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There has been a tendency for people to think about competence in a narrow way that undermines any possible benefits to be gained from adopting competency standards. This paper will attempt to clarify exactly what competence is. It will be found that the logic of the concept of competence is itself such as to support a broader view about competency standards rather than the narrow one that is so often taken for granted. Second, the benefits of recognizing and employing a broader, richer conception of competence will be outlined and discussed.
Medical Teacher,
University of Technology, Sydney, Australia
There has been a tendency for people to think
about competence in a narrow way that undermines any
possible benefits to be gained fiom adopting competency
standards. This paper will attempt to clarib exactly what
competence is. It will be found that the logic
the concept
competence is itself such as to
a broader view about
competency standards rather than the narrow one that
often taken for granted. Second, the benefits of recognizing
and employing a broader, richer conception
will be outlined and discussed.
Since there are several very different ways of thinking
about competence, how competence is conceived will
big difference to the ways competency standards
are used and assessed. Because competency-based assess-
ment centres on performance, and since a common view is
that performance is constituted by a series of tasks, compe-
tency standards are often thought of as simply a series of
discrete task descriptions. Even where work is relatively
routine, this ‘checklist’ approach is dubious since the
broader aspects of competent performance, such as plan-
ning or reacting to contingencies, are left out of the pic-
ture. Thus, the task view of competence omits higher level
competences from the standards. Hence they are also
omitted from any training programs and assessment strate-
gies that are based on these narrow competence standards.
One response is to view competence instead as pos-
session of a series of desirable attributes including knowl-
edge of appropriate
skills and abilities such as prob-
lem solving, analysis, communication, pattern recognition,
etc. and attitudes of appropriate kinds. On
approach, training and assessment will be seen in terms of
strategies to train and assess candidates in each of these
separate attributes. While this second approach looks more
promising as
way of capturing the less predictable variety
of non-routine work roles, it also has been widely criticized
on the grounds that assessing attributes in isolation from
actual work practice bears little relation to future occu-
pational performance. In fact, attributes such as problem
solving, analysis, pattern recognition, etc. are highly con-
text dependent,
that attempts to teach and assess them
out of context are largely misconceived.
training and/or
assessing candidates
generic problem solving or com-
munication skills sets up a further problem of how, if at all,
candidates will learn to transfer this learning to actual work
Considerations such as these have led to a different
approach, involving an integrated conception of com-
petence, being employed by the Australian professions in
establishing their competency standards. According to the
integrated conception, competence is conceptualized in
terms of knowledge, abilities, skills and attitudes displayed
in the context of a carefully chosen set of realistic pro-
fessional tasks which are of an appropriate level of gener-
ality (Gonczi
1990; Hager, 1994; see also Biggs,
1994). A notable feature of this integrated approach is that
it avoids the problem of a myriad of tasks by selecting key
tasks or elements that are central to the practice of the
profession. The main attributes that are required for the
competent performance of these key tasks or elements are
then identified. Attributes include cognitive skills (knowl-
edge, critical thinking, problem-solving strategies), inter-
personal skills, affective attributes and technicaYpsycho-
motor skills. Experience has shown that when both
attributes and major tasks are integrated to produce com-
petency standards, the results appear to capture the holistic
richness of professional practice in a way that neither of the
other two approaches could. The integrated approach to
competence also overcomes the various difficulties posed
by Ashworth
Saxton (1990) in their useful catalogue of
the limitations of narrow competency standards (for dis-
cussion of this see Hager
Gonczi, 1991). This integrated
approach to conceptualizing competence produces compe-
tency standards for occupations that go well beyond mere
task skills. In short, the holistic and integrated view of
competence situates attributes in the kinds of contexts in
which they are employed in the practice of an occupation.
This in turn helps to specify the kinds of training and
assessment situations that are suited to effective learning
and assessment.
The integrated approach
competence and its
The integrated approach to competence is supported by
the logic of the concept of competence. According to the
Concise Oxford Dictiona y,
competence (or competency)
denotes the “ability to do” something or the “ability for a
task”. The
Macquarie Concise Dictionary
defines com-
petence as “the quality of being competent”, where com-
petent means “properly qualified” or “capable”.
both of these dictionary definitions the
prime focus is on competent people having the ability or
Hager and A. Gonczi,
Adult Education, University
Technology, Sydney,
Box 123, Broadway,
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capability, which will enable the satisfactory completion of
some task(s). A description of the abilities or capabilities
required for competent performance of an occupation
ically invokes terms such as ‘knowledge’, ‘skills’ and ‘atti-
tudes’, i.e. relevant personal characteristics that underlie
competent performance. (For more on this see Gonczi
As the dictionary definitions make clear, the concept of
competence centres on ability or capability, which in turn
focuses attention on the attributes that comprise this ability
or capability. The implication of
is that attributes are
necessary part of
satisfactory conception of com-
petence. This means, for example, that a major feature of
plausible set of occupational competency standards
would be some specification of the abilities or capabilities
required for competent performance of the occupation.
