ABCs of KMEducating knowledge managers

What is a competency? [EKM Series]

Editor’s note: This is a continuing serialisation of edited portions of Andre Saito’s PhD.

Competence involves two distinct but complementary ideas, and different usages vary in the emphasis put in one or the other:

  • Relating competence to someone’s capacity for proficient action, which sees it as something that is intrinsic to the individual
  • Defining competence as a set of expected outcomes, understanding it as something that is socially established.

The two ideas are synthesized in the notion of competent action.

Competence as individual capacity

Competence as a personal quality indicates the capacity or potential that an individual possess to perform well in a given domain. In this context, competence is an underlying individual attribute that is reasonably enduring and can be used in a variety of circumstances,1 and is usually described as a set of cognitive and psychological resources. The spelling ‘competency’ is commonly used to describe those resources.

Studies on competence in the field of psychology are usually interested in exploring the reasons for individual variation in performance, and much work has been done to explain the psychological sources of expertise. Competence is said to be the result of an individual’s innate profile of intelligences and his learning and experience in a given domain. Humans are said to have a certain number of intelligences, which represent their biopsychological capacity to process information of particular kinds.

Howard Gardner (1999) proposes eight types of such intelligences:

  • mathematical
  • verbal
  • spatial
  • musical
  • bodily kinesthetic
  • interpersonal
  • intrapersonal, and
  • naturalistic.

Abilities are particular combinations of such intelligences that represent the potential behavior of an individual. While Gardner identified only a handful of intelligences, there are a plethora of potential abilities. Competencies are abilities that are realized through experience and practice. While abilities correspond to latent possibilities, most of which remaining unaccomplished in the course of life, competencies result from learning and experience in a specific domain.

In other words, a competence are an outcome from the interaction between an individual’s potential abilities and his actual experience in a domain.2 It is interesting to note that competence, although involving both the individual and the domain, is still a construct that refers to something internal to the individual. An interesting account illustrating this point is offered by Connell et al.:

… it is possible for four students in an algebra class to get a perfect score on an exam using four completely different competencies: (1) memorizing all the answers from a stolen answer key, (2) graphing the mathematical equations and solving the problems by reasoning from the visual diagrams, (3) manipulating the mathematical formulas directly using the rules of algebra, and (4) copying the answers from one of the other three students. ¼ all four students will end up with the same assessment on the exam, although the underlying competencies being exhibited are qualitatively different (p. 133).

An important debate has been to what extent expertise depends on innate characteristics or can else be developed with learning and practice. Positions vary along a continuum between a complete dependence on innate abilities and the primacy of practice in enhancing performance. Elena Grigorenko3 points to the central role of domain-specific knowledge in defining expertise, arguing that a vast and organized knowledge base and the problem schemas associated with it seem to be fundamental to many different kinds of expertise. Also, such schemas and the information contained within them cannot be easily acquired; the expert knowledge base must be built up through vast amounts of deliberate practice. Once acquired, the schema may overpower the expert’s ability to see novel aspects of experience and, thus, become entrenched in a point of view constrained by the existing knowledge base.

Individual competency models

A branch of study focused on the job environment and work related situations is responsible for the strong adoption of the competence concept in industrial organizations. The main thrust of research into so-called competency models has been to distinguish between average and excellent workers, primarily for selection and appraisal purposes. The kind of competence described under this approach has often been called personal competence, due to the strong emphasis on relatively permanent individual characteristics, or behavioral competence, because of its method of relying on the analysis of behavioral events.

There is agreement among authors that competencies are combinations of three major kinds of resources: knowledge, skills and personal attributes.

