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.


  1. Interesting perspectives Dr Noble. This is one area which most laboratories will need to re-evaluate an improve their competence assessment process.

    1. Thank you Mutale. That is what I think too. In my laboratory I know all my staff are knowledgeable and skilled, and I am confident that they all show good judgement. The challenge to me is how to capture and document that good judgement at a level that is fit and relevant to their job.


Comments, thoughts...