Forgetting about attributes and concentrating on tasks is
the prime reason why
many people lapse into a narrow
view of competency standards. Since abilities or capabili-
ties are central to the concept of competence, occupational
competency standards that omit attributes are akin
a zoo
without animals.
In addition, as the dictionary definitions also make
clear, ability or capability are directed at some task or
tasks, however specific or general these tasks might be.
(Competence, and hence ability or capability, is not totally
general. It has its appropriate object(s).)
while at-
tributes are logically necessary for competence, they are
not by themselves sufficient. As we have seen, the concept
competence includes the notion of the abilities or capa-
bilities being applied to the performance of tasks. How-
ever, ‘tasks’ should not be interpreted in an exclusively
narrow sense. All occupations involve performance of
some relatively specific tasks, but equally, if not more,
importantly, they involve performance of broader, more
generic tasks such as planning, contingency management,
etc. At their broadest, tasks include such things as per-
forming in accordance with an overall conception of what
one’s work is about, working ethically, etc. Just as abilities
or capabilities were necessary, but not sufficient for com-
the performance of tasks is also necessary, but
not sufficient for competence. Thus any satisfactory ac-
count of competence must include both attributes and
tasks. Likewise any plausible set of occupational compe-
tency standards should include both attributes and tasks.
This point can be summarized by saying that the con-
cept of competence is relational, i.e. it links together two
disparate sorts of things. Competence is essentially a rela-
tion between abilities or capabilities of people and the
satisfactory completion of appropriate task($. Hence the
‘integrated’ approach to competency standards, which in-
tegrates attributes with key tasks,
supported. Approaches
to competency standards that focus exclusively
tasks or attributes ignore the essential relational character
of competence.
doing they omit one of the two key
ingredients of competence, thereby leading to inevitably
impoverished competency standards. Only by taking
proper account of the essentially relational nature of the
concept of competence can the holistic richness of work be
captured in competency standards.
One further consequence of the logic of the concept is
that competence is inferred from performance, rather than
being directly observed. While performance of tasks is
directly observable, abilities or capabilities that underlie
the performance are necessarily inferred. This means that
competence will inevitably be based on
inference from a sample of performance. In requiring that
the sample meet criteria that will make the assessment
valid, assessment of competence is in the same boat as
other kinds of assessment.
integrating attributes and tasks, the richer conception
competence integrates general and vocational education
As we have seen, competence consists in attributes dis-
played in the context of a carefully chosen set of realistic
occupational tasks, which are of an appropriate level of
generality. As well as integrating attributes and tasks, the
richer conception
competence is also relational in that it
integrates the vocational and general. This is significant
because attributes such as knowledge and skills (e.g. ana-
lytical reasoning) are traditionally the concern of general
education, while occupational tasks are the (supposedly)
quite different concern of vocational educatiodtraining.
The pervasive influence
the vocationaVgenera1 di-
chotomy has been a marked feature of the competency
debate. The thinking of many people in the education
sector is dominated by the traditional dichotomy between
vocational education and ‘genuine’ education and all that
this entails, namely body vs. mind, hand vs. head, manual
vs. mental, skills vs. knowledge, applied vs. pure, knowing
how vs. knowing that, practice vs. theory, particular vs.
general, and training vs. education. The influence of these
dichotomies on our educational thinking can be traced
back to Socrates. For those who think in these terms, it is
self-evident that competency standards are essentially con-
cerned with the performance of particular and discrete
vocational tasks which, however skilled they may be, in-
minimum of thought. As such, competency stan-
dards are clearly the proper concern of training, but have
nothing to say to education. The assumed self-evidence of
this line of thinking is clear in the writings of many higher
education opponents of competency standards, e.g. in the
contrasts that they draw between the higher level generic
attributes, such as critical thinking, problem solving, etc.,
that are fostered by universities, and the ‘narrow’ outcomes
that are seen as the concern of competency standards.
the richer concepeon of competence offers a healthy cor-
rective to an outmoded way of thinking about vocational
and general education.
