Featured Post

Organizational Quality and Competence (Part 3)

  I have been arguing that when documents use the phrase “Quality and Competence” they are causing confusion the poor word choice and de...

Friday, February 19, 2021

Organizational Quality and Competence (Part 3)


I have been arguing that when documents use the phrase “Quality and Competence” they are causing confusion the poor word choice and definition.  Using the word Competence to mean  “ability to apply knowledge and skills to achieve intended results”, diminishes the meaning of competence because it excludes the essential abilities of judgement and nuance.  As mentioned (see  Organizational Quality and Competence (Part 2)) Gonczi, a scholar expert on competency based standards (along with his colleague Hanger) made the point in 1996 that competence is not just about a checklist of knowledge and skills; it also encompasses  attributes such as problem solving, analysis, pattern recognition, interpersonal skills, affective attributes and working ethically.  

Using “competence” to mean meeting an achievable bar for only knowledge and skills assessment is incorrect and inappropriate and sets the bar too low.  Competence includes knowledge and skills and judgement and problem solving; it is the term that expresses the High bar.  

I understand that the ISO official definition for competence does not include judgement and the other soft skills, but their definition is out of date and needs revision.

So what is the better word that can be used to describe the person who has the knowledge and skills, but may not be sufficiently talented to also address problem solving or interpersonal skills or ethical dimension into performance?

As it turns out English has a word that describes that situation.   We can use the word “able”, or more effectively “capable.

Capable is an old (circa 1590) word derived from an even older word “ capabilis " (Latin) meaning “able to grasp or hold” .  It is linked to another term capax, which is the adjectival form of the verb capere which means to grasp, to undertake; take in, to take hold.  [see: https://www.etymonline.com/word/capable.  ]

If Competence is the High bar and being capable is the lower achievable bar, Standards bodies  have to a few choices. (a)  If the point of the exercise is to express the sense of quality and excellence, then they can continue to use the term “Quality and Competence” but change their terms and definitions so that they use the term as best described by Gonczi and acknowledge that competence requires evidence of judgement and problem solving.  (b) If it is more important to set standards that are more at the level of being achievable by most (“Good Enough” is good enough) then the standards need to be retitled, perhaps on the line of  “Quality and Capability” or perhaps take an asperational approach “Achieving Quality”, as in "if you follow this standard to are moving along the path to Quality through being more capable with knowledge and skills"

So perhaps some standards need to be retitled:

ISO 15189:2012 – medical laboratories – requirements for achieving quality.

ISO/IEC 17025: 2015 - General requirements for the capability of testing and calibration laboratories   

ISO/IEC 17043:2010 - Conformity assessment — General requirements for proficiency testing (soon to be revised to General requirements for achieving quality of proficiency testing providers).

I can hear the muttering now.  This guy has a word fetish; he needs help; he is wasting my time, Competence versus Capability… Who cares. 

But I would argue the other side.  Words have meaning and words matter.  Standards are hard enough to interpret at the best of times.  Adding confusion by making up its own meanings for the words that are used, as opposed to using the best definitions available does not make their documents better… it makes them worse. 

Standards bodies want to define themselves as a core of precision and excellence.  Maybe rightly so.  But that requires a demonstration that their documents shall meet the high bar for understanding and precision. When that is achieved they will move from being capable to competent.


Thursday, January 7, 2021

Organizational Quality and Competence (Part 2)


In Organizational Quality and Competence (Part 1) I wrote about how many standards speak to competence, unfortunately more from a position of incompetence than competence.  International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines competence as “ability to apply knowledge and skills to achieve intended results”, which is OK as far as it goes, but it misses the essential elements of understanding and perspective.   

The better definition of competence, as put forward by Merriam-Webster, goes further in the transactional sense of being more clear and more accurate and more focused and better understood as “having sufficient knowledge, judgement, and skill, (or strength) for a particular duty”.   More importantly this is near identical to the definition supported by competence authority Andrew Gonczi (see below).

By adding the element “judgement” into the definition of competence, it reinforces the point that the competent person can see and appreciate and react to overt and nuanced circumstances that impact on how the task should be undertaken and completed, in a way that less competent people will miss.

The question of how to assess competence critical and is addressed in the  article “What is Competence?” written and published in the journal Medical Teacher in 1996 by Paul Hanger and Andrew Gonczi, two educators in the School of Adult Education in the University of Technology in Sydney Australia.  Andrew Gonczi has published over 20 papers on the topic of competency-based standards and competency-based assessment.    In my opinion, What is Competence is an essential read.

Hanger and Gonczi make the point the competence is not just about a checklist of knowledge and skills; there is a need to combine these with attributes such as problem solving, analysis, pattern recognition, interpersonal skills, affective attributes and working ethically.  These are the “soft skills” that impact and influence judgement and are critical in a working application of competence.


So this raises an important consideration.  It is easy to assess for knowledge.  All our education from grade 1 on  depends on how well we do on knowledge based quizzes and examinations.  We demonstrate we know facts, with or without  context .  And testing for skill is just as straightforward, like drawing or computing.  (Back in the 70s when I was applying for dental school, I was given a piece of chalk and was required to carve it in a certain and specific design.  I either had the skills to do it, or I did not.  As it turns out I did, but that is another story.)


