Dr. Jo Boon & Dr. Marcel van der Klink

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Scanning the concept of competencies: How major vagueness can be highly functional

Dr. Jo Boon & Dr. Marcel van der Klink


Open Universiteit Nederland

Onderwijstechnologisch Expertisecentrum



1. Introduction

Although the concept of competency is frequently used in education and in enterprises, it is remarkable that the definition of the term stays rather vague in both domains. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that this vagueness seems not to hinder the communication on the topic. On the contrary the concept facilitates communication and can be perceived as a successful concept.

However, in the domain of competencies, neither the concept is new, neither its success.

The main roots of the concept go back to the seventies. Mostly in the United States, in many educational settings experiments where carried out making use of competency based education (Eraut, 1994). Examples are the domains of teacher training, lawyers and medical staff training.

The experiments in the domain of teacher training gained a lot of attention. Experiments, however, in the other professional domains did not get much attention in literature. (Grant, 1979).

The most important characteristics of the competency approach in teacher training at that time was the idea that it was possible and useful to copy as precisely as possible the behaviour of excellent professionals. It goes without saying that this idea implies a strong behaviourist background of it.

Accordingly in the same period in labour organisations the same interest can be found in the use of the idea of competency. Recruitment and selection procedures were modelled along the same idea about the identification and reproduction of behaviour of excellent managers. For example McClelland (1973) developed list of competencies and assumed that the assessment of competencies of potential managers is a better predictor of their future behaviour and functioning than psychological tests measuring intelligence.

In the eighties the competency approach looses its importance in both education and labour organisations. In education the approach is merely criticised for focussing too much on isolated abilities, instead of on the whole functioning of people. In practice the assessment of competencies turned out to be a major problem (Eraut, 1994). By this time also in labour organisations the approach is much criticised for delivering too vague insights into competencies, for not giving enough attention to situation specificity of competence.

In the Netherlands competencies did not get the same attention as in the USA until some years ago. It became popular in the Netherlands trough the work on core competencies of Prahalad & Hamel in the early nineties. At the moment competence is one of the most discussed issues in the field of HRD and in professional and higher education.

In this paper the focus is on the explanation of the popularity of the concept of competence. Analysis of literature, combined with interviews with experts was undertaken to shed some light on the backgrounds and applications of this concept.

This paper is based on research that started at the OUNL into the function and meaning of competencies.The research presented here is part of a larger research program into this phenomenon. The next phase of this research will focus on two distinct sectors in the labour market and the respective counterparts into the educational system aiming to prepare for these labour market sectors. This phase will focus on functions in the sector of Information and Communication Technology on the one hand and on functions in the sector of higher professional education on the other side. The choices relate to the (different) pace of change in functions of both sectors.
First this paper focuses on the methods used in the research Then the findings of the literature and the results of the interviews with experts are presented. These results are grouped into three topics. First we describe the roots of the concept and we analyse how this fits in actual thinking about the relation between education and the labour market. Then attention is paid to the usefulness of the concept in applications in education and in enterprises. Thereafter we focuson the question whether the concept is a passing hype and what might be the next steps from here.

2. Research questions and methods

As highlighted above the research presented here is the first part of a larger study into the use of the concept of competence. The main questions we focus on in this first part of this study are:

  • what is the background of the interest in the concept of competencies in labour organisations and education

  • what are the definitions in use?

  • how is this concept used in education and in labour market organisations?

  • is the attention for this concept temporary?

Two methods were used to answer the research questions:

Analysis of literature

For the analysis of literature the results of a former study were used into competencies for the development of curricula in higher education and changes in educational requirements and developments (Van der Klink, Boon & Bos, 2000). This analysis was extended into developments in the labour market and in labour organisations. Due to the fact that there is an overwhelming amount of literature on this topic, the literature analysis focussed on the literature that was published after 1995 and on books and articles that can be perceived as cornerstones in the discussion on competencies.
Interviews with experts

Additionally, ten experts were interviewed. All these experts play a role in the public debate on this topic. For example by writing articles for professional journals and/or presenting lectures on this topic. The selected experts work in the educational sector, in the consultancy sector and in research. All interviews were structured in the same way. That means the same questions where used on background, definition and use of competencies. According to the expertise of the

respondent some topics where discussed more thoroughly.

