Category Archives: Decision Making

Knowledge or Competence, that is the question.

Knowledge or Competence?

What do employers want from their employees: knowledge or competence?

Knowledge or Competence, that is the question.

I visited a client recently who told me they were re-orienting their training because they needed people who can do things, they distinguished between “know how and know what”. Know how is knowledge, often raw and not contexualised, classically this knowledge is gained in a class room. What employers want is people who can do things — employing contextualised knowledge, experience and skills — know that!

The client introduced me to the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition to explain the difference. My question is: how can training qualifications indicate competence rather than knowledge?

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The Dreyfus model

In this model the learner acquires skills (the ability to execute) in a series of stages:

  1. Novice — rigid adherence to rules, no use of judgement or context. This is the holder of knowledge only.
  2. Advanced beginner — limited use of context and inability to prioritise. This person has some experience but is focussed on the task, not the job.
  3. Competent — able to plan and manage longer term goals, can manage lots of (potentially conflicting) information and uses context. This person has experience, sees some of the big picture and makes decisions in context but still relies a lot on learned or standardised procedures.
  4. Proficient — has a holistic view of situations and makes decisions accordingly, can prioritise and see where new ideas are needed.
  5. Expert — operates almost unconsciously within the context using intuition and tacit underestanding of situations.

I think you can see the development of an internal model of the job which matches the progress from initiate, through apperentice and professional to mastery. This model is widely used in the training and development of medical staff; including nurses, surgeons and general practitioners — which recognises basic skills as well as deep understanding of the complexity of the human body and its social context.

In a recent blog we looked at how a qualification can recognise some of the higher order thinking skills that would need to be acquired to move to Advanced Beginner and Competent. We introduced the Kirkpatrick model of training outcomes. This model is very useful because it does distinguish between knowledge (Kirkpatrick level 2) and competence (Kirkpatrick level 3).

What can a qualification show?

A qualification on its own will not distinguish between knowledge and competence. A holder of an honours degree will clearly have knowledge, but experience or competence? I would argue that a modern university degree demonstrates knowledge and the ability to do academic learning. What the employer wants is a competence, hence the reason why so many ask for some experience in job adverts. The typical two year experience requirement implies that it takes two years to acquire a useful level of competence on top of knowledge!

To understand what a qualification is indicating it is necessary to look at the assessment method for the qualification. There are two basic sorts used in so-called professional qualifications:

  • An objective test of knowledge. To be objective the answers must resolve to true or false against a written body of knowledge. These tests are typically taken at the end of the training course when the knowledge is freshest. They are a good indicator of knowledge, nothing more. Which identifies at most a Novice in the Dreyfus model.
  • An evidence based workplace assessment. This involves the candidate using skills and knowledge in a workplace situation to produce evidence that they have understood and can apply their skills and knowledge to a context. Which indicates a level between Advanced Beginner and Competent in the Dreyfus model.

What you can not do is look at the title of a qualification, or often the level. My favourite miss-named qualification is the PRINCE2® Practitioner. The assessment is an objective test and the candidate can (at best) indicate whether solutions proposed by the examiner are consistent with the text. The candidate does not have to have practised anything. I know of a number of people who have read the book, passed the test, and then gone on to train courses without any project experience at all.

What can you do?

If you are looking for indications of competence, not knowledge, then you need to look carefully at the qualifications your staff are acquiring. You need to ask hard questions about what problem are you solving by sending staff on a training course leading to a qualification.

The Centre for Change Management has been pioneering competence based qualifications in project, programme and change management. Talk to us about meeting your needs.

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The failure dilemma for change management

The Dilemma

SuccessFailureWhat about the mythical 70% failure rate for change in organisations? This has been searched for quite dilligently in the literature by Mark Hughes; who concluded that although well reported by very respected reporters, there was very little substantial measurement data to support the reports. Hence it becomes an urban myth. The dilemma is: what is the cause of the myth? Is it a myth about performance in doing change (the reality is that the success rate is much higher); or is the cause in the way success (and hence failure) is defined?

Click here to see some answers?

Where projects end and change begins

Change adds value to projects

Why do change? In a recent Prosci article the author provides useful questions to elicit the value of doing people change on top of a delivery project. I also find that many people in the project world just don’t get the ‘change’ bit. A large multinational company I have talked to wants to do programme management; but still call it ‘coordinating a number of projects’. They don’t see that the difference between a project and a programme is people change.
Click here to learn about the difference

Competence above knowledge

Educators give us knowledge, Employers want competence

competenceMost qualifications test our knowledge of a subject; indeed we use the word ‘read’ to introduce the subject we are studying at university. Yet most employers want to know what we can do, that is our competencies. Why is there such a miss-match and what can we do about it?

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In an insightful blog posting on the Harvard Business Review web site Michelle Weise claims that there is a disruptive movement in education called online competency-based education. She describes the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as just an extension of the existing education business. But the competency based education movement is addressing the needs of employers by delivering people with not just knowledge, but also skills that are then tested by achieving explicit learning objectives.

A competence is more than just knowledge (knowledge is necessary but not sufficient). To demonstrate a competence a student must select appropriate knowledge to solve a real problem and then apply skills and tools to deliver that solution. The student captures evidence to demonstrate they have met the practical learning objectives. A small number of universities in the US are re-designing their education programmes to go both on-line and competence based. Weise claims this is a disruptive innovation.

Nothing New

This is not as new as you might think; though that doesn’t mean it will not be disruptive if it can catch on. We are already delivering this new mode of education. All of our course learning objectives reflect the practical application of knowledge in the workplace, and our assessments require our candidates to capture evidence of that application. Also our courses are on-line!

A conspiracy of incompetence

What we find is that most people ask for knowledge based training because they are not challenged about the purpose of the training. It is a conspiracy of incompetence through which most training budgets are wasted. This is what often happens:

  1. An employee seeking training asks for a ‘well known’ qualification that looks good on the CV because they don’t have time or the inclination for more research.
  2. Not asking what is the real purpose of the training the HR department goes shopping for a ‘well known’ qualification because that’s the easy way and what they always do.
  3. The training company, on receiving a request for a ‘well known’ qualification doesn’t ask any questions but rolls out its standard course for the exam because that’s what they always do.
  4. During the course the employee acquires considerable knowledge to be memorised for the exam; which they pass to get the qualification.
  5. Back at work they don’t do things that way so the knowledge atrophies, and often the employee uses the new badge on the CV to get a better job.

This behaviour is a classic example of the ‘default’ bias in thinking. Humans tend to prefer the default option in preference to seeking information to improve the decision outcome. Of course, if anyone had asked what is the purpose of the training and how will we know it has been achieved; then result would have been completely different.

The challenge for employers paying for the training and the industry supplying the training is how to overcome the bias in their thinking.

Where do you stand?


Contact us @C4ChangeMgt

The strategy dilemma for change

Strategy in ChangeTranslating a guess into a plan

The dilemma for change managers leading a strategic organisation change is translating the uncertainty of the strategic analysis and decisions into actionable plans to deliver benefits. The problem is that there is no right answer to the question “what should our strategy be?”

The strategists have looked into the future using a number of strategy tools and have identified some scenarios which appear to be good for the organisation. The resulting strategy they have chosen (captured in their strategic objectives for the organisation) is dependent on an array of factors, some under the control of the organisation, many are not. Since it is not possible to carry out a trial of the strategy you have to run with the one chosen and make the best of it.

In making the best of the current strategy the change leader must also hedge some futures so that any changes made to the organisation keep open as many options as possible for the future and don’t back the organisation into a position where it no longer works in the reality that arises.

What can the change leaders do to manage their dilemma?

Click here to find out