December 2018

Trends & Resources

Business Trends: The case for teaching competence—Part 1

Readers who have had the misfortune of being drawn into debates over the precise definitions of words or terms might agree that much time can be lost in unproductive squabbling.

Brister, D., Shea Capability & Compliance Solutions; Bloch, Heinz P., Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

Readers who have had the misfortune of being drawn into debates over the precise definitions of words or terms might agree that much time can be lost in unproductive squabbling. The authors are not alone in their belief that an entity will prosper only if its employees add value. Value adders will do so if they are capable, comply with prescribed action steps, respond to training, and are dependable and consistent.

Suffice it to say that these needs are captured in the single word, “competence,” and that we want to explore and stipulate how best-of-class companies consistently achieve profitability and stability by imparting competence to their employees. How they do so in a structured manner is the subject of this article.

Competence is an all-encompassing term

Since competence consists of skills, attitudes and behaviors—among many other important traits—we were happy to find Jim Wetherbee’s full-circle representation (Fig. 11,2) in his text on the subject. Jim Wetherbee, the only NASA astronaut to command five space shuttle missions, informs us that behavior in the workforce can be represented by the four quadrants of a circle:

  • Upper left: Leadership expectations
  • Lower left: Leadership behaviors
  • Upper right: Operational systems
  • Lower right: Operational practices.
FIG. 1. Jim Wetherbee’s representation of the factors influencing workforce behavior.
FIG. 1. Jim Wetherbee’s representation of the factors influencing workforce behavior.

The quadrants can also be viewed as upper left and upper right representing organizational policy, whereas lower left and lower right represent organizational practices. Again, different workforce members may subject the system to widely differing practices. What individuals do or how they act is a personal behavioral choice. Their choices and actions may or may not harmonize with company policy and the actions expected by the company.

Organizational policy shapes leadership expectations, both from the top down and from the bottom up. Verbalized expectations are called organizational policies. As mentioned earlier, organizational policies form the upper half of the circle in Fig. 1. The policies have a social side and a technical side. Together with organizational practices that are greatly influenced by leadership’s behavior, they make up the left side of the circle, forming the social half of operating behavior.

Leadership behavior is closely observed by the workforce. Hypocrisy in leadership cannot be hidden for very long. A single act of hypocrisy will instantly destroy a thousand acts of team-building and displays of equitable or professional conduct. Hypocrisy often causes irreparable harm to organizations.

Four desirable management actions

Although we influence our workforce in many ways, four essential actions deserve to be emphasized. Management must:

  • Demonstrate interest in, listen to and coach its people
  • Give skillful feedback and recognition for good practices, personal contributions and commitment
  • Build shared expectations and hold individual members of management accountable
  • Keep its promises.

Management and the workforce can ascertain whether an organization is healthy with a simple test. Jim Wetherbee again helps us by observing that an organization working in a hazardous environment must verify its frontline leadership, and their teams can demonstrate competency in five key areas that are indicators of full organizational health. Frontline leaders and those who report to them need to be:

  1. Informed. Leaders listen to their workforce and know what is going on. Communications in an informed setting are two-way, and people report freely on errors and near-misses. All parties and job functions are confident that this information sharing will not lead to recrimination but will, instead, be used to improve safety.
  2. Mindful. There is a “smart awareness” about potential failures. People think about what might go wrong and what should be done to prevent it.
  3. Learning. People examine and learn from internal and external incidents; these learnings are then acted upon. Assumptions are challenged; procedures are constantly validated.
  4. Fair. People accept and agree on accountability and consequences. Everyone is treated equally and consistently. Failures are opportunities to improve. Blame is reserved for truly culpable behavior.
  5. Respectful. People are involved and encouraged to participate. Their ideas are sought out and considered. People are willing to listen and defer to those who have knowledge and expertise.

As we think more deeply about the meaning of Fig. 1, we begin to realize the significance of what it conveys in shorthand sentences. Jim Wetherbee informs us that an organization’s risk management structure is the “framework of policies, rules and standards of practice, and is intended to give employees direction.” These are company-wide standards, basic operating principles, and local rules, work practices and procedures. Leaders are responsible for ensuring that this structure of guidance is correct, published, accessible and understood. Leaders must know that people are not accountable unless they have accepted their responsibilities after fully understanding what they are.

FIG. 2. Key principles of the competency model.
FIG. 2. Key principles of the competency model.