3The findings

In this section the findings of the research are presented. As much as possible the findings of the literature analysis and the results of the interviews with experts are combined.

The roots of the concept of competencies
We have asked our respondents to analyse the backgrounds of the concept of competencies in education and in labour organisations.

Most often respondents explain the growing importance of competencies from uncertainty: the fact that contents and positioning of tasks in labour organisations change fast and consecutively problems arise to define clearly the attributes in terms of knowledge, attitudes and motivation needed to fulfil these task. The developments in the sector of information technology are seen as a booster for the need of efficient and quick adjustments in this context.

Respondents agree on the importance of the measurement and the prediction of performance of employees. They disagree on who advocates the importance of competencies. Some respondents emphasise the idea of self-regulation of individuals in the development of competencies that are important for jobs and careers, others accentuate the requirements of the organisations and the fact that they define what can be seen as assets and as valuable competencies.

Employability in terms of present and future effectiveness, for reinforcement and for adjustment of professionally is a major factor here.

A respondent compares the concept of competencies with the concept of the learning organisation. He concludes that the advantage of the competency concept is it is more concrete and therefore better fit to into the (re)design of various organisational processes.
As mentioned in the introduction of this paper a remarkable confusion exists on the subject of the definition of what competencies are. In the literature several approaches are described.

First differences can be seen between countries, along the lines of different national educational policies and – often historically originated- different types of relations between education and the labour market. Another source conceptual disagreement on the definition of competencies originates from pedagogical theory on how people learn. Behaviourist, cognitivistic and constuctivistic theory tends to differ strongly on this topic.

Looking more precisely on the first source of differences, the American and the European view, differ quite substantially. Fletcher (1992) concentrates on the difference between American and British approach (see table 1)
Table 1: definitions of competencies (Fletcher, 1992 in: Thompson & Carter, 1995)

British approach

American approach


Assessing and certification of employees

Development of competencies


Formulate standards of sectorial accepted performance standards of functions and professions

Description of excellent behaviour to define competencies


Competencies are specific for functions and professions

Competencies are specific for organisations

In the British approach competencies are seen as standards for functions and professions, whereas in the US the behaviour of excellent performers is the source for the development of lists with relevant competencies. Clearly in both cases competencies are seen as individual characteristics.

Another European concept originates from Germany, where competencies are seen as the capability of people to perform in a function or a profession according to the qualification, or certification, they have. Qualification is the set of officially certified knowledge, skills and attitudes. (Onstenk, 1997, Oliviera-Reis, 1994).

From a pedagogical point of view two different approaches can be seen (Simons, 1999); on the one hand a cognitive and on the other hand a constructivistic view on learning. The main differences between the two approaches concern the description of competencies, the ideas on interaction and the measurement of competencies. Contrary to the cognitivistic approach social-constuctivists value highly subjectivity and motivational aspects.

It is not remarkable that also the respondents gave different definitions of the concept of competencies. A first group of respondents define competencies as characteristics of individuals. They differ however on the question whether these characteristics can be learned or are innate. Several of them accentuate the trainability, the importance of learning in training activities in the development of competencies.

Others on the contrary argument that competency and competencies is given. Emotion, attitudes etc.originate from innate abilities that cannot be learned, and can only be developed.

A related, view is that competencies do not refer to capacities, but to the willingness and the ability to use the capacities in specific situations.

Second opinion sees competencies as organisational characteristics, human capabilities being one of the resources of labour organisations.

Third competencies are described as a principle to structure the communication between education and the labour market.

The differences described obviously are related to the scope of characteristics that are seen as competencies. Some respondents plead for the need to enlarge the concept to a category of ‘ civilian competencies’, as the ability of citizens to participate in society.
The concept of competencies and higher education
The growing sympathy for the competency approach in education (Schlusmans e.a. (1999), is due to two kinds of developments.

In the first place developments on the labour market such as emphasis on flexibility, employability, obsoleteness of knowledge and skills, the eminence of knowledge as a production factor have repercussions on the qualitative demand for labour. These changes in the demand for labour on their turn influence the perceptions about how young professionals are educated and trained in education.

