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Competencies and Standards


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International Competencies and Standards

We are very careful in how we describe International Standards Competence and Competencies so many countries state, that they apply these only for us to find that the standards deployed are in fact one countries or one occupational sectors view of a standards set. And that competencies applied are standards which have been locally developed or international versions that have been applied.

To explain this (lets pick on health care). If the standards used were defined by a local health care system rather than the World Health Organization.

WHO is the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system. It is responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.

Then it could be argued that the credibility of the standards used might be suspect. Having said this, many Academics or Scientists might argue that there is not one all encompassing agreement or view on how health care systems should be managed and bench-marked.

National Occupational Standards:

According to the Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA, from 1 April 2008 replaced by the UK Commission on Employment and Skills), National Occupational Standards set out measurable performance outcomes to which an individual is expected to work in a given occupation. Developed by employers across the UK, NOS set out the skills, knowledge and understanding required to perform competently in the workplace.

This paragraph above is very important when trying to differentiate the language of competence and has significantly led to considerable confusion. Each body or organization will promote what it does in its own particular way and words “Competence and Competencies” in this context have led to so many views that commerce and industry apply them inappropriately and mix up approaches or just don’t use them at all.

National Vocational Qualifications – Using Occupational Standards:

National Vocational Qualifications (they use National Occupational Standards) is another interesting standards based model. Fortunately we were involved in 1985 during the evolution of these qualifications and have tracked them over the years from when they were piloted in two occupational groups, to the latest attempt to correlate them with academic equivalent status. Much debate is taking place on whether they were actually ever designed for this purpose. So we are very familiar with the arguments merits and demerits associated with the framework.

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ’s) are work based awards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that are achieved through assessment and training. In Scotland they are known as Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVQ).

To achieve an NVQ, candidates must prove that they can display the knowledge and skills (competence) to carry out their job to the required standard. NVQ’s are based on ‘National Occupational Standards’ that describe the ‘competencies’ expected in any given job role. Typically, candidates will work towards an NVQ that reflects their role in a paid or voluntary position. For example someone working in an admin office role may take an NVQ in Business and Administration.

There are five levels of NVQ ranging from Level 1, which focuses on basic work activities, to Level 5 for senior management.

Level 1: Competence that involves the application of knowledge in the performance of a range of varied work activities, most of which are routine and predictable.

Level 2: Competence that involves the application of knowledge in a significant range of varied work activities, performed in a variety of contexts. Collaboration with others, perhaps through membership of a work group or team, is often a requirement.

Level 3: Competence that involves the application of knowledge in a broad range of varied work activities performed in a wide variety of contexts, most of which are complex and non-routine. There is considerable responsibility and autonomy and control or guidance of others is often required.

Level 4: Competence that involves the application of knowledge in a broad range of complex, technical or professional work activities performed in a variety of contexts and with a substantial degree of personal responsibility and autonomy. Responsibility for the work of others and the allocation of resources is often present.

Level 5: Competence that involves the application of a range of fundamental principles across a wide and often unpredictable variety of contexts. Very substantial personal autonomy and often significant responsibility for the work of others and for the allocation of substantial resources features strongly, as do personal accountabilities for analysis, diagnosis, design, planning, execution and evaluation

It should be noted that the above gives only guidelines for these qualifications as they measure different things. NVQ’s are a measure of competence to do a job (meeting standards) whilst Academic qualifications generally measure the individual’s knowledge of a subject.

However since September 2006 the Academic qualifications rating has been changed from 5 to 8 levels. In addition with the onset of the Qualifications Curriculum Authority (QCA) there is a new framework which brings together the first 5 and extends them to 8 within the academic framework (and in some cases argued for 10). The idea is to link vocational and academic Knowledge and Skills together; what has emerged is a framework called Unitization consisting of a qualification model at 8 levels with an collated for qualifications into 3 groups of the Award, Certificate and Diploma at each of the 8 levels. The idea is one of harmonizing vocational and academic delivery and providing a progression route from the lowest to the highest based on the capability of the individual with reduced and attempting to reduce duplication. Indications are that the NVQ framework will be replaced by a new QCA framework based on unitized learning.