The richer conception
more holistic than its
One of the most overused terms in the debate about
competency standards has been ‘atomistic’. Critics assume
that if an approach to conceptualizing competence is
labelled, usually by themselves, as ‘atomistic’ then it can
be rejected without further argument. In chemistry, where
atoms are discrete and independent units, they neverthe-
less combine to form molecules which have quite different
properties from those of their constituent atoms.
atoms are a highly useful unit of analysis and are consis-
tent with subsequent powerful synthesis. In reference to
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What is competence?
competency standards, ‘atomistic’ has no such clear-cut
meaning, nor does ‘holistic’. Both are relative terms when
applied to competency standards and their application
needs to be justified by further argument. The fragmenting
of an occupation into
myriad of tasks, as the task ap-
proach to competence does, is overly atomistic precisely
because actual practice is much richer than sequences of
these isolated tasks and the overall approach fails to pro-
vide any synthesis of the tasks. Hence, we are justified in
concluding that the distinctive character of the occupation
has been destroyed by the analysis. However, the opposite
mistake is adherence to a rigid, self-defeating monistic
holism that rules out all analysis. In practice, some degree
atomism in approaches to competence will be accept-
able, provided that it is accompanied by
suitable degree
of holism. Occupational competency standards produced
by an integrated approach are holistic in some important
They are holistic in that competence is a construct that
is inferred from performance of relatively complex and
demanding tasks. The relative complexity of the tasks
can be gauged from the fact that a typical occupation
involves no more than 20-30 such key tasks.
The holistic character of such competency standards is
due also to the fact that the tasks are not discrete and
independent. For example, actual work practice, and,
hence, sound assessment,
typically involve several of
these tasks simultaneously.
A further sense in which these kinds of competency
standards are holistic is that the tasks involve ‘situational
understanding’, i.e. the competency standards include
the idea that the worker takes account of the varying
contexts in which they are operating. A more general
cognitive perspective is called on to frame a skilled
response appropriate to the particular context.
By being holistic in the above senses, integrated or
relational competency standards are the opposite of any
significantly atomistic approach, whether the atoms be
tasks or attributes. Hence
balance is struck between the
misguided extremes of fragmenting the occupation to such
a degree that its character is destroyed by the analysis or
adhering to a rigid, monistic holism that rules out all
The richer conception
competence is more helpful
teaching and assessment
When competence is conceptualized via the integrated
approach in terms of knowledge, abilities, skills and atti-
tudes displayed in the context of realistic professional
tasks, the scope for assisting educational providers is
greatly enhanced. Rather than recommending the adoption
of narrow forms of competency-based training, the inte-
grated approach, by also emphasizing requisite knowledge,
abilities, skills and attitudes, offers powerful guidance for
improvement of traditional courses in respect of content,
teaching strategies and assessment procedures.
example, testing graduates against the competency-based
standards would effectively identify strengths and weak-
nesses of the course. Hence, though we uphold the inte-
grated approach to conceptualizing occupational com-
petence, we do not recommend the adoption of narrow
forms of competency-based training.
Although integrated competency standards offer con-
siderable educational and assessment benefits, it needs to
be emphasized that they are not a curriculum document
(Hager, 1995).
for example, entry-level competency
standards specify what new graduates should be able to do,
but say nothing about how this state is to be achieved.
Hence for providers there is as much flexibility as ever to
decide what to teach, how to teach it and how to assess it.
However, assuming that there is room for improvement
most existing courses, a good set of integrated competency
standards will provide invaluable guidance on content
changes as well as new methods of delivery and assess-
ment. As always, there is more than one way to teach
Beyond entry level, integrated competency standards
offer considerable guidance for the longer term develop-
ment of the expertise in an occupation. Continuing edu-
cation courses have been criticized frequently for lack of
direction and/or rationale. The clear specification of what
an experienced competent worker needs to be able to do
will provide a much sharper focus for continuing edu-
catiodstaff development courses (see Hager
1991). Similar considerations apply to refresher courses for
people returning to the occupation after an absence or
people whose training is out of date. The value of compe-
tency standards for efficient and equitable recognition of
overseas qualifications is also important.
comes to assessment, critics worry that assess-
ment of competence involves nothing but ticking off a
checklist of observable behaviours. Given the complexity
actual work, this is seen as a futile attempt to achieve
objectivity at the cost of sacrificing validity (see, e.g. Ash-
Saxton, 1990, pp. 22-23). We accept this as a
criticism of narrow competency standards. However, when
the integrated approach to competency standards is
adopted, competence is not something that is directly
observed. Rather, competence is inferred from holistic
pointed out above, this has the effect of
placing assessment of competence in the same boat as
other kinds of assessment
academic/vocational institu-
tions in that procedures are available to maximize its
validity and reliability. (Gonczi
et al.,
1990, Section
et al.,
1993). If these procedures are followed then
assessment of competence is as ‘objective’ as any of the
alternatives. Similar points apply to claims that compe-
tency standards are too vague for assessment purposes
(see, e.g. Ashworth
Saxton, 1990, pp. 21-22).
perly planned and executed competency analysis will yield
standards as specific as the case requires.