Educational policy is trying to keeping track with these developments by requesting schools to give attention to developments in professions while designing curricula. Although is an important domain, we don’t go here thorough into the analysis of the changing relation between education and the labour market. The educational sector is the longer the more expected to be a partner in the creation of knowledge and in the deliverance of professionals able to work in innovative environments (Boon, Van der Klink & Bos, 2000).

The second development that can explain the success of the competency concept in education is the necessity for higher education to search for a way to make a step ahead from traditional pedagogical concepts and looking for powerful learning context, enabling students to learn cognitive and skills in realistic environments. Resnick (1987), Brown, Collins & Duguid (1989), Lave & Wenger (1991) (Simons, 1990; Lodewijks, 1995). (Van der Klink, 1997).

All respondents mention the fact that education is following developments on the labour market. The lead of the views expressed in this context is on the side of labour organisations. The adoption of the concept of competencies has to be seen in this perspective: because labour organisations start to use the term, it became popular in education too.

In this sense, and several of the respondents emphasise this point, the concept functions as a communication tool between the two sectors. Traditional tools, such as professional profiles having lost their function because they are static and outdated

Another respondent specifies this argumentation. The complaint of employers that newcomers on the labour market lack communication skills is hiding another problem, being the fact that students are not prepared to anticipate adequately on changes. The capacity to solve problems is too restricted to function adequately.

The concept of competencies and labour organisations

The origin of the concept of competencies in labour organisations is often attributed to Prahalad and Hamal (1990), who analyse the position of enterprises on the labour market from the idea of core competencies. These are unique clusters of factors allowing a firm to take a strong competitive position. Human capital is one of the factors.

Since the middle of the seventies, several tendencies can be seen influencing the labour market and the way functions are fulfilled. Most important are the growing competition, change and sophistication of the demand, more client oriented, the range and the speed of the upcoming of information technology. The consequences of these trends can be seen in the rationalisation of labour processes but also in changing management- and control mechanisms.

Although the development and growing importance of information and communication technology is not the only factor in the changing of labour supply is can be seen as an important factor in the changing demands concerning performance in labour organisations. One of the main changes in this demand is the need for flexibility.

Flexibility has to be defined on two levels. First is the level of time; contracts are made for short periods of time, either as temporary or as part-time contracts. The second level of flexibility is the mobility of employees between firms and functions. The idea of horizontal career paths and of employability through time is gaining considerable attention. It is obvious that the labour market is not homogeneous on this point. Although these trends cannot be described in terms of statistical significant developments yet (SCP, 1998)(Galilee, 1998) it is without any doubt an important development among the generations entering the labour market recently.

It is clear that the ability to cope with these levels of flexibility requires specific competencies.

The need for flexibility is not the only source of new requirements on competencies. Also new models of management emerge, focussing on individual performance. The former tayloristic management models based on detailed sets of agreements and regulations, mostly describing required input to fulfil a job, are replaced by contracts focussing on output and performance.

As mentioned, a large diversity can be established regarding the pace of change in organisations. Most descriptions of competency based management can be found in the sector of knowledge intensive, often technology related firms and functions. In these firms a strong focus exists on knowledge, responsibility and commitment. Because of the fast growing specialisation and knowledge, the management paradoxically has to rely strongly on their employees. In modern organisations a large scope of knowledge and abilities of workers can be seen. This hampers the management to describe precisely the different tasks that have to be performed. This evidently leads to a focus on output and performance. Definition of the different tasks of the job is the longer the more part of the job itself. This growing emphasis on organisational commitment resulting from growing complexity can be seen as the background for the competency approach in organisations. The essence of competency is the fact that employers have to be assessed on performance and output. To realise this output without being controlled on the process, employers have to ensure the availability of a broad scale of productive characteristics. It is obvious that these requirements have a strong influence on the relation between education and the labour marker. Credentials are not longer functioning as most important screening devices for professional adequate performance. Selection and allocation procedures are used as complementary information aimed at optimal intake and selection decisions.