  • In competence literature, knowledge refers to cognitive artifacts like concepts, models, theories, rules, principles, information, etc. This includes both knowledge acquired through study or education, eg finance or medicine, and that developed through practice or experience, eg an understanding of the market or of types of patients.
  • Skills refer to the ability to perform some tasks or activities consistently over a period of time. It is usually described by using verbs, while knowledge (in the above sense) emphasizes nouns. Skills cannot be codified and transferred as easily as knowledge (as above), and are usually acquired through repeated practice or training. The words skills and competencies are sometimes used interchangeably.
  • Personal attributes include a variety of individual characteristics, like motives (eg achievement, status), traits (eg emotional stability, initiative), and values (eg independence, friendship). These qualities usually form the core of an individual’s personality and tend to be more difficult to develop than the more superficial knowledge and skills. Many researchers found this type of competency to be the best predictors of performance.4

Competence as a standard of performance

The notion of competence is only meaningful when an individual’s action, behavior or performance is valued by another person, group or community. A complementary perspective on the concept describes it as a socially attributed quality, in the sense that it is not something intrinsic to the individual, but an attribute that an external person or group assigns to the person.

In this way, competence can be understood as a socially defined set of expectations about what constitutes competent performance. The primary focus shifts away from an individual’s underlying capabilities into the perceived results of his/her action, behavior, or decision with respect to the demands related to, for instance, a particular professional position, a social role, or a personal endeavor.

Occupational competence

Changes in the workplace and a growing need to secure an adequate supply of required skills led some governments to develop or revise national competence frameworks in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Those frameworks established skills standards for a range of occupations, and were used to redesign the systems for vocational education and training and vocational qualification.

The National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) developed in the UK was one of the pioneer systems, and provided guidelines for much subsequent work in other countries. The main thrusts of the NVQs policy were to develop performance-based qualifications and to uncouple assessment from training. Performance-based qualifications meant that competence was judged through job-specific outcomes, rather than through success in a knowledge-based examination. Assessment uncoupled from training meant that prior learning could be recognized and candidates could choose the preferred learning mode.5

In contrast with the personal-competence approach from the previous section, the NVQ adopted a functional perspective, focusing on tasks or functions that needed to be performed within the job role.

Key competencies

A competing approach to competence sought more flexible, generic skills that could be easily transferred between various contexts, like different functions, organizations, or industries. Considering an even broader context, including the new demands of the knowledge economy and a growing call for lifelong learning, some approaches aimed at universal key competencies that would be useful for the widest range of individuals in the widest range of societies possible.

The Definition and Selection of Competences (DeSeCo) project, launched in 1997 and sponsored by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), sought a solid theoretical and conceptual foundation to define and select a set of key competencies that:

  1. contributed to valued outcomes for societies and individuals
  2. helped individuals meet important demands in a wide variety of contexts, and
  3. were important for all individuals, not just for specialists

The purpose was to provide a basis for the continued development of statistical indicators of teaching and learning outcomes, and to offer a contribution to the debate on priorities in education curricula and training programs. The results were published in several reports, and present nine broad competencies grouped in three major clusters:

Category 1: Using Tools Interactively

1. Use language, symbols and texts interactively

2. Use knowledge and information interactively

3. Use technology interactively


Category 2: Interacting in Heterogeneous Groups

4. Relate well to others

5. Co-operate, work in teams

6. Manage and resolve conflicts


Category 3: Acting Autonomously

7. Act within the big picture

8. Form and conduct life plans and personal projects

9. Defend and assert rights, interests, limits and needs

Scope and quality of competence

Professional competence is usually described according to at least two dimensions: scope and quality.6 The scope dimension concerns what a person is competent in, the range of roles, tasks and situations for which his/her competence is established or may be reliably inferred.

Definitions of scope range from very broad (eg a competent citizen) to very narrow (eg a competent sales representative in a given company). They may also be generic (eg just naming a domain) or very detailed (eg describing every single task and conditions involved in a given activity).

The quality dimension concerns judgements about the level of proficiency in a person’s work, ranging in a continuum from novice, who is not yet competent in that particular task, to expert, who is acknowledged by colleagues as having progressed well beyond the level of average competence.

Professionals may improve their competence by changing the scope of their work, its quality, or both. They may, for instance, become more specialist, by moving into newly developed areas of professional work, or more generalist, by expanding activity to include additional ones. They may also be continuously developing the quality of their work in a number of areas, beyond the level of average competence to one of proficiency or expertise.