So how do you assess for the ability to perform soft skills?  Ask about examples of problem-solving, or the ability to make a coherent work plan, or how to address contingency management (preparing the Plan B), or their ability to incorporate ethical considerations in work decisions, like reporting on and following through on OFIs (opportunities for improvement).  For some assessors the measuring of soft skills is tough

And all this brings me back to the conversation about ISO standards that define themselves as not only required knowledge and skill, but about competence.  These standards must, if the definition applies, address to  judgement attributes of people in the organization. 

There are a bunch of these standards:

  • ·       ISO 15189:2012 – medical laboratories – requirements for quality and competence.

  • ·       ISO/IEC 17025: 2015 - General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories   

  •         ISO/IEC 17043:2010 - Conformity assessment — General requirements for proficiency testing  (soon to be revised to General requirements for the competence of proficiency testing providers).

  • ·       ISO/IEC 17011:2018 -     Conformity assessment - Requirements for accreditation bodies accrediting conformity assessment bodies

Disturbingly, of these essential standards only one standard provides some informative guidance on HOW to assess for judgement, soft skills ability.    Disappointingly that one is NOT ISO/IEC 17011:2018 even though that document specifies requirements for the competent and consistent operation and impartiality of accreditation bodies assessing and accrediting conformity assessment bodies. 

Unfortunately this document does not provide requirements for identifying competence, it leaves out any mention of judgement or soft skills.  Worse, it allows each accrediting body to determine its own criteria for competence, which means that individual opinion at each accrediting body defines who is and who is competent.  Attributes like problem-solving or interpersonal skills pattern recognition or ethical concerns may or may not be considered. 

If each accrediting body can set its own criteria for competence, then there can be no expectation of assessment consistency.   Individual approaches are the direct opposite of standardization.

So in my opinion, ISO uses a flawed definition “competence” within their standards.  ISO needs to alter the titles using the phrase  “knowledge and skills” rather than competence.  Alternatively they can rewrite all these standards and incorporate the soft-skill attributes of judgement, problem-solving, and ethical context. 

It should not be a difficult decision for a competent organization to make.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Organizational Quality and Competence (Part 1)


Organizational Quality and Competence (Part 1)

There is an international standard in my area of interest (Quality Assessment) that is undergoing its review and revision.  One “minor” revision proposed is the addition of the word “competence” into the title (requirements for the competence of proficiency testing providers).  This is NOT a minor revision. because it changes the use and intent of the standards document from defining what a provider is required to do as a provider, to providing a blueprint for the providers and the accreditation bodies on how the provider will demonstrate competence. 

Turns out, competent competency assessment standards are difficult to develop and use.  (More on this in Part 2)

There are many definitions that can define competence.   From its early roots, competence is linked to the notion of competition and sufficiency.  Common parlance would describes competence as the ability to do a task successfully and  efficiently.   The International Organization for Standardization goes further, defining competence as “ability to apply knowledge and skills to achieve intended results making the point there are some expected elements (knowledge and skills) that are relevant to do the job as intended, which fits with the Juran phraseology – “fit for purpose”. 

 Merriam-Webster goes further … having sufficient knowledge, judgement, skill, (or strength) for a particular duty.  By adding the element  “judgement” takes competence to yet another level.   Requiring judgement requires having sufficient grasp of the job expected, the person can consider situation and nuance and make decisions about when or how to perform the process or adjust as circumstances require. This is the true hallmark of modern thinking of competence. 

So how do people reach that level of ability? Hard to say, but not everyone in every organization reaches that point.  It comes in part from staff interest and understanding and part from management developing opportunities to delegate authorities for decision making.  This puts the onus on management to allow their staff to learn through continuing education and contributing to continual improvement. Developing staff competence means creating a work environment that supports learning and rewards success.

This definition puts a additional context on identify staff as competent.  Competent does is a derisive meaning adequate for the job.  Competence  goes beyond adequate.   It means that that management knows them to be knowledgeable, skilled, and understand their job well enough to show good judgement while making decisions and performing intended tasks in order to reach the expected results. 


So here is a question: If we have redefined competent to mean something like “the complete package”, how can we describe staff who are not there yet?

I found an interesting blog written by a Tom Graves, a self-described “Enterprise architect, business-anarchist, confusionist (?)” ( http://weblog.tetradian.com/2012/02/04/competence-noncompetence-incompetence/ ).  He defines 3 competence categories, which can form sort of a framework.

Competence: is where someone knows what they’re doing, and does it.
[These are staff members we call valued and competent].

Non-competence: is where someone doesn’t know what they’re doing (completely), and will either not do it, or will do it, but only after clearly make the point that they not exactly skilled, but will go ahead if it is understood they are learning to improve. 
[ Non-competent may be an acceptable category but is too negatively charged  as a character description.  A more useful term might be a valued staff member well along the path to being fully aware and able].

Incompetence: is where someone doesn’t know what they’re doing but will do it anyways, concealing their gaps, perhaps to both the organization and themselves, creating the potential for all sorts of risks, damages and liabilities.   
[I think that incompetence is one correct word for these staff workers.  Perhaps another more transactional term might be “former staff workers”].

So in this definition of Quality and Competence, to get a position, you need to show you have the appropriate knowledge and skills to perform at a satisfactory, capable level.  But to hold and grow the position you need the impetus and initiative and encouragement to develop the judgement and nuance that distinguishes excellence.  You can call this competent or proficient or skilled.



PS1: There is another interesting synonym for competent, from the Latin (“proficere": to accomplish, make progress; have success) – proficiency.  A discussion for another time.

PS2: I have purposely left out describing an individual’s competence in terms of meeting a checklist of defined competencies.  There will be more on that topic in Part 2.