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Organizational Quality and Competence - Part 4

  Measuring Competence In this series I have focused on personnel competence starting from the   definition of competence put forward b...

Friday, March 12, 2021

Organizational Quality and Competence - Part 4


Measuring Competence

In this series I have focused on personnel competence starting from the  definition of competence put forward by Gonczi and Hager which includes demonstrating  knowledge and skills to perform a job, and  having the soft skills ability of judgement, (problem solving), ethics and talent to perform the job in context. When knowledge, skills, and context are found together people can  take their work responsibilities to the next level, justifying our confidence they are competent and can and will do the job that needs to be done. 

I have this internal personal pressure that wants to modulate competence with adjectives such as “highly competent” or “totally competent”, and it makes me wonder if competence has a scale of its own, ranging from “barely competent” or “marginally competent”, perhaps followed by “competent” progressing upward to “completely” competent.  But that is a musing for another time.

Since you can define competence, then it must in turn, be possible  to measure it.  There are many documents describing traditional competence assessment. 

But as Gonczi and Hager point out, traditional competency based standards all too often create a check box list of things to tick off (tick ΓΌ), but often the check boxes are all based around have certain skills or knowledge, and do not get into the essential contextual parameters of judgement.   As a personal perspective, ISO/IEC 17025:2017 (General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories) is an example of this. 


In the current version of ISO 15189:2012 (Medical laboratories – requirements for quality and competence), is a superior competence standard because actually goes to the effort to describe competence assessment.  That document provides both a definition and informative action plan which frames and  incorporates the concepts raised by Gonczi and Hanger. 

The standard states:

“ Competence of laboratory staff can be assessed by using any combination or all of the following approaches under the same conditions as the general working environment:

a) direct observation of routine work processes and procedures, including all applicable safety practices;

b) direct observation of equipment maintenance and function checks;

c) monitoring the recording and reporting of examination results;

d) review of work records;

e) assessment of problem solving skills;

f) examination of specially provided samples, such as previously examined samples, interlaboratory comparison materials, or split samples.”


Measuring soft skills like judgement and problem solving can be difficult to assess directly because they are highly situational can only be done in context.  Creating simulations and scenarios is too artificial and there are few opportunities to directly witness and address showing judgement.  Laboratory directors actually have scarce opportunities to point to employee competence.  And that is a shame. 


So, I have come up with some suggestions that might help the characterization of people as displaying their competence and completeness as highly qualified workers. 

Consider asking the following:

1.    When co-workers are unsure about what do to in a situation, is there a “go-to” person that they tend to consult (judgement) ?

2.    Are there workers who generally handle their own work smoothly and then  looks around to see if there are people who might benefit from some support and help (ethics)?

3.    Are there people who can look at accreditation standards and read into them alternative interpretations that don’t compromise the quality of work, but save time by reducing steps that upon reflection add little to the benefit of the work (problem solving)?

4.    In crisis situations like we are currently experiencing through the pandemic, are there people who adjust and re-organize with the workflow demands without compromising sample quality (problem solving)?

5.    Is there a person who speaks up at laboratory meetings and brings up fresh ideas based on experiences that did not work out as well as the laboratory would have liked (judgement, innovation)?

6.    Who are the creators, the innovators, the people who make work interesting?

These are the same questions that you would go through to discover who are your positive leaders, innovators, and initiators that you look to when you need to get the job done.


As I think through my personal experience of team building and leadership,  I realize that competence is a talent that may be in part innate, but more importantly is a character pattern that people can learn and grow into through experience and situation and time. 

Not everyone is reaches the level of competence, not because of inability, but because of time and circumstance.    But if you have a team where everyone is strongly capable, you can thank your lucky stars. 




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.