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The literature on HRD increasingly focuses
Competencies and on how best to select and develop effectively
workplace learning: performing employees. Such preoccupations
are in direct response to demands for higher
some reflections on the productivity, increased flexibility and lower
rhetoric and the reality costs by organisations (Garavan et al., 1999;
Hodgetts et al., 1999; Losey, 1999).
Increasingly, organisations seek, through the
Thomas N. Garavan and implementation of sophisticated human
David McGuire resource development and workplace learning
strategies, to develop competencies to enable
employees to respond quickly and flexibly to
business needs. The need for greater
flexibility has resulted in a more widespread
The authors use of competency approaches as a basis for
workplace learning provision (Lei and Hitt,
Thomas N. Garavan is a Senior Lecturer in the
1996; Spangenberg et al., 1999).
Department of Personnel and Employment Relations and
Evidence suggests increased usage of
David McGuire is a Government of Ireland scholar, both
competency models by organisations to drive
at the University of Limerick.
workplace learning initiatives in the USA and
more recently in the UK. The use of
Keywords competency frameworks as the focus of
Competencies, Workplace learning, workplace learning serves the dual purpose of
Human resource development, Competency framework facilitating the identification of learning needs
and ensuring that learning provision
Abstract addresses business needs (Reid and
Barrington, 1994; Thomson and Mabey,
The use of competency frameworks as a basis for
1994). Furthermore, the drive for mobility,
workplace learning initiatives is now relatively
flexibility and employability has also resulted
commonplace in organisations. This is reflected in the
in employees expecting that their enhanced
emphasis given to competencies in the HRD literature.
competencies be recognised through
However, the terrain of the competency discussion is
certification processes. The increased usage of
somewhat ill-defined. This article attempts to define the
context within which the value of competencies as a basis
competencies is also reflected in the
for workplace learning can be considered and discusses
burgeoning academic literature on the topic.
the philosophical and epistemological perspectives found
The most recent Cranfield University of
in much of the literature. Competency definition and
Limerick survey (1999) reveals a significant
competency measurement issues are explored, as is a
increase in the usage of competency
range of other issues concerning the value of frameworks in Europe. Empirical evidence
competencies in a workplace learning context. The article exists to suggest that the competency
concludes that, in the interests of clarity, consistency and movement has taken hold in a number of
reliability of measurement, consensus needs to be countries, among them Australia (Cornford
reached on the basic parameters and definition of and Athanasou, 1995), the USA (Boyatzis
competency. and Kolb, 1995), the UK (Newton and
Wilkenson, 1995), the Scandinavian
countries (Mabon, 1995) and Israel (Reichel,
Electronic access
1996). This trend can be attributed to the
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is proactive role played by national governments
available at in recognising the benefits that can accrue
http://www.emerald-library.com/ft through the creation and adoption of
recognisable competency standards. The
instigation of the National Skills Standards
Board (NSSB) in the USA and the National
Journal of Workplace Learning
Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . pp. 144±163 Council for Vocational Qualifications
# MCB University Press . ISSN 1366-5626 (NCVQ) in the UK as government-appointed
Competencies and workplace learning Journal of Workplace Learning
Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

