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Competence is a standardized requirement for an individual to properly perform a specific job. It encompasses a combination of knowledge, skills and behavior utilised to improve performance. More generally, competence is the state or quality of being adequately or well qualified, having the ability to perform a specific role.

For instance, management competency includes the traits of systems thinking and emotional intelligence, and skills in influence and negotiation. A person possesses a competence as long as the skills, abilities, and knowledge that constitute that competence are a part of them, enabling the person to perform effective action within a certain workplace environment. Therefore, one might not lose knowledge, a skill, or an ability, but still lose a competence if what is needed to do a job well changes.

Competence is also used to work with more general descriptions of the requirements of human beings in organizations and communities. Examples are educations and other organizations who want to have a general language to tell what a graduate of an education must be able to do in order to graduate or what a member of an organization is required to be able to do in order to be considered competent. An important detail of this approach is that all competences have to be action competences, which means you show in action, that you are competent. In the military the training systems for this kind of competence is called Artificial Experience, which is the basis for all simulators.

A General Definition

Competence is shown in action in a situation in a context that might be different the next time you have to act. In emergency contexts, competent people will react to the situation following behaviours they have previously found to succeed, hopefully to good effect. To be competent you need to be able to interpret the situation in the context and to have a repertoire of possible actions to take and have trained in the possible actions in the repertoire, if this is relevant. Regardless of training, competence grows through experience and the extent of an individual to learn and adapt.

General Competence Development

It is interesting to register competences, in HR it is much more important to have a policy for developing competences especially the general competences described below.

Dreyfus and Dreyfus has introduced a language of the levels of competence in competence development. The levels are:

  • Novice: Rule based behaviour, strongly limited and inflexible
  • Experienced Beginner: Incorporates aspects of the situation
  • Practitioner: Acting consciously from long term goals and plans
  • Knowledgeable practitioner: Sees the situation as a whole and acts from personal conviction
  • Expert: Has an intuitive understanding of the situation and zooms in on the central aspects
  • Virtuoso: Has a higher degree of competence, advances the standards and has an easy and creative way of doing things
  • Maestro: Changes the history in a field by inventing and introducing radical innovations

The process of competence development is a life long series of doing and reflecting. And it requires a special environment, where the rules are necessary in order to introduce novices, but people at a more advanced level of competence will systematically break the rules if the situations requires it. This environment is synonymously described using terms such as learning organization, knowledge creation, self organizing and empowerment.

General Competence

In a specific organization or community you need to have the Professional Competence of the profession or industry. The professional competences is equal to the Occupational competences described below. They are usually the competences you have to show in an interview for a job. But today there are a set of General Competences which is required if you want to keep the job or get a promotion. For all organizations and communities there is a set of primary tasks that competent people have to contribute to all the time. For a university student the primary tasks could be:

  • Handling theory
  • Handling methods
  • Handling the information of the assignment

The four general competences are:

  • Meaning Competence: Identifying with the purpose of the organization or community and acting from the preferred future in accordance with the values of the organization or community.
  • Relation Competence: Creating and nurturing connections to the stakeholders of the primary tasks.
  • Learning Competence: Creating and looking for situations that make it possible to experiment with the set of solutions that make it possible to solve the primary tasks and reflect on the experience.
  • Change Competence: Acting in new ways when it will promote the purpose of the organization or community and make the preferred future come to life.

Occupational Competence

The Occupational Competence movement was initiated by David McClelland in the 1960s with a view to moving away from traditional attempts to describe competence in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes and to focus instead on the specific self-image, values, traits, and motive dispositions (i.e. relatively enduring characteristics of people) that are found to consistently distinguish outstanding from typical performance in a given job or role. It should be noted that different competencies predict outstanding performance in different roles, and that there is a limited number of competencies that predict outstanding performance in any given job or role. Thus, a trait that is a 'competence' for one job might not predict outstanding performance in a different role.

McClelland argued [1] that these competencies could neither be identified nor assessed using traditional procedures. The fundamental problem is that high level competencies such as initiative and the ability to understand and intervene in organizational processes are difficult and demanding activities that no one will engage in unless they very much care about the activity in which they are engaged – or unless they find these activities intrinsically satisfying (here is the link to McClelland's work on social motives)[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Such qualities will, therefore, most often only be developed and displayed while people are undertaking activities they care about. Furthermore, success in undertaking them depends on bringing to bear a range of cognitive, affective, and conative components of competence, such as thinking about what is to be achieved and how it is to be achieved, turning one’s emotions into the task, and persisting over a long period of time. Note, again, that these components of competence cannot be assessed except in relation to activities people care about, i.e. they cannot be assessed through the processes favored by traditional psychometricians. Hence their neglect in conventional studies of occupational competence based upon traditional tests – and especially tests of “academic” knowledge - knowledge of content.

As it happens, McClelland and his colleagues had developed an alternative framework for thinking about and assessing high level competencies but, unfortunately, presented it as a way of thinking about motivation. And, because it is at loggerheads with conventional thinking in psychometrics, it has been widely misunderstood. Over time, it became clear that the high level competencies differentiating effective from ineffective performance in occupational roles could be identified using detailed Behavioral Event Interviews because these interviews do capture thoughts and behavior in situations in which the interviewee is more or less fully engaged, as the interviewee normally has free choice of the situations to describe. These studies revealed the importance of a wide range of previously neglected competencies.

By the time Lyle and Signe Spencer sought to bring them together in their book “Competence at Work”[2] there were about 800 such studies. Unfortunately, a significant part of the multi-billion dollar international competence based education and training movement which followed largely corrupted the orientation of the program back into the very framework that McClelland had tried so hard to replace. Recent work has re-emphasized the connection between competences and outstanding performance on the job. However, it must be emphasized that while generic competencies, as found in "Competence at Work"[2] provide a useful 'rough cut' of the competencies most relevant to a common range of roles, it is also the case that many of the competencies that are linked to outstanding performance are unique to those roles. The more different a role is from those described in Competence at Work,[2] the more different the competencies are likely to be from those listed in that book.

Nevertheless, as can be seen from Raven and Stephenson,[3] there have been important developments in research relating to the nature, development, and assessment of high-level competencies in homes, schools, and workplaces.

Competency model

Competencies are characteristics which drive outstanding performance in a given job, role or function. A competency model refers to a group of competencies required in a particular job and usually number 7 to 9 in total. The number and type of competencies in a model will depend upon the nature and complexity of work along with the culture and values of the organisation in which the work takes place.

Since the early 70’s, leading organizations have been using competencies to help recruit, select and manage their outstanding performers after Dr David McClelland, Harvard Business School Professor of Psychology, found that traditional tests such as academic aptitude and knowledge tests, did not predict success in the job.

More recent research by individuals such as Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence and Rick Boyatzis, in The Competent Manager, have reinforced and emphasised the importance of competencies as essential predictors of outstanding performance.

A competence model, also known as a competency framework, uses the five competences described earlier. These will support the primary tasks and the job specific tasks. Together these tasks reflect the purpose of the job.


  1. McClelland, D. C. (1973). Testing for competence rather than for "intelligence". American Psychologist, 28, 1-14.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Spencer, L. M., & Spencer, S. M. (1993). Competence at Work. New York: Wiley.
  3. Raven, J., & Stephenson, J. (Eds.). (2001). Competence in the Learning Society. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Shippmann, J. S., Ash, R. A., Battista, M., Carr, L., Eyde, L. D., Hesketh, B., Kehoe, J., Pearlman, K., and Sanchez, J. I. (2000). The practice of competency modeling, Personnel Psychology, 53, 703-740.

See also

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