Why, when and how should we use frameworks of skill and competence?

(25th in my logic of competence series.)

When we understand how frameworks could be used for badges, it becomes clearer that we need to distinguish between different kinds of ability, and that we need tools to manage and manipulate such open frameworks of abilities. InLOC gives a model, and formats, on which such tools can be based.

I’ll be presenting this material at the Crossover Edinburgh conference, 2014-06-05, though my conference presentation will be much more interactive and open, and without much of this detail below.

What are these frameworks?

Frameworks of skill or competence (under whatever name) are not as unfamiliar as they might sound to some people at first. Most of us have some experience or awareness of them. Large numbers of people have completed vocational qualifications — e.g. NVQs in England — which for a long time were each based on a syllabus taken from what are called National Occupational Standards (NOSs). Each NOS is a statement of what a person has to be able to do, and what they have to know to support that ability, in a stated vocational role, or job, or function. The scope of NOSs is very wide — to list the areas would take far too much space — so the reader is asked to take a look at the national database of current NOSs, which is hosted by the UKCES on their dedicated web site.

Several professions also have good reason to set out standards of competence for active members of that profession. One of the most advanced in this development, perhaps because of the consequences of their competence on life and death, is the medical profession. Documents like Good Medical Practice, published by the General Medical Council, starts by addressing doctors:

Patients must be able to trust doctors with their lives and health. To justify that trust you must show respect for human life and make sure your practice meets the standards expected of you in four domains.

and then goes on to detail those domains:

  • Knowledge, skills and performance
  • Safety and quality
  • Communication, partnership and teamwork
  • Maintaining trust

The GMC also publishes the related Tomorrow’s Doctors, in which it

sets the knowledge, skills and behaviours that medical students learn at UK medical schools: these are the outcomes that new UK graduates must be able to demonstrate.

These are the kinds of “framework” that we are discussing here. The constituent parts of these frameworks are sometimes called “competencies”, a term that is intended to cover knowledge, skills, behaviours, attitudes, etc., but as that word is a little unfriendly, and bearing in mind that practical knowledge is shown through the ability to put that knowledge into practice, I’ll use “ability” as a catch all term in this context.

Many larger employers have good reasons to know just what the abilities of their employees are. Often, people being recruited into a job are asked in person, and employers have to go through the process of weighing up the evidence of a person’s abilities. A well managed HR department might go beyond this to maintaining ongoing records of employees’ abilities, so that all kinds of planning can be done, skills gaps identified, people suggested for new roles, and training and development managed. And this is just an outsider’s view!

Some employers use their own frameworks, and others use common industry frameworks. One industry where common frameworks are widely used is information and communications technology. SFIA, the Skills Framework for the Information Age, sets out all kinds of skills, at various levels, that are combined together to define what a person needs to be able to do in a particular role. Similar to SFIA, but simpler, is the European e-Competence Framework, which has the advantage of being fully and openly available without charge or restriction.

Some frameworks are intended for wider use than just employment. A good example is Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map, which is “a map of competencies and skills that Mozilla and our community of stakeholders believe are important to pay attention to when getting better at reading, writing and participating on the web.” They say “map”, but the structure is the same as other frameworks. Their background page sets out well the case for their common framework. Doug Belshaw suggests that you could use the Web Literacy Map for “alignment” of the kind of Open Badges that are also promoted by Mozilla.

Links to badges

You can imagine having badges for keeping track of people’s abilities, where the abilities are part of frameworks. To help people move between different roles, from education and training to work, and back again, having their abilities recognised, and not having to retrain on abilities that have already been mastered, those frameworks would have to be openly published, able to be referenced in all the various contexts. It is open frameworks that are of particular interest to us here.

Badges are typically issued by organisations to individuals. Different organisations relate to abilities differently. Some organisations, doing business or providing a service, just use employees’ abilities to deliver products and services. Other organisations, focusing around education and training, just help people develop abilities, which will be used elsewhere. Perhaps most organisations, in practice, are somewhere on the spectrum between these two, where abilities are both used and developed, in varied proportions. Looking at the same thing from an individual point of view, in some roles people are just using their abilities to perform useful activities; in other roles they are developing their abilities to use in a different role. Perhaps there are many roles where, again, there is a mixture between these two positions. The value of using the common, open frameworks for badges is that the badges could (in principle) be valued across different kinds of organisation, and different kinds of role. This would then help people keep account of their abilities while moving between organisations and roles, and have those abilities more easily recognised.

The differing nature of different abilities

However, maybe we need to be more careful than simply to take every open framework, and turn it into badges. If all the abilities than were used in all roles and organisations had separate badges, vast numbers of badges would exist, and we could imagine the horrendous complexity of maintaining them and managing them. So it might make sense to select the most appropriate abilities for badging, as follows.

  • Some abilities are plentiful, and don’t need special training or rewarding — maybe organisations should just take them for granted, perhaps checking that what is expected is there.
  • Some abilities are hard, or impossible, to develop: you have them or you don’t. In this case, using badges would risk being discriminatory. Badges for e.g. how high a person can reach, or how long they can be in the sun without burning, would be unnecessary as well as seriously problematic, while one can think of many other personal characteristics, potentially framed as abilities, which might be less visible on the surface, but potentially lead to discrimination, as people can’t just change them.
  • Some abilities might only be able to be learned within a specific role. There is little point in creating badges for these abilities, if they do not transfer from role to role.
  • Some abilities can be developed, are not abundant, and can be transferred substantially from one role to another. These are the ones that deserve to be tracked, and for which badges are perhaps most worth developing. This still leaves open the question of the granularity of the badges.

