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.

6 thoughts on “The basis of competence ideas

  1. I think competence even at this low level description needs the additional qualification:
    “Competence means the ability to RELIABLY do what is required.”
    without, it may be accident, or chance that give the illusion of competence?

  2. Rob, I agree that competence is normally associated with reliability. But I prefer to see that as just part of “what is required”. It is for this kind of reason that unpacking “what is required” is so interesting and challenging.

  3. “The ability to do something successfully” is perhaps less controversial. This is the Oxford English Dictionary definition.

    “what is required” is problematic. For example, if I want a bricklayer to make a brick wall, do I expect the bricklayer to recommend whether or not a wall ought to go where I want it to? Do I want him to suggest that somewhere else would be better? Or that maybe a fence is a better solution? Or a stone wall rather than a brick wall? Or to advise on its height?

  4. Thanks, Alan. Two responses to this…
    (1) “what is required” works better for this analysis because it is in the form of a “thing” rather than just being an adverb. If we just say “successfully”, that doesn’t bring to the foreground what it is the person has to do to be successful, and may make it slightly less obvious that the criterion of success isn’t usually just what the person themselves take as success.
    (2) using the word “required” is intended to point clearly towards the requirements coming from other people.
    To apply this to your questions, if I employ a bricklayer, it is up to me to set (or assume) the requirements. I may just employ a bricklayer to make a wall to my exact specifications, in which case I do not require the bricklayer to recommend anything. But also, I may have background implicit requirements about the professionalism of the bricklayer (perhaps) which may lead to expectations that they will tell me if there may be a problem.

    On the other hand, I imagine that a bricklayer under supervision on a building site will be required simply to follow instructions in a more or less intelligent manner. That will constitute competence at a different role, that of assistant bricklayer, rather than the competences required of a self-employed builder. “What is required” is clearly different, but I don’t think that the success criteria for the wall are materially different. That leads me to preferring my own definition over the OED in this case… :-)

  5. Doesn’t the boundary of what is required eventually merge and map with what can be done, and therefore analysis is not secondary?
    From a computing perspective you could aim to measure everything from lifting a 50kg weight to building trusted relationships. Applying the more fuzzy criteria like good customer service maybe a harder thing to measure but is now subject to lots of measures which brings it into the doing category (ie trust).
    As the two domains of competence and computing merge alongside reality and virtual reality in learning and applications such as recruitment, does competency become something that is rooted in doing and summarised in terms of required, therefore has analysis built in.

  6. Tom

    I think I see your point, but not sure. Try the idea that to analyse something, it helps to start with a clear idea of what you are analysing. At root, “what is required” in so many situations is that people do what is expected and keep people happy. People may be good at this without knowing how they do it. Much is unconscious. What I’m saying is just that this is the starting point. I don’t mean “secondary” as unimportant, just not quite as central and basic as “primary”…

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