as more or less good at their particular role in an organisation — a position for which they may be employed, and which might consist of various sub-roles and tasks. The important point to base further discussion on is that we tend normally to think about people in these quite general terms, and people’s reputation tends to be passed on in these quite general terms, often without explicit analysis or elaboration, unless specific questions are raised.

When either party asks more specific questions, as might happen in a recruitment situation, it is easy to imagine the kind of details that might come up. Two things may happen here. First, questions may probe deeper than the generic idea of competence, to the specifics of what is required for this particular job or role. And second, the issue of evidence may come up. I’ll address these questions later, but right next I want to discuss how competence concepts are identified in terms of transferability.

But the point I have made here is that all this analysis is secondary. Because common usage does not rely on it, we must take the concept of competence as resting primarily just on the claim and on the requirement for a person to fill a role.