Practical considerations governing the creation and use of frameworks

It’s hard to create a good, generally accepted common skills or competence framework. In order to do so, one has to put together several factors.

  • The abilities have to be sufficiently common to a number of different roles, between which people may want to move.
  • The abilities have to be described in a way that makes sense to all collaborating parties.
  • It must be practical to include the framework into other tools.
  • The framework needs to be kept up to date, to reflect changing abilities needed for actual roles.
  • In particular, as the requirements for particular jobs vary, the components of a framework need to be presented in such a way that they can be selected, or combined with components of other frameworks, to serve the variety of roles that will naturally occur in a creative economy.
  • Thus, the descriptions of the abilities, and the way in which they are put together, need all to be compatible.

Let’s look at some of this in more detail. What is needed for several purposes is the ability to create a tailored set of abilities. This would be clearly useful in describing both job opportunities, and actual personal abilities. It is of course possible to do all of this in a paper-like way, simply cutting and pasting between documents. But realistically, we need tools to help. As soon as we introduce ICT tools, we have the requirement for standard formats which these tools can work with. We need portability of the frameworks, and interoperability of the tools.

For instance, it would be very useful to have a tool or set of tools which could take frameworks, either ones that are published, or ones that are handed over privately, and manipulate them, perhaps with a graphical interface, to create new, bespoke structures.

Contrast with the actual position now. Current frameworks rarely attempt to use any standard format, as there are no very widely accepted standards for such a format. Within NOSs, there are some standards; the UK government has a list of their relevant documents including “NOS Quality Criteria” and a “NOS Guide for Developers” (by Geoff Carroll and Trevor Boutall). But outside this area practice varies widely. In the area of education and training, the scene is generally even less developed. People have started to take on the idea of specifying the “learning outcomes” that are intended to be achieved as a result of completing courses of learning, educaction or training, but practice is patchy, and there is very little progress towards common frameworks of learning outcomes.

We need, therefore, a uniform “model”, not for skills themselves, which are always likely to vary, but for the way of representing skills, and for the way in which they are combined into frameworks.

The InLOC format

Between 2011 and 2013 I led a team developing a specification for just this kind of model and format. The project was called “Integrating Learning Outcomes and Competences”, or InLOC for short. We developed CEN Workshop Agreement CWA 16655 in three parts, available from CEN in PDF format by ftp:

  1. Information Model for Learning Outcomes and Competences
  2. Guidelines including the integration of Learning Outcomes and Competences into existing specifications
  3. Application Profile of Europass Curriculum Vitae and Language Passport for Integrating Learning Outcomes and Competences

The same content and much extra background material is available on the InLOC project web site. This post is not the place to explain InLOC in detail, but anyone interested is welcome to contact me directly for assistance.

What can people do in the meanwhile?

I’ve proposed elsewhere often enough that we need to develop tools and open frameworks together, to achieve a critical mass where there enough frameworks published to make it worthwhile for tool developers, and sufficiently developed tools to make it worthwhile to make the extra effort to format frameworks in the common way (hopefully InLOC) that will work with the tools.

There will be a point at which growth and development in this area will become self-sustaining. But we don’t have to wait for that point. This is what I think we could usefully be doing in the meanwhile, if we are in a position to do so.

1. Build your own frameworks
It’s a challenge if you haven’t been involved in skill or competence frameworks before, but the principles are not too hard to grasp. Start out by asking what roles, and what functions, there are in your organisation, and try to work out what abilities, and what supporting knowledge, are needed for each role and for each function. You really need to do this, if you are to get started in this area. Or, if you are a microbusiness that really doesn’t need a framework, perhaps you can build one for a larger organisation.
2. Use parts of frameworks that are there already, where suitable
It may not be as difficult as you thought at first. There are many resources out there, such as NOSs, and the other frameworks mentioned above. Search, study, see if you can borrow or reuse. Not all frameworks allow it, but many do. So, some of your work may already be done for you.
3. Publish your frameworks, and their constituent abilities, each with a URL
This is the next vital step towards preparing your frameworks for open use and reuse. The constituent abilities (and levels, see the InLOC documentation) really need their own identifiers, as well as the overall frameworks, whether you call those identifiers URLs, URIs or IRIs.
4. Use the frameworks consistently throughout the organisation
To get the frameworks to stick, and to provide the motivation for maintaining them, you will have to use them in your organisation. I’m not an expert on this side of practice, but I would have thought that the principles are reasonably obvious. The more you have a uniform framework in use across your organisation, the more people will be able to see possibilities for transfer of skills, flexible working, moving across roles, job rotation, and other similar initiatives that can help satisfy employees.
5. Use InLOC if possible
It really does provide a good, general purpose model of how to represent a framework, so that it can be ready for use by ICT systems. Just ask if you need help on this!
6. Consider integrating open badges
It makes sense to consider your badge strategy and your framework strategy together. You may also find this old post of mine helpful.
7. Watch for future development of tools, or develop some yourself!
If you see any, try to help them towards being really useful, by giving constructive feedback. I’d be happy to help any tool developers “get” InLOC.

I hope these ideas offer people some pointers on a way forward for skill and competence frameworks. See other of my posts for related ideas. Comments or other feedback would be most welcome!

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