bodies responsible for the development of related difficulty of assessing the existence of
skills standards highlights the emphasis competence and problems related to the
attaching to national competency frameworks classification of competencies; and finally the
as a means of increasing economic paper addresses their limitations as a basis for
competitiveness (Horton, 2000). workplace learning and the need to
Consequently, national competency understand their philosophical bases and their
standards are now considered to be invaluable limitations.
in establishing a foundation for the
implementation of workplace level training
and development initiatives (Winterton and Philosophical and epistemological
Winterton, 1996). However, recent empirical tensions
research by Matlay (2001) suggests that such
training initiatives are having little impact in The literature on competencies sometimes
addressing the training needs of the small fails to make explicit its underlying
business sector. Specifically, he concluded philosophical assumptions, specifically its
that the actual provision of training in small assumptions about the nature of work, the
firms fails significantly to keep pace with the individual and the organisation.
perceived needs of owner/managers and their Philosophically, the competency movement
workforce. finds its roots in the writings of Taylor
The utilisation of competency models in the (1911). His espousal of the ‘‘one best way’’ of
workplace is considered problematic. In fulfilling a task, thus improving efficiency and
particular, commentators find difficulty with increasing production, together with his
the notion that the components of effective functional view of management led ultimately
performance can be clearly isolated and to the development of the competency
identified and that employees can be selected approach (Sandberg, 2000; Grugulis, 1997;
utilising rigorous competency frameworks Raelin and Cooledge, 1995). At a simplistic
(Townley, 1994). Indeed the very idea that level, competency models seek to identify the
effective employees should exhibit a set of ideal combination of skills, knowledge,
specific competencies is problematic for some attitudes and experience, the possession of
(Raelin and Cooledge, 1995; Schroder, which enables employees to become high
1989), particularly in instances where performers with the potential to add value to
competency frameworks are linked to the organisation (Gorsline, 1996).
promotional opportunities and organisational One perspective argues that the notion of
career development paths (Thomson and competencies can be both liberating and
Mabey, 1994). It is worth pointing out, empowering – an equalising force in the
however, that the competency movement has, context of workplace learning. Such a
in an HRD context, served the needs of lower perspective is based on developmental
level employees as well as those at managerial humanism. This philosophical position posits
level and in this sense does not reinforce that employees should be provided with a
status differences in the workplace (Reid and broad degree of self-control and self-
Barrington, 1994; Grugulis, 1997). regulation on the basis that such committed
This paper considers some of the more employees will actively work towards fulfilling
specific issues surrounding the use of the aims of the organisation. Others suggest
competencies for workplace learning and that, in reality, competency notions espouse a
posits that many of the issues identified relate more utilitarian instrumentalist philosophy
specifically to the assumptions of the that challenges this line of argument. This
particular philosophical and research tradition philosophical position advocates that the
reflected in the use of competencies to date. ‘‘rational’’ management of employees will lead
This paper initially considers some of the to the ultimate aim of increased competitive
philosophical and epistemological dimensions advantage. This position is characterised by
of competency as concepts and their usage in tight management control, close direction and
a workplace learning context. The paper prescription of required competencies as well
focuses on three significant pragmatic issues as by advocating the concept of ‘‘fit’’ between
related to their value in a workplace learning strategic objectives and competencies
context: the difficulties involved in defining possessed by employees. This latter
notions of competence and competencies; the perspective is the more common one
Competencies and workplace learning Journal of Workplace Learning
Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

espoused in the managerial and human literature considers competency to be an

resource management literature attribute-based concept and in particular
Holms (1995) would support this view. He defines it in terms of a specific set of attributes
posits that the power relations that exist that employees utilise to perform work. There
within the competency approach do not is a clear assumption that those who perform
reflect developmental humanism, but instead effectively are considered to have a superior
everything that developmental humanism is set of competencies. There is a strong bias to
not. Competency frameworks present a consider notions of competency in a context-
dilemma in that those wishing to be free way. This tendency manifests itself in
considered competent are in effect forced to prescriptive comments about how possession
reshape and reinterpret themselves, to of specific competencies can lead to high
reconfigure their experience in order to match performance, irrespective of the
the specific demands of the competency organisational context within which they are
discourse. He posits that even the assessor, utilised. This literature tends to postulate a
where there is one, lacks autonomy because of notion of competency as atomistic,
the requirement to make judgements within a mechanistic, bureaucratic and one that
specified vocabulary and to maintain reinforces a notion of competency as a strait-
appropriate records. Notions of control jacket.
therefore permeate competency approaches. The literature reveals that a multiplicity of
Thus, the competency approach fits traditions and perspectives exists, each with a
comfortably within a strategy/structure/ different and relatively distinct set of
systems model of organisations and, underpinning assumptions. Cockerill and
consequently, it may have questionable value Hunt (1995), for example, suggest that these
within contemporary postmodernist notions distinct perspectives may be labelled
of workplace learning and more person- ‘‘traditionalists’’, ‘‘inventors’’ and ‘‘scientists’’.
focused development initiatives. Indeed, a For traditionalists, the use of competencies is
fundamental premiss underpinning based on the behaviour of the most successful
utilitarianism, the idea of strategic managers or employees in the organisation.
integration, is itself somewhat problematic They view successful job performance in
and lacking in precision both at a theoretical terms of the speed of career advancement.
and at a measurement level. It does, however, They advocate the use of the characteristics of
represent a common justification for the quickly promoted individuals as the basis for
utilisation of competencies by organisations. the development of an organisation’s
A utilitarian perspective poses a number of competency model. Inventors focus on
dilemmas for workplace learning activities, predicting what an organisation and its
specifically the need to justify workplace attitudes will be in the future and consider
learning in strategic terms and treat this to be the most effective way of identifying
employees in a rational and quantitative way. appropriate managerial behaviours. The
It may result in very narrowly defined, short- outcome of the perspective is the creation of
term type learning activities at the expense of competency lists based on imaginary future
more developmental-type learning. It is organisations. The scientific perspective
arguable that the advocacy of utilitarian- places emphasis on identifying, measuring
instrumentalist notions of competencies are and developing behaviours, which will
associated with learning initiatives designed to distinguish individuals who continuously
contribute to bottom-line performance, so outperform others. This perspective
this means that line managers’ efforts will advocates that there are generalisable high
concentrate on revenue producing learning at performance competencies that appear to
the expense of ensuring that employees are distinguish high performance from average
developed. performing employees.
There are also epistemological tensions Many descriptions of competency do not
associated with the use of competencies in a consider the characteristics of the human
workplace learning context. The competency agent. In particular, they give little
literature generally espouses a rationalistic, consideration to when competencies are used,
positivistic perspective and makes some how they are used and the moderating
important assumptions about work and influence of personal characteristics on their
behaviour. A significant proportion of the usage. Sandberg (2000) uses the term
Competencies and workplace learning Journal of Workplace Learning
Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

