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Are you Knowledgeable, Skilled or Competent

  Samer K. Taher | Managing Director

  18th March, 2015

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Every now and then a new management fad or buzzword parachutes down onto the corporate world and starts influencing people and processes alike.

Some of these buzzwords disappear as quickly as they appear (such as Mental Models and Systems Thinking), some last for a while and then fade into oblivion (such as Paradigm Shifts and Quality Circles) and some last longer than experts predict or expect. 

Of the terms which have lasted for more than thirty years (and is still going strong) is the term “Competencies”. 

Not only is the term unrelenting, it seems to be growing more and more in importance, to the extent that many companies worldwide – as well as here in the Gulf – have  established teams and, in some cases, departments, tasked with competency interviewing, competency assessment (or assurance) and competency development. 

But what on earth are “competencies”? What makes them so important and more importantly what should one know or be able to do, to be called “competent”?

More books and articles have been written about “competencies” than probably many other management fads. Some are easy to read, others are not. 

The man credited with bringing the term competencies into the world of management is David McClelland, a former Harvard psychologist who was asked by the U.S. Foreign Service, in the early 70s, to find new research methods that could predict human performance and reduce the bias of traditional intelligence and aptitude testing. Thus, the notion of competence measurement was born. Since McClelland proposed this concept more than 40 years ago, the confusion surrounding its use has grown, probably due to the evolution of his original ideas.

In his book, Evaluating the Impact of Training, American Society for Training and Development, 1997, Scott Parry defined competency as “a cluster of related knowledge, skills and attitudes working together to produce outstanding performance in a given area of responsibility”. 

In a Financial Times publication (1997) titled “A Competency Based Approach to Training & Development”, the authors Bernard Wynne and David Stringer also defined competencies as “the accumulated skills, knowledge, behavior and attitude which individuals apply in achieving the outputs required in their job”.  

In fact, almost every definition of competency or competence includes the terms knowledge, skills and attitude (or ability) in one combination or another. But what does that really mean?

By nature, every task requires a certain amount of knowledge (K) for it to be performed. Driving a car, for example, requires knowledge of traffic signs, rules and regulations. Possessing that knowledge makes one knowledgeable about driving but not competent, yet. Once knowledge is there, one needs to acquire a certain set of skills (S) to perform the task. In the driving example, the skills might include, starting the car, changing lanes, reverse parking, etc.

Being able to demonstrate those skills makes one skilled in driving but not competent, yet again. With the proven presence of knowledge and skills, one needs to put both into practice in a “manner” deemed acceptable within the context in which the K&S are being applied. In the driving example, the context would be the city or country in which the driver is putting his or her driving into practice. This manner is often referred to as driving Attitude (A). In this region, for example, the A of driving might include (hopefully!), patience, defensive driving, and care for pedestrians. Possessing these driving Attitude (A) ingredients, along with the driving K&S we mentioned earlier amounts to competency in driving.

That is what it takes to be called competent.

In organizational settings, competencies can be applied to almost every aspect of an organization.

Let’s take Interviewing as an example:

If we follow the same logic we used above, the competency of Interviewing must include three components: the Knowledge of interviews (K) such as what types of interviews are there, when should each type be used and how and what sort of questions should be asked under each type, etc.; the Skills of interviewing (S) such as the skill of active listening, probing for facts and note taking; and last (but not least) the proper Attitude (A) in which interviews should be conducted such as respect for personal space, avoiding sensitive personal topics and asking the questions in a non-offensive manner (here is the word manner again!). 

And just like it is applied for interviewing, the concept of competence can be (and is being) applied to every aspect of an organization.

In recruitment, HR professionals are advertising and looking for candidates who are, to an extent, competent in those competencies which their organizations require. In selection, interviewing experts are designing and conducting their interviews using a competency-based approach. In training & development, experts in T&D are relying on competency gap assessments to identify training needs and in performance appraisals, managers are assessing competence instead of the classical (and archaic!) method of qualitative traits appraisal. 

This brings us to the valuable question of “Can competencies be accurately assessed and if so, how?”

There are several ways in which individual competence can be assessed. These ways vary in degrees of precision, complexity and time and effort to administer.

A simple method of assessment is to infer what competencies are required for a certain job (by analyzing that job through a formal job analysis procedure) and then looking at the overall performance of the individual performing that job. If the performance is good, then one could assume that the level of that employee’s competence is good and vice versa. 

One problem with this method is that it does not look at the individual per se but more at the job – which is not a precise method for assessing competence.

A better more precise approach is to use the basic definition of a competency and design the assessment method accordingly.

Since a competency is a cluster of related Knowledge, Skills and Attitude, then assessing a competency must include three types (or levels) of assessments.

The 1st step in assessing competence is to test individuals on their Knowledge (K) of the competency being assessed. In this step, I cannot think of a more effective method than verbal or written tests designed to measure the “theoretical” or “academic” level of information the individuals possess related to that competency. For example, if one were to test candidates on the competency of Problem Solving, one must begin by asking them, verbally (through an interviews, perhaps?) or in writing (through a pencil and paper test) on the theory of Problem Solving using questions such as “What is the definition of a problem?”, “What is the difference between a problem, a symptom and a cause?”, “What are the basics of the Ishikawa (or Fishbone) Diagram?”, and “What does RCA stand for?” etc. Satisfactory answers to these questions indicate that the candidates possess the 1st level of competence requirement, which is Knowledge – the K of competence.

The 2nd step in assessing competence is to test the individuals on their Skills (S) in applying the competency. One effective means of assessing at that level is asking the individuals to solve a specific problem (preferably work-related) on the basis of their theoretical or academic knowledge. During that process, competency assessors should observe (and evaluate) the practical steps undertaken by the candidates in solving the problem. In the Problem Solving example, assessors should be looking at the following:

Are the candidates stating the problem in a proper problem statement? 
Are they listing the current symptoms of the problem?
Are they listing the probable causes? 
Are they prioritizing these causes based on impact or other criteria? Etc.

Displaying these actions, even in a simulation – indicates that the candidates are skilled in the competency of problem solving – the S of competence.

The 3rd – and most important – step in assessing competence is measuring the Attitude in which a competency is being applied.  According to the WordNet Dictionary, Attitude is “a complex mental state involving beliefs and feelings and values and dispositions to act in certain ways”. 

There are few internationally recognized methods for measuring attitude. The most recognized are: The Likert Scale, Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory and Osgood’s Semantic Differential.

In addition to these questionnaires, there is a huge variety of psychometric tests in the market today, which have been designed to measure individual attitude towards a big variety of competencies. Examples of these tests are the Management Development Questionnaire (MDQ) and the 16PF® Questionnaire.  

Whichever means one uses to measure attitude, one fact remains: Attitude is measurable and it is an integral part of a competency. 

So there you have it, what is a competency, what are its components and how it is assessed.