Competence and actual performance

Much of the recent interest in the concept of competence has been motivated by a concern with effectiveness and performance, be it in education, in the workplace, or in life in general.

However, there has been much criticism on the widespread notion that the possession or attribution of competence is naturally associated with performance. One of the reasons is that competence is tightly linked to the context in which it is developed and used. Because of this, competence in one situation cannot be readily transferred to another.

A second reason is that competence is dynamic and related to action. It involves the mobilization of resources to meet external demands, and can only be inferred through action, through observed behavior. Thus, competence is inevitably attached to the context for which it is defined, whether it refers to individual capabilities or to social demands. If we consider the social requirements for competence, it is obvious that expectations vary from place to place and over time.

A subtler and deeper relationship between capabilities, demands and context appears if we consider the broad scope of most organizational activities. The range of tasks that need to be undertaken in any single occupation is far too wide for any one person to carry out. Thus, a group of people with different capabilities is required if the job as a whole is to be carried out effectively.

In such a case, the performance of any person will depend heavily on those with whom they are working. The addition or subtraction of a member may radically change not only the characteristics of the group as a whole, but also the apparent qualities of all of the others within it. Job requirements and personal capabilities here are considered not individually, but collectively, and their matching depends on a mix of people with a dynamic balance of skills.7

Professional practice

In a very influential work, Donald Schön8 reacted against the idea of competent professional practice as essentially the application of theoretical knowledge.

According to Schön, the ordinary life of a professional practitioner is mainly based on ‘knowing-in-action’, a kind of knowing that is mostly tacit, nearly automatic, and does not necessarily stem from prior intellectual operation. This knowing is acquired through repeated practice and continued experience until it becomes skillful behavior. Action based on this kind of knowing does not consist of rules or plans, but of mainly of spontaneous, intuitive responses. This practical knowledge, however, does not always work. In some occasions there are surprises, unexpected outcomes, or just a feeling that something is not quite normal. Competent practitioners, then, begin a kind of on-the-spot inquiry he called ‘reflection-in-action’:

… the performer ‘reflects’, not only in the sense of thinking about the action he has undertaken and the result he has achieved, but in the more precise sense of turning his thought back on the knowing-in-action implicit in his action. He reflects ‘in action’ in the sense that his thinking occurs within the boundaries of what I call an action-present – a stretch of time within which it is still possible to make a difference to the outcomes of action.

Reflection is maintained while is action is taking place through what he called ‘double vision’ – a capacity both to concentrate on what is being done and at the same time observe it, as if it were from a distance.

Next edition: Modelling individual KM competencies.

  1.  Spencer, L. M., & Spencer, S. M. (1993). Competence at work: Models for superior performance. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  2.  Connell, M. W., Sheridan, K., & Gardner, H. (2003). On abilities and domains. In R. J. Sternberg & E. L. Grigorenko (Eds.), The psychology of abilities, competencies, and expertise (pp. 126-155). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  3.  Grigorenko, E. L. (2003). Expertise and mental disabilities: Bridging the unbridgeable? In J. Sternberg & E. L. Grigorenko (Eds.), The psychology of abilities, competencies, and expertise (pp. 156-185). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Spencer & Spencer (1993)
  5.  Cheetham, G., & Chivers, G. (2005). Professions, competence and informal learning. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
  6.  Eraut, M. (1994). Developing professional knowledge and competence. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
  7.  Raven, J. (2001). Issues raised by the studies of competence. In J. Raven & J. Stephenson (Eds.), Competence in the learning society (pp. 163-177). New York: Peter Lang.
  8.  Schön, D. (2001). The crisis of professional knowledge and the pursuit of an epistemology of practice. In J. Raven & J. Stephenson (Eds.), Competence in the learning society (pp. 183-207). New York: Peter Lang. Reprinted from Barnes, L., Christensen, C. R., & Hansen, A. J. (1984), Teaching and the case method: Instruction guide. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
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Andre Saito

Dr Andre Saito is president of the Sociedade Brasileira de Gestão em Conhecimento (Brazilian Society for Knowledge Management) as well as a researcher at the Wenovate Open Innovation Center.

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