‘‘indirect descriptions of competency’’ to Exploring notions of competence and

characterise a situation where the typologies competency
advocated reflect the researchers’ own models
rather than capturing employees’ notions or Definitional and boundary delineation issues
models of competence. The literature exist at a number of levels within the
reinforces the general tradition of a positivist, competency literature. This confusion exists
quantitative approach, in particular the dual primarily for two reasons: differences between
tendency to assume that there is an objective countries and differences arising from
reality independent of and beyond the human pedagogical theory on how people learn. The
mind and the decontextualisation of the former is largely historically determined and
individual in the competency debate. reflects differences in relationships between
Work is conceptualised as objective, education and the labour market in different
described in precise terms, and it exists countries. Pedagogical differences, on the
independently of those employees who other hand, relate to issues of how
accomplish it. Work and worker are behaviouralists, cognitivists and
essentially independent. constructivistic theorists consider notions of
While the intention, if not the practice, is to competency. Levels of definitional confusion
use workplace competencies derived from and differences in perspective exist:
national standards, the definition of such . Conceptualisations of competency in
competencies is often based on rationalistic terms of its function.
job analysis techniques, rather than on time . Differences in the context of competency
and motion studies, which, it is argued, may and competence.
lead to more effective workplace outcomes
(Sandberg, 2000). One alternative, the
phenomenological approach, has made only Conceptualisations of the function of
modest impact to date. However, this competency
literature does postulate the view that our
understanding of competence and The literature reveals that competencies are
competencies cannot ignore the internal defined in terms of three distinct perspectives:
organisational context, the role of the competencies as individual characteristics;
employee and their experiences of work. The competencies as characteristics of
tacit dimension is to the fore in this literature organisations; and the notion of competencies
(Tyre and Von Heppel, 1997; Fielding, as a tool to structure and facilitate
1988). This contrasting tradition suggests communication between education and the
that it is not the competencies themselves that labour market (Boon and Van der Klink,
are significant but instead it is the way that 2001).
individuals experience work which is
fundamental to their competence. Competencies as characteristics of
Competence, this perspective suggests, individuals
must therefore be internally rather than This perspective argues that competencies are
externally framed. essentially related to characteristics of
The emergence of a postmodernist lens to individuals. Within this perspective, there are,
study competencies has some value. It is however, differences in emphasis. The most
argued that postmodernism, by embracing important difference in emphasis here relates
chaos and complexity, offers a coherent to whether these characteristics can be
explanation of the unpredictable, uncertain learned or whether they are innate. The
and uncontrollable nature of the modern dominant view is to emphasise the trainability
business environment (Raelin and Cooledge, dimension of competency and the potential
1995; Freedman, 1992). Free from the contribution of workplace learning activities
overarching ideological claims of positivism, to the development of competencies (Eraut,
it leaves open the possibility that 1994; Fletcher, 1992). A more traditional
competencies may need to be adjusted to take view emphasises that competencies and
account of a range of contextual factors and, competence are given. They argue that
as a result, competency frameworks may characteristics such as emotion, attitude and
differ from one organisation to another cognition originate from innate abilities and
(Cockerill, 1989). therefore cannot be learned; they can only be
Competencies and workplace learning Journal of Workplace Learning
Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