The richer conception
competence allows
flexibility in
Some people worry that competency standards will
demand a totally inappropriate uniformity
the way that
work is performed.
is pointed out that there is more than
one correct way to perform many occupational tasks. The
problem here is that ‘standards’ are taken to imply
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‘standardization’ of procedure. In fact the standards are
typically about outcomes, and leave it open as to how the
outcomes are achieved. The professional competency stan-
dards that have been developed
far in Australia do allow
for diversity, e.g. they allow for professional discretion in
that they do not prescribe that all workers will necessarily
act in the same way in a given situation. Nor do they
require that all workers will have identical overall concep-
tions of their work. When a narrow task view of com-
petence is adopted, the implication may be that all com-
petent performance is essentially the same. However, once
the focus is on attributes that underpin performance, there
is the distinct possibility that different combinations of
attributes can lead to the same outcome.
The richer conception
competence encourages high
quality work
A criticism that is commonly put forward in relation to
entry-level competency standards holds that because they
prescribe minimum standards, they therefore discourage
excellence by reducing everything to the lowest common
denominator. A variant on this is that they promote
deskilling. These charges are no more logical than making
the same claims about traditional examinations on the
ground that there is a minimum mark for gaining a pass.
More specifically, this myth is based on a complete misun-
derstanding of the nature of the standards. For the charges
to have any substance, the standards would have to relate
to tasks that admit of no degrees of performance, i.e. you
can either do
or you cannot. However, in most kinds of
work such tasks are rare. Typically, the standards relate to
tasks that admit of many degrees of performance, as does
the task of taking a traditional examination. In both cases
the existence of a minimum satisfactory level of perform-
ance is consistent with a full range of performances from
to fail. (For a discussion of the kinds of
standards, called ‘described standards’, that are appropri-
ate for tasks that admit of many degrees of performance,
see Gonczi
In addition, as already discussed, entry-level compe-
tency standards are not a curriculum document.
the expectation is that most graduates of courses will
greatly exceed the performance levels specified by the
entry-level competency standards, just as most entrants to
the courses greatly exceed the entry requirements.
claims that competency standards discourage excel-
lence are dubious. However, the richer conception of com-
petence, by focusing as well on attributes rather than on
mere tasks to be performed, draws attention to those
capacities that need
be developed for competent per-
formance. Given that the tasks typically admit of degrees of
performance, the implication is that further acquisition of
relevant attributes (knowledge, skills, etc.) can lead to
enhanced performance. Hence, competency standards
based on the richer conception of competence are very
attuned to the notion of improving the quality of work.
is Associate Professor in the School
Education at the University
Technology, Sydney, Australia.
GONCZI is Associate Professor in the School of Adult
Education at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia.
(1990) On ‘Competence’,
Further and Higher Education,
14, pp. 3-25.
(1994) Learning outcomes: competence or expertise?,
Australian and
Zealand Journal of Vocational Education
2(1), pp. 1-18.
The Development
Competence-Based Assessment Strategies for the hfessions,
Office of Overseas Skills Recognition Research Paper No.
Employment, Education and Training (Canberra,
Australian Government Publishing Service).
Establishing Compe-
rency-Based Standards
Research Paper No. l,
National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition, DEET (Canberra,
Australian Government Publishing Service).
there a cogent philosophical argument against
competency standards?,
Australian Journal of Education,
38(1), pp.
(1995) Competency standards-a help or a hindrance?:
an Australian perspective,
Vocational Education and
47(2), pp. 141-151.
GONCZI, A. (1991) Competency-based standards: a
boon for continuing professional education?,
13(1), pp. 24-40.
(1994) General issues
about assessment of competence,
Higher Education,
19(1), pp. 3-16.