Technical and Academic Competence

It gets even more confusing there has been for a long time yet another way of describing competence as in a technical transfer of knowledge to application.

  1. Level 1 AWARENESS
  2. Level 2 KNOWLEDGE
  3. Level 3 SKILL
  4. Level 4 MASTERY

Often when we do a task well, we no longer remember how we learned to do it. To prepare to teach well we may need to move though different learning levels ourselves. When we excel at a task, we are most likely at the level of Unconscious Competence to teach others, we must move back to Conscious Competence.

Levels of Mastery

  1. Level 1 Unconscious Incompetence: I don’t know how and I don’t know I don’t know
  2. Level 2 Conscious Incompetence: I know I don’t know how to do a task
  3. Level 3 Conscious Competence: I do a task well and I need to think though the steps
  4. Level 4 Unconscious Competence: I do a task well by habit

We are not arguing for or against any one system, only that organizations need to be very clear about why they are using standards or a particular competence model. Are they designed to have a profound impact on organizational performance or just something to benchmark against?

Finally there are at least 15 definitions of what competence is and competencies are and approaches to measuring it / them and standards are included in the list.

Definition of Competence?

Competence (skills, behavioural and trait characteristics, knowledge, thinking, experience and values) are a highly descriptive language that communicates strategy and performance improvement required of people in an organization. They convert potentially disaffected members of the workforce into measurable and therefore manageable human capital. Once people become human capital the bias, familiarity and subjectivity towards them can be replaced by a fairer, more dispassionate, objective and efficient method of channeling their power. Using competencies to define human capital through role profiles and development planning enables all gaps between current and required state to be identified and addressed. Individual gaps are aggregated as an organizational capital risk. This gap becomes the liability on the corporate human capital balance sheet. It also defines what must be addressed to achieve business performance improvement.

What are Competencies?

Competencies as those measurable skills, thinking, abilities and personality traits that identify successful employees against defined roles within an organization.

Core Competencies can be defined as those competencies that any successful employee will need to rise through the organisation; the level of accomplishment may vary but the essential competency will remain the same. Competencies can, of course, change over time and should not be regarded as immutable (they are usually defined and set for the whole organization).

  • They uniquely define an organization’s values and requirements as expressed through its people.
  • They form the cornerstone for the implementation of HR Systems such as selection, talent and knowledge management, appraisal, training, management development, coaching and succession planning.

Specifically behavioural job competency is an underlying characteristic of a person’s behaviour which results in effective and/or superior performance.

Example of some competencies:

  • team working skills;
  • communication skills;
  • leadership skills;
  • time-management skills;
  • listening skills;
  • motivation and enthusiasm;
  • data analysis skills;
  • decision-making skills;
  • influencing skills;
  • creativity;
  • integrity;
  • initiative.

Cognitive (or thinking) competencies:  also result in contributing towards superior performance this is how people arrive at making the right decisions they are defined as core and used in many organizations to assess staff in certain roles; they consist of two main critical cognitive skills that are measured and developed capabilities which are derived from the basis of higher education, experience and mind development technologies.

  • Analytical Thinking: this is the ability to gather, understand and interpret information; simplify complex problems and see causal links. It occurs within the Immediate Task and is a Left Brained activity.
  • Conceptual Thinking: is the ability to understand a situation or problem by identifying patterns or connections, and addressing key underlying issues. Conceptual thinking includes the integration of issues and factors into a conceptual framework. It involves using past professional or technical training and experience, creativity, inductive reasoning and intuitive processes that lead to potential solutions or viable alternatives that may not be obviously related or easily identified. It is Holistic or Big Picture thinking and is a Right and a Whole Brained activity.
  • Capability within the Higher Education Setting: ” which seek to develop the above two by developing Excellence in Knowledge Acquisition and Skills of Analysis.  Excellence in doing, organizing, designing, communicating, creativity and imagination.  Excellence in Working with Others with Supervision”.

Combined with a few other considerations these result in what are known as higher order thinking skills, which are critical for the more senior thinkers and leaders in an organization.


Page by Marshall Potts – Specialist Development Consultant. Marshall has written a number of articles on Strategy, Transformational Change, Corporate Values and Leadership Development.




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