Competency: What does it mean?
Competence: What does it mean?
•Different stakeholders/beneficiaries hold different
perceptions of competency.
•These perceptions are based on
stakeholder-specific needs and wants.
•It is a problem to define one standard for
competency, and an even bigger
problem to actually “measure” it .
The fact is, competence is inferred, not directly measuredable. This one of the primary difficulties in a Competency Based Training system – where (many) trainers and Training Package designers do not understand competence in its purest form.
Competence may be inferred if a learner can achieve an Unit of Competency to the requisite requirements (specified by industry) but competency is still only inferred.
Competency is a traditionally divisive concept and one that lacks a standardised definition.
Distinguishing competence from competency
The concept of competence is not new. It first arose
during the 1960s and has had many definitions and
re-conceptualisations since then. Historically, the
‘competence’ debate has been loud and this has been
the case in educational institutions, workforce sectors
and professional registration authorities.3,4,5
It is important to appreciate the difference between the terms
competence and competency. Competence is a generic term
referring to a person’s overall ability while competency refers
to specific capabilities, such as communication, and is made up of
knowledge, skills and attitudes. So, there can be discussion
about both how competent an individual is overall and his/her
level of competency in one specific area. Overall competence
depends on the level of every specific competency. Both
measures are important when assessing someone’s work
attributes as a whole.6
In contemporary debate, the holistic nature of the concept
of competence considers what people actually do in various
settings. Worth-Butler et al (1994) come close to capturing
the complexity underlying the concept saying:
It involves not only observable behaviour which can be
measured, but also unobservable attributes including
attitudes, values, judgemental ability and personal
dispositions: that is – not only performance but capability.7
Competence: a globally used concept
Internationally, healthcare providers, for example, are more and more
moving towards adopting competence and competency
standards, rather than moving against them. Standards
are primarily used as a way of communicating within the
workforce. For example, the World Health Organisation (WHO)
determined five basic competency principles for delivering
effective healthcare for patients with chronic conditions.8
As a concept, competence has evolved to a point where it is
now a globally used term, though there are other suggested
reform processes (both nationally and internationally) such
as individual and workforce capability. However, it can be
viewed that such reforms should relate back to individual
and workforce competence. For example, documenting and
understanding capabilities11 may assist in developing units
of competency but the two are not interchangeable.
A contemporary view of competency
The understanding of competency has come a long way since
the task-based concepts developed over 45 years ago. Such
approaches assumed that the whole was not greater than
the sum of its parts and ignored factors such as setting and
personal attributes. Now, competency is discussed in terms
of a combination of attributes, such as knowledge,
skills and attitudes.
In a workplace, competency takes into account the
complex interaction of attributes that underpin occupational
performance. It links general attributes to the context in
which they will be used and therefore avoids the problem
of long task lists by selecting key tasks or elements that
are central to the practice of a given occupation. Such
an integrated approach allows for a range of appropriate
situational responses and the potential to develop them to
meet changing needs in healthcare providers. This therefore
encompasses all aspects of work performance, not only
narrow task-related skills.
Workforce competencies and traditional education
The focus on developing workplace competencies has
sometimes been viewed as contradictory to the type of
learning that might be expected in traditional university
education models. In practice though, most health workforce
professionals and VET-trained personnel have competency
standards on which educational programs are developed and
accredited. Competency standards also form
the basis on which university and VET graduates are formally
registered in many health workforce roles.
In most circumstances a perceived separation exists
between higher education and VET education programs. In
practice, VET and higher education course development have
considerable similarities. Higher education uses professionbased
competency standards for curriculum development and
VET courses are based on sets of individual workforce sector
determined competency standards called training packages.
The training packages are designed to direct competencybased
training and assessment. Training packages are usually
developed by specific workforce sector skills councils with
the involvement of employers and government and employee
organisations.12 VET training packages include employability
skills that reflect higher education graduate attributes such
as communication, teamwork, problem solving, and self management.
Employability skills and graduate attributes
underlie all programs of study in their respective education
The similarity between graduate attributes and
employability skills cannot be overlooked.
The responsibilities of health assistants, technicians, nurses
or doctors require contextual judgements about the relevance
of their knowledge, skills and attitudes to the activity they are
about to perform. Therefore education and training, whether
VET or higher education, should be part of the solution
to addressing issues in the healthcare workforce, not a
continuing contributor to tension.13
As described above, aspects of the concept of
competence are intangible and cannot always be observed
directly. The idea of competence attempts to capture many
personal characteristics and attributes that enable acceptable
overall performance in an occupation. Some of the personal
attributes that underlie competence may be readily
recognisable; for example, a particular knowledge base, or
certain skills or attitudes. Others may be ill-defined, poorly
understood or even unrecognised.14
Attributes and performance are not the same as competence
but they do provide the means by which competence can be
measured. In developing ‘competency standards’, professions
aim to identify the aspects of workplace performance that
provide the best means to infer professional competence.
An integrated approach to developing competency standards
needs to include a comprehensive consideration of the
important attributes that bring about competent performance
in the workplace, as well as performance itself.15
An ability to perform a series of routine tasks in isolation
does not translate to adequate professional competence,
regardless of how well the tasks are performed or how
important they are to the work of the profession.
Although competent performance in certain routine professional
activities will be essential to delivering an appropriate level of
performance to the community, the ability to judge whether
such tasks should or should not be undertaken is an equally
important part of professional competence that should be
recognised in competency standards.
Competence as a binary scale
Under this model an individual is deemed either competent
or not. A common view of competence, this concept implies
that competency standards would relate only to workplace
tasks that have no degrees of performance – the notion that
you can either do it or you can’t. Under this model, graduates
would be expected to meet prescribed minimum entry-level
competency standards. One argument against this approach
is that such professional competency standards are not
meant to discourage excellence and graduates are expected
to surpass – not just meet – such performance standards.
Competence as sequential stages
This concept can be described using two examples as
detailed in Benner’s nursing application of the
Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition; and
Miller’sPyramid, which models the crucial components of clinical
competence. The base represents basic facts, followed by
applied knowledge in the upper layers.17, 18
Competence as a continuum
This is where only a ‘level’ of competence is assigned; that
is, no individual is assumed to be competent per se, only
competent at a particular level. This concept has the ability
to provide the understanding needed to distinguish between
small differences in competence.19 It may be thought of as a
continuum of lifelong learning through continuing professional
The non-binary models of competence allow the charting of a learner’s progress through various stages of acquiring knowledge, skills and attitudes. There is recognised progression from initial ‘mechanical’ and procedural stages to higher levels of proficiency in which theory and practice combine, in much the same way that people experience learning to ride a bicycle or drive a car.
* How do you define competency?
* What are the essential elements of a broad definition of
* How, if at all, is the notion of ‘competency’ used within
your organisation/sector? How, if at all, might this
understanding be broadened for use across/within other
sectors (eg. VET, higher education, health care)?