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In the era of a turbulent and less-predictable business environment, as confirmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to efficiently use human resources has become particularly important. There is a need to reduce employees' competency niche, and competency mismatches have become noticeable in the European Union. We performed qualitative interviews (n = 282) to determine the competency niche of employees from private firms in Poland. Results show that employees were passive in identifying their competence needs. Moreover, firms did not use the weak signals methodology to eliminate the competency niche. This novel study found that firms should be more active in identifying employee competency niches by analyzing early signs to be ready for any changes without delays. The findings create a basis for proposing preventive measures, and we point out avenues for future research.
In this paper we comment on the notion of competence and on the widely-recommended practice of defining learning and assessment in terms of competence statements. Two lines of comment are explored. Firstly, we consider the meaning of competence as an aspect of the description of human activity, and find that it has not yet been coherently specified. In particular, it is not clear whether a competence is a personal attribute, an act, or an outcome of action; moreover, the idea of competence, as currently used, is open to complaints that it is atomistic, individualistic, and unable to cover all types of relevant behaviour or mental activity. Secondly, we discuss the implications for education and training of the adoption of competence as a model of outcome. We note difficulties with the design of competence statements, which can be empty and uninformative. In addition, the idea of competence seems to lack reference to the personal processes entailed in a skill, over-simplifies the theory/practice relationship, and so on — all of which can lead to serious difficulties in training and education.
In Australia and elsewhere, a sometimes heated debate is taking place about the significance for higher education of the adoption of competency standards by professions and other occupations. To many in the higher education sector, it is self-evident that competency standards cannot do justice to the professional aspects of an occupation. The purpose of this paper is to suggest that this conclusion is too hasty. There are various ways of conceptualising occupational competence. The paper argues that one of them does do justice to the variety and richness of the professional aspects of job performance. This conception of competence is shown to meet the more considered objections to competency standards in the philosophical literature, as well as various less well-articulated criticisms that have appeared in recent debate in Australia. The implications of this richer conception of competence for higher education are discussed.
The mere existence of competency standards for an occupation is not, in itself, enough to tell us whether they will be a help or a hindrance for education and training providers. Instead, that will depend on what sort of competency standards they are and how they are being used by the education and training providers. This paper will describe, firstly, the types of competency standards that would be a hindrance for vocational education and training providers and those that would be a help. Secondly, assuming that competency standards of the helpful type are available, the paper will outline the ways of using them that would still be detrimental to vocational education and training, and contrast this with ways of using them so as to improve the provision of vocational education and training. As against the widely held belief that competency standards require a totally new approach to vocational education and training, this paper argues that this is true only of the type of competency standards that are a hindrance. The type of competency standards that are helpful to vocational education and training provide a powerful means of improving what has always been best practice in the design, delivery and assessment of vocational education and training courses.
In simple terms, competency‐based assessment is the assessment of a person's competence against prescribed standards of performance. Thus, if an occupation has established a set of, say, entry‐level competency standards, then these prescribe the standards of performance required of all new entrants to that occupation. Competency‐based assessment is the process determining whether a candidate meets the prescribed standards of performance, i.e. whether they demonstrate competence.It is probably a truism that there is no such thing as a process of assessment that is without its critics. Whatever efforts are made to improve an instance of assessment, someone is bound to be unhappy with the process. Competency‐based assessment is therefore at a particular disadvantage since it is both new and unfamiliar to many people. This has meant that competency‐based assessment has aroused numerous and varied worries and objections from many quarters. In the process of researching assessment methods of professions in Australia, as the prelude to writing a guide on competency‐based assessment (Gonczi et al., 1993) the authors identified a number of worries and objections. Competency‐based assessment: (a) only assesses what is trivial or superficial; (b) is inherently unreliable in that it involves inference; (c) is inherently invalid, (d) represents a departure from traditional proven methods of assessment; (e) neglects the importance of knowledge; (f) focuses on outcomes to the neglect of processes; (g) relies on professional judgement, and hence is too subjective; (h) vainly tries to assess attitudes. This paper discusses each of these worries and objections and shows that none of them is decisive. While each of them points to an important issue about competency‐based assessment, the discussion will show that in each case a well‐designed competency‐based assessment system can overcome the worry or objection.
Establishing competency‐based standards for professions promises to help solve many of the difficulties currently besetting continuing professional education. This paper explains why this is so by defining competency‐based standards, describing their uses and, hence, showing why they have attracted so much attention recently. Likely applications to continuing professional education are suggested. In addition the advantages and limitations of three different approaches to competency analysis of professions are discussed and illustrated by examples. It is argued that professional competence can be conceptualised in a way that overcomes the common objections that have been raised against competency‐based standards.
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