We also realize that leaders specify practices. Here, “specify” means that leaders clearly set expectations to follow the guidance, including what practices are to be used. Practices are prescribed ways of working, including methods for making decisions or performing tasks. Employees are expected to conform to standards and principles and comply with policies and rules. Before employees implement what seems to be a feasible shortcut or “workaround,” they must obtain buy-in from leaders.

Employees must understand and accept accountability by committing to perform. If the needed accountability is not accepted, then the leader should not expect performance. When organizations fail, this is often the omitted step; leaders may provide policies and rules, but then will fail to set expectations to follow certain practices. Some managers compound the problem by not testing for understanding or not asking for commitment; leaders must verify that the expected practices are being followed and that agreed-upon actions are being performed.

The key principles of the competency model are depicted in Fig. 2. When skill, knowledge and experience interact, we are well on the journey towards competency. As we move forward, performance criteria must be established to describe “skill,” a scope or range must define “experience,” and learning and understanding are necessary to gain “knowledge.” Successfully combining these attributes will mold a person’s character and behavior. It should be clear that adherence to principles is more important than responding to training. An individual may not have been trained to look for a specific law preventing us from throwing our trash over the neighbor’s fence. Adherence to the principles of common decency will be enough. That, then, explains the character and behavior parts of the competency model.

Why competence is needed in American industries

A significant contribution to our understanding of competence is made by the UK’s Office of Rail Regulation (ORR),3 which serves as an independent safety and economic regulator. The experts at the ORR best define competence as “the ability to undertake responsibilities and perform activities to a recognized standard on a regular basis.” The ORR goes on to state, “Competence is a true composite, a combination of practical action, thinking skills, knowledge, understanding and experience. Competence may include a willingness to undertake work activities in accordance with agreed standards, rules and procedures.”

Again paraphrasing the ORR, “competence depends on the context and the environment in which the activity is performed, and on the working culture of the organization. In the typical work environment, the standard of competence is the standard of work expected to satisfy several requirements, including business objectives and health and safety requirements. The context, the environment and the culture are particularly relevant during a person’s development program before their first competence assessment, and when seeking to address any subsequent substandard performance. Developing competence will not in itself guarantee safety, but it will improve the predictability of good performance.” This last statement from the ORR group shows that confirming the competence of a workforce will not completely prevent incidents from ever again happening, but investing in a workforce to ensure its competent performance goes a long way toward building a safer and more reliable workplace.

Noel Burch, who worked with the Gordon Training Institute in the 1970s, developed a model he called the four stages of learning.4 It later became known as the four stages of competence:

  • Unconscious incompetence: You are unaware that you lack a skill
  • Conscious incompetence: You are aware that you lack a skill
  • Conscious competence: You are actively working at a skill, but it still requires thought
  • Unconscious competence: You are so skilled that you no longer have to think about it.

Burch points out the common misconceptions that training, knowledge, experience or behavior alone equate to competence; they decidedly do not. Likewise, competency cannot be assessed by a written test, although its close cousin, proficiency, can perhaps be assessed. Good competence management is demonstrated when seven points can be affirmed without equivocation:

  • Senior leadership recognizes that training alone is not the complete answer, and it invests in establishing competence management frameworks across its organizations.
  • Clearly defined job descriptions, role statements and competency profiles are in place for each job function.
  • Competency standards exist for job roles that define the knowledge and performance required in the job role or job function.
  • A fair assessment process to the competency standard is used by trained and qualified assessors. These assessments measure knowledge and performance of the individual as defined in those standards. Personal opinions are not part of the assessment.
  • Assessors understand the legal impacts of conducting, recording and documenting an assessment summary.
  • Knowing how to provide feedback of the assessment outcome is required to increase accountability and trust.
  • Career development, progression and pay are tied to proven competency. Workplace assessments are never a one-off, but rather, they follow the individual throughout their career.

The extent to which good competence management has been achieved is examined by formal assessment, as will be highlighted in Part 2. HP

Literature cited

  1. Wetherbee, J., “Controlling risk in a dangerous world,” Morgan James Publishers, New York, New York, 2017.
  2. Wetherbee, J., Sociotechnical model created by J. Wetherbee, used with permission.
  3. “Developing and maintaining staff competence,” UK Office of Rail Regulation, UK Health and Safety Executive, 2002.
  4. Burch, N., “Four stages of learning model,” Gordon Training Institute.

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