Increasingly traditional training seems to have shortcomings in the creation of employee’s motivation and attitudes, focussing too much on problem solving on the short term. (Keursten 1999). Competency management can be seen as a more optimal solution in this case.
Respondents agree on the importance of competency management and on the importance to train competencies to be used in different situations.

At the same time they are rather sceptical about the use of competency management in organisations. They agree on the fact that although competency management is an actual topic in HRM divisions of many organisations, the implementation on the other hand is rather limited in quantitative and in qualitative terms. Respondents gave different explanations in this respect. First high costs of the development of a common understanding of the usefulness of a policy based on competencies are seen as the most important obstacle. At the same time choosing the right moment to implement competency management is a major impediment. When the enterprise is in good shape, the need for the development of competency management is not felt and investments on direct usability is most important. At the moment problems arise in organisations, the investment in competency management is often too expensive in terms of time and money.

Mostly consultancy firms are hired to investigate the competency structure of function and to propose eventually more optimal alternatives. Very often firms are, however, confronted with fixed and rather global lists of competencies, not allowing a firm-specific description of the competency-structure. At the same time only incidentally an evaluation of the predictive quality of the competencies used by hiring processes takes place. Although different kinds of competency management can be distinguished, mostly the same methodology is adapted: interviews, panel discussion and the organisation of feedback are the core instruments.

In fact a paradoxical situation can be seen here. Although competency management is used to enhance the optimal functioning of employees, in practice it seems to be very hard to find the right level of accurateness in the description of competencies; either lists with very broadly defined competencies are used or very detailed descriptions.

Competencies as hype
Respondents stated that if competencies will prove to be hype, the hype will strengthen in the years to come. For the actual attention for the concept is yet very new. Most respondents see a permanent focus on output and performance. At the same time the developments that are described, as the source of the interest – flexibility, uncertainty- will become stronger in the future.

These expectations make it very unlikely that the ideas surrounding the competency-concept will prove to be a passing hype.

It is remarkable however that respondents expect a shift from the focus on individuals to a focus on groups or larger entities. Examples are the emergence of communities of practice. These are multidisciplinary or multiprofessional teams working together.

Another example is knowledge management as a likely future trend. This would mean a stronger accent on process and product related knowledge, away from disciplinary knowledge. The focus here is more on the organisational level then on the individual level.

It is for sure that the same uncertainty that is needed for the flourishing of the competency concept guides the future of the idea.

4. Summary and conclusions
Most often respondents explain the growing importance of competencies from uncertainty: the fact that contents and positioning of tasks in labour organisations change fast and consecutively problems arise to define clearly the attributes in terms of knowledge, attitudes and motivation needed to fulfil these task.

The actual importance of the competency concept is due to developments on the labour market bringing along a certain degree of uncertainty concerning the precise definition of professional requirements. At the same time the success of the concept is due to that fact that representatives in the educational sector are looking for didactical models ensuring a good preparation of students for the requirements on the labour market. The concept of competencies is functioning for them as a vague but useful term, bridging gap between education and professional requirements.

Paradoxically from the interviews we can conclude that in practice labour organisations meet large problems implementing competency management. Qualitatively and qualitatively poor dissemination of competency bases policies is mentioned. Partly this is due to the lack of good shaped and good focussed instruments, partly costs are responsible for this situation.In educational settings the same problems can be mentioned.

In our research we encounter three different ways to define competencies:

- Competence as individual characteristic;

- Competence as characteristic of organisations;

  • Competence as a tool to structure communication in organisations and between

education and organisations on the labour market.

We would like to subscribe to the viewpoint of competencies as individual clusters of abilities that ensure performance capacity. The strength of the competency concept seems to be that it is an ill-defined term, serving as a link between education and labour organisations, between internal and external organisational experts, between HRM-divisions and management.

The attractiveness is that it offers the right balance between the certainty that knowledge, motivation and attitudes matter, and the uncertainty about the mixture of these elements, about the flexibility etc.

The concept recognises the importance of the ‘ ecological validity’ of individual characteristics, in the sense that they only become significant when they are used in the concrete professional context.

Another element of the attractiveness of the concept is that if focuses on output and at the same time offer hints on the way to organise the process to reach this output.


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