Rules for description of competence: a discussion (1)


In my opinion a universal definition of competence is undesirable and even impossible. Nevertheless, I see companies and governments utilise them despite an awareness of the dynamic environment they must respond to. Variations in the organization of ‘production’, continuing responses to the dynamics of the environment, variations in the balance of between self of intrinsic organisation and extrinsic organisation or control seem to be not account for. But, if diversity predominates the question arises how to control this aspect of HRM and vocational education.

If you compare expressions of competence you will notice various principles for descriptions with several options. These are basic rules, considering factors influencing the expressions of competence. They offer choices for options and clear the way for dogmas for the expressions: maxims or instructions for description of competence for HRM or VET. Dogmas are instruments for control. Together they form a fussy logic, a theory of practice. An open discussion about the principles and viable options reveals arguments of stakeholders. Doing so, the character of the consultation also transforms from a debate to a discussion with mutual respect. The result is a shared vison on competence.

This is a series of contributions concerning dogmas creating expressions of competence. This one is about uncertainty for HRM and VET caused by technical and economic developments. The next will focus on the organisation of labour, on perspectives for description, aspects of competence, autonomy and finally, functions of descriptions.

Dealing with uncertainty

If you’re faced with the task to develop or modify notions of competence, ask yourself how long these remain valid. Because, under dynamic circumstances there’s always uncertainty causing a need for a response with modifications or complete new notions of competence by companies or a VET system. Uncertainty is caused by a dynamic environment. Responsiveness is an adequate reaction on the speed of developments in economy, technology, customers’ needs and changes in organisation, and the competition. Again, and again, with the efficiency, effectiveness, knowledge conservation and development and the competence of workers in mind. For competences, the main issue of this blog, several strategic options are possible.

An exploration factors causing uncertainty provides the opportunity to reveal arguments for a dogma about general features of competence and to make decisions. These factors are the degree of competition, the speed of technological, economic developments and needs of customers, the company organisation with its production concepts. Decisions concern the employability, the initial level of knowledge and the experience or expertise of workers. My analysis reveals 4 possible dogmas. I think that you can find more.

·        Companies with no or little competition, a low speed of technological and economic development and slight variation of customers’ needs can opt for a profound structuring of work processes and a stable organisation. Companies choose for immediate employability (no in-company training) and for knowledge conservation (a function of knowledge production).

·        Companies with mild competition, fast development of technology and economy and development of customers’ needs opt for some structuring of work processes and a flexible organisation. They opt for a fixed or flexible workforce (by the draw on a network of self-employed workers). Both groups work independently by direct or indirect instructions of the managing staff of the company. For the fixed work force the company opt for broad employability, flexibility, based on initial training, experience and knowledge development (expertise).

·        Companies with severe competition, slow development of technology and economy but a high development of customers’ needs opt for a flexible project organisation. The company opt for broad competence of workers (no specialists), as a condition for flexibility, based on initial training with extended knowledge and knowledge development (experience).

·        Companies with severe competition, fast economic and technological development and implicit customers’ needs opt for a flexible organisation with a focus on mutual knowledge development in partnerships of customers and autonomous experts. The structuring of work processes is more heuristic than algorithmic. The company opts for a high but small competence (experts in a small area) well experienced and extended knowledge development. Above that these workers are strong in communication and creating enduring partnerships.

Remarkable is a recent advice of Dutch researchers to the VET community. They advise stakeholders in Dutch VET to utilize the options for expressing competence described above instead of a universal one as is customary nowadays. A category of employers wants workers for production, another category wants workers for a broad scale of processes and products; a third category wants specialists in their fields. The research and advise doesn’t focus on tactic and operational matters. 

This dogma concerns strategic options for competence and employability in a company or society. Notice that uncertainty by dynamics of the environment is incomparable with unpredictability of work processes by unexpected circumstances, technical problems and changing needs of customers (see the next contribution). Uncertainty is a more tactic and operational problem.