posted 4 Mar 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 5
Opinion: Competence matters more than knowledge
Traditionally, knowledge and its creation/acquisition, development and application have been considered by the academic and management communities, albeit with different perspectives. In this article, knowledge is principally viewed as the key commodity and the focal point of all activities, hence the term knowledge management (KM) which strives to apply a judicious blend of resources and leadership in acquiring and furthering knowledge.
We propose an alternative and utility-based paradigm in which realisation of value through prudent application of knowledge is given prominence over mere acquisition, development, storage, usage, ownership and protection of concepts and facts. This is broadly referred to as competence, which in a systems paradigm, involves a great deal more than declarative, procedural and inspirational knowledge alone.
Our utilitarian perspective on knowledge strives to establish a value system where knowledge is no longer the key commodity/objective but its application in developing solutions to a tapestry of social, technical, global and political problems which is the transformational ability referred to as competence. In this new systemic paradigm, competence is the alchemy of knowledge in that it helps transmute it into the rare contextual value.
An article in the December 2008 issue of the New Yorker debates the case for value added analysis in education and argues that after years of worrying about periphery factors such as funding, class size and curriculum design, nothing seems to matter more than having great teachers.
The article states, however, that no one is quite sure what a great teacher looks like. One anecdotal quotation is that to be a great teacher, one must have ‘with-it-ness’! The challenge is how to specify or even know someone possesses or has the potential for ‘with-it-ness’ until he or she has been admitted into the role and practiced a few cycles?
So how do you know a teacher is with-it? We propose the hypothesis that a great teacher is a competent one. And there’s hope in developing and employing a systems framework to assist with identifying, developing and qualifying such rare talents well beyond the challenges of the teaching profession alone.
The European Guide to Good Practice in Knowledge Management defines competence as an appropriate blend of knowledge, experience and motivational factors that enable a person to perform a task successfully. In this context, competence is the ability to perform a task correctly, efficiently and consistently to a high quality, under varying conditions, to the satisfaction of the end client.
This is a much more demanding portfolio of talents and capabilities than successful application of knowledge. So a competent person is much more than a knowledge worker. A competent person requires a number of requisite qualities and capabilities that fall into three broad classes.
- The drive, ability and motivation to achieve the goals and strive for betterment/excellence;
- The ability to adapt to changing circumstances and demands by creating new know-how; and
- The ability to sense what is pertinent or desired (with-it-ness?) and consistently/skilfully deliver that at a high quality to the satisfaction of the end client.
- The contextual domain knowledge – empirical, scientific or a blend of both;
- The experience of application (knowing what works) in different scenarios; and
- Continual learning.
- The ability to perform the requisite tasks efficiently with planning/control while minimising wastage of physical and virtual resources;
- The ability to cope with the pace of change; and
- Regular relevant practice.
The right blend of these abilities renders a person competent in that he would achieve the desired outcomes consistently, efficiently, every-time or more often than not satisfying or exceeding the expectations of the clients over varying circumstances. Such persons will be recognised for the mastery of their discipline and not just considered a font of relevant knowledge.
In this spirit, competence is the ability to consistently generate success, satisfaction, value and excellence from the application of skill and knowledge. This supports our hypothesis that competence matters more than knowledge alone.
A systems approach
Given the facets of competence elaborated earlier, the acquisition, assessment, development and management of competence poses a challenge beyond the traditional education/training and the static curriculum vitae. Whilst a blend of all facets is a pre-requisite for competency and mastery in a given discipline, the significance of each is highly dependent on the context and requirements of a given domain.
Whatever the context and domain, however, a systems framework for the evaluation, development and enhancement of competence is called for. This, by necessity, comprises two inter-dependent frameworks – one focused on understanding, evaluation and assessment and the other on the management of competence.
Assessment of competence
Our competence assessment framework provides an integrated perspective on competence in a given context while additionally empowering the duty holders or the organisation to benchmark each aspect, measure, assess and where necessary take actions to enhance various elements in the framework.
This is illustrated in the weighted factors analysis (WeFA), schema of Figure 1. The latter aspects of benchmarking, evaluating, assessing and potentially enhancing competence are inherent in the underpinning WeFA methodology and not elaborated here. However briefly, WeFA is a systems-based knowledge capture, representation and evaluation methodology which strives to identify and graphically represent the so called driver and inhibitor factors which influence the attainment of a central ‘aim’.
The methodology supports hierarchical decomposition (break down to component parts) of the influencing factors in turn into a multi-layer set of drivers and inhibitors, thus revealing increasing clarity and enhancing systemic understanding of the underlying causative factors and the degree of their interaction and influence in a given context.
The determination, benchmarking, evaluation and quantified performance assessment of five driver and three inhibitor goals in the above WeFA schema is carried out as follows.
Domain knowledge, as depicted in Figure 1 as the driver Goal 1 (G1), is broadly supported by relevant skill/competence frameworks. There are a number of such frameworks in use mainly within various engineering disciplines in the
The composition and extent of relevant experience in a given context, as depicted in Figure 1 as the driver Goal 2 (G2), is supported by subsequent decomposition of G2 into lower level WeFA structures, the so called Level 2 and Level 3 goals not shown. This principally helps determine the driver and inhibitor factors/goals for the higher-level goal, the domain experience.
The nature and degree of motivation and drive (physical and psychological) in a given context as depicted in Figure 1 as the driver Goal 3 (G3) in the framework is supported by subsequent contextual decomposition of G3 into lower level structures in WeFA. This principally helps determine the driver and inhibitor factors/goals for motivational and drive aspects in a specific context.
The essential determinants and degree of efficiency in carrying out tasks (planning and control) and avoidance of wastage of resources in a given context, as depicted in the driver Goal 4 (G4) in the framework, is supported by subsequent decomposition of G4 into lower level WeFA structures.
