Competence - what is it?


There is, as yet, no generally agreed definition of competence when used in relation to professions or practices. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)1 provides an interesting variety of definitions of competence. The material on this website can be considered to be focussed on two concepts of competence as set out in the OED:


1. Sufficiency of qualification; capacity to deal adequately with a subject
2. Adequacy of a work; legitimacy of a logical conclusion; propriety.


The OED definitions need more to be added in order to yield an operational definition of competence. The key elements of such a definition can be evolved in the following way:


1. 'Sufficiency of qualification' - some people would interpret the word qualification as referring to some kind of accredited qualification, often state controlled (such as by universities, or legally established professional bodies). This website does not take such a narrow view because of the arbitrariness and perversities sometimes introduced into formal qualification mechanisms by state agencies and professional bodies.
2. 'capacity to deal adequately with a subject' - the risk in this concept lies in understanding it with an academic bias. This website interprets that phrase more along the liines of 'ability to solve a problem'.
3. 'Adequacy of a work' - judgements about 'adequacy' imply an understanding of purpose and context - is a work 'fit for purpose'?
4. 'legitimacy of a logical conclusion' - solutions to problems should be sufficiently open and transparent such that it is possible to know the basis on which solutions to problems, or dealing with subject matter, have been approached. Often, the most difficult part of such openess and transparency is understanding any assumed values or wisdom on which a problem solution or subject consideration has been based.
5. 'propriety' - this is taken as the manner in which a problem solution is achieved, or subject matter dealt with.


The ability to solve a problem depends on applying an appropriate combination of skills and knowledge. For example, a highly qualified engineering academic may understand how a combustion engine works - but may not have the skills to fix an engine following a vehicle breakdown. The person who has the skills for fix the engine may not have good knowledge of why the engine works. Both the academic and the engineer may have a sufficient combination of skills and knowledge to operate competently in their own normal contexts, but may not be competent to operate in different contexts.


Sometimes 'level' is important. For example, a consultant may be engaged to propose a set of computer components to solve a particular business problem. The nature of any proposal should be adjusted for whatever 'level' is receivng any proposed solution. Presumably, a presentation to the executive board of an organization sponsoring a solution would not be the same as a presentation to engineers and practitioners who will build and deliver a solution - those different audiences are likely to need different amounts of detail.


The way in which a problem solution is approached may be critical for the acceptability of any solution. For example, merely imposing a solution may render it unacceptable, whereas a solution following participation and consultation may be welcomed. This is often seen by competence practitioners as matters of attitude or behaviour.


Therefore, the approach taken in this website is that competence can be expressed by a five-part relationship:


competence = knowledge + skills + attitude or behaviour + context + level


The debate about the definition of competence arises because some people accept definitions of competence where the values of some of the elements in the above equation can be zero. For example, some equate competence with skills only (thus implying that the other elements could be zero). Of course there is usually overlap between the elements of that equation, but the equation focusses on the key elements.


An excellent example of the kind of mess and confusion about the elements of competence is provided by the situation in the UK and its various government agencies handling different aspects of competence. On the one hand there is a Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) setting out higher education qualifications from 1st year undergraduate, to doctorate, and on the other hand there is a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) that is responsible for a National Qualifications Framewor (NQF) covering mainly practitioner and some professional qualifications. To demonstrate the point that these elements of competence have not yet been brought together, the QCA have a document that maps the NQF to the FHEQ. What is missing, is a set of competence qualifications able to certify competence. Most practitioners will experience the problem that often it is necessary to obtain a higher education degree, then it is necesary to obtain a professional qualification. Many professions then require a new entrant to pefform a satisfactory period of performance before being accepted finally as fit to practice. Although there is obvious overlap, in simplistic terms, the higher education element can be seen as knowledge focussed; the professional qualification elenet is skill focussed; the final practice phase is attitude or behaviour focussed. In reality, any practitioner must address context and level to yield acceptable and satisfactory results.


The competence sections of this website provide an opportunity for debate about these various matters.



1Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 2009.