Finally, the key determinants of quality and consistency in carrying out tasks in a given context, as depicted in the driver Goal 5 (G5) in the framework, is supported by subsequent decomposition of G5 into lower level WeFA structures, drivers and inhibitors in a specific context respectively.
The key aspects and the extent of absence of relevant new learning in a given context of application, as depicted in the inhibitor Goal 1 (G1) in the proposed framework, is supported by subsequent decomposition of G1 into lower level structures, the so called Level 2 and Level 3 drivers and inhibitors in WeFA.
The key determinants and the extent of change in a given domain/context, as depicted in the inhibitor Goal 2 (G2) in the proposed framework, is supported by subsequent decomposition of G2 into lower level WeFA structures to aid clarity and presentation.
Finally, the key predictors and the extent of the currency of relevant practice in a given context, as depicted in the inhibitor Goal 3 (G3) in the framework, is supported by subsequent decomposition of G3 into lower level WeFA structures.
A suitably developed and validated WeFA schema for competence assessment in a given role, context or domain additionally requires a measurement scale for each goal (driver or inhibitor) as well as the weights, such as the strengths of influence(s) from each goal on higher level goals. Once established, the weighted framework lends itself to application for assessment and management of an individual’s competence in fulfilling tasks in the particular context as depicted by the framework.
This would render a number of advanced features and benefits:
A structured profile for a given role detailing the pertinent attributes and their significance;
A potential benchmark for each attribute in the competence profile;
Up to five levels of overall competence comprising apprentice, technician, practitioner, expert, leader in a given role/domain;
Identification of the gaps in the specific attributes and the overall profile and the remedial training/experience requirements; and
A consistent and systematic regime for continual assessment and enhancement.
It should be noted that assessment here is devised and intended as a tool in the service of systematic approach to staff recruitment, appraisal and development and should not be misconstrued as an adversarial instrument for classification of people’s contributions to the organisation.
Management of competence
The human resource involvement/employment within a work environment, organisation or project follows a lifecycle comprising seven key phases essential to the systematic and focused management of knowledge:
Proactivity: comprises corporate policy, leadership, mission, objectives, planning, quality assurance and commitments to competency and service delivery for the whole organisation;
Architecting and profiling: which comprises specification and development of a corporate structure aligned with the strategy and policy objectives together with the definition of roles and capabilities to fulfil these;
Placement: which essentially involves advertising and attracting candidates matching the role profiles/requirements involving search, selection and induction. Selection relates to deriving role-focused criteria and relevant tests to assist with the systematic assessment, scoring and appointment tasks. Induction, involves a period of briefing, familiarisation and possibly training the extent of which is determined by the familiarity and competence of the individual concerned and the complexity and novelty of the role.
Deployment and empowerment: which involves a holistic description depicting the scope of the responsibility, accountability and technical/managerial tasks associated with a specific role and empowering the individual to fulfil the demands of the role. This would include training, supervision, coaching, resourcing, delineation of requisite authority and accountabilities, mentoring and potential certification as means to empowerment for achievement and development;
Appraisal: which involves the planning and setting performance objectives, and identification of the performance indicators/predictors synergistic to the demands of a role and the individual’s domain knowledge, aimed at ensuring all relevant and periphery aspects of the role are adequately addressed and the necessary provisions are made for learning where a need is identified. The evaluation and appraisal provides the necessary feedback on compliance with individual and organisational objectives and achievement, enabling the organisation to identify and reward good performance and develop remedial solutions where necessary;
Organisation and culture: which involves clarification of role relationships and communications, support, reward and motivational aspects for competency development including requisite resources and learning processes for attaining the policy objectives. This is intended to develop and foster a caring and sensitive approach/culture nurturing talents and paving the way towards an innovating organisation;
Continual development and progression: this comprises identifying the synergistic aspects which may serve as a complementary and rewarding extension to individuals’ specific role(s). Development may involve managerial, technical, support functions or an appropriate blend of duties at the whole life-cycle level or extensions to the role specific activities and vision/ career paths above an existing role into other parts of an organisation and even beyond. The review and assessment of success in all the principles inherent in the framework also fall within the ‘continual development’ principle.
The seven focal areas/principles constitute a systematic competency management framework as depicted in the WeFA schema of Figure 2. It is worth noting however that employment and project/product life-cycles are orthogonal in that securing the requisite human resource and competence for any phase of an engineering production activity would potentially involve all the seven phases of the competence management.
Note that the two frameworks for assessment and management of competence are inter-related and complementary. While assessment focuses on the individual in terms of performance, the management framework addresses broader issues relating to the enterprise’s policy and a nurturing environment to foster talent and innovation as an embedded culture thus creating a sustainable business/service provision.
With competence gaining pervasive prominence in preference to mere focus on knowledge, the adoption, deployment and continual enhancement of competency frameworks founded on systemic principles and a systematic approach provide an advanced basis for management of this core capability.
There’s a need to go beyond the current practices to specify, recruit, develop and promote people with the right blend of behavioural, evidential and contextual capabilities to underpin being great at whatever they do from handling money to teaching children.
We have illustrated a candidate generic architecture for an advanced and systemic approach to competence assessment and management that can fulfil these requirements and meet the challenges of this complex domain while transcending beyond the current, often subjective practices. The generic framework lends itself to customisation, calibration and increasing refinement for any domain and activity.
It provides a systems approach to understanding the intricacies of human competence and a rational basis for supporting and enhancing people’s greatness in what they do in a humane and rewarding manner. In the pervasive knowledge-based economies of the future, it is people’s competence which catalyses knowledge into value.