developed (Klink et al., 2000). A related dualistic choice is dependent on whether one
perspective here is the notion that views competencies as a tool enabling
competencies do not relate to capacities, but organisational change through direct
instead to the willingness and ability of the communication with employees or whether
employee to use his/her capacities in specific one believes that competencies should be
situations (Spencer, 1983). used as a behavioural modelling mechanism
to deal with current organisational problems
Competencies as characteristics of and difficulties. Those who are labelled
organisations ‘‘inventors’’ would advocate a focus on future
An alternative perspective is to conceptualise competencies.
competencies as characteristics of Some commentators consider it to be an
organisations. This perspective takes as a inappropriate conceptual stretch of the
starting-point the view that human concept of competency to regard it as a
competencies are one of the resources characteristic of the organisation. One
available to organisations. The origins of this problem that immediately arises is the
notion of competencies can be attributed to variation in terminology used. Selznick
the work of Prahalad and Hamel (1990), who (1957) uses the term ‘‘distinctive
analysed the competitiveness of organisations competence.’’ Teece (1990) talks about
and attributed it to the possession of core ‘‘dynamic capabilities.’’ Prahalad and Hamel
competencies. They postulated that (1990) suggest the term ‘‘core competencies’’
organisations can possess unique clusters of and Kamoche (1996) suggests ‘‘human
factors that allow the firm to be competitive resource competencies.’’ These definitions
and human capital is one of those factors. range from narrow specific descriptions to
Resource-based perspectives on the firm very broad ones that in some ways can be
utilise the notion of competencies in this viewed as tautological; capabilities are defined
fashion. The resource-based view in terms of competence, and competence is
conceptualises the organisation as a collection then defined in terms of capability (Nanda,
of competencies and draws attention to issues 1996). The empirical support for core
of learning, including knowledge competencies at the organisational level
accumulation and experience. Cappelli and significantly lags behind the theoretical
Singh (1992) argue that competent development. The notion is solid at the
employees potentially create competitive macro-theoretical level but stands relatively
advantage, where such competencies are firm- unsupported by micro-theoretical models
specific and are difficult to imitate. and empirical research. The theory would
The issue of how firm-specific the human suggest that work-based learning activities
resource competencies are is a controversial represent a vital, if not pivotal, component
point. Boon and Van der Klink (2001) argue of organisational success and strategy;
that many organisations possess very fixed however, there is no systematic evidence of a
and rather global listings of competencies and transformation of workplace learning
do not engage in efforts to produce a set of activities by organisations on both sides
firm-specific descriptions or take proactive of the Atlantic as a result of resource-
steps to develop these competencies. They based perspectives (Hamel and
argue that, while it is appropriate to Prahalad, 1993; Beleherman et al., 1994;
conceptualise competencies in this way, at the Prager, 1999).
level of practice, it is problematic to
implement because it is very difficult to find Competency as a mode of discourse
the appropriate level of context specificity in between education and the labour market
the description of competencies. They either This perspective argues that competencies
come as lists with very broadly defined represent a tool to improve communication in
competencies or are so detailed and reductive education and the labour market. It
as to be of limited pragmatic value. conceptualises competencies as a framing
A further consideration here is whether device – a mode of discourse – and it in no
competency frameworks should be based on way attempts to specify of what competencies
current organisational priorities or should be consist. This perspective is commonly
future oriented and derived from an advocated in Continental Europe and to a
organisation’s vision statement. Such a certain extent in the UK. Schlusmans et al.
Competencies and workplace learning Journal of Workplace Learning
Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

(1999) suggest that the need for such a theorise on the value of specific competencies
discourse arises from two sets of to organisations because of definitional
developments. The first relates to the difficulties.
changing nature of the labour market with its
emphasis on flexibility, employability, the UK and US perspectives
potential for obsolescence of knowledge and The literature reveals differences in the
skills and the emergence of knowledge as a conceptualisation of competencies between
production factor. These changes in the the USA and the UK. Table I presents a
requirements of the labour market have in conceptualisation of the differences.
turn influenced views on how people are In its most general sense, the USA perceives
educated and trained in educational competence to be related to the individual
institutions. and whether they possess the skills and
The view prevails that the educational knowledge to perform a specific job or role.
sector is now expected to be a partner in the The UK approach is arguably broader and
creation of knowledge and the development of the perception of competencies not only is
human resources who are flexible and capable related to the attributes of job-holders, but
of working within innovative environments. also refers to a range of guidelines and
Another development within this perspective personal effectiveness issues required to get a
of competencies is the perceived requirement job done.
for education to move away from more Within the UK approach, competencies are
traditional pedagogical perspectives and viewed as standards for job functions and
utilise learning strategies and create contexts professions, whereas, in the US approach, the
where students can learn cognitive and work behaviour of excellent performers is
related skills in realistic learning considered the basis for the development of
environments (Brown et al., 1989; Resnick,
tests of relevant competencies. Generally,
1987; Lave and Wagner, 1991; Senior, 1997).
both UK and US perspectives view
It is clear that multiple conceptualisations of
competencies as being related to
the function of competency exist – each
characteristics of individuals. The European
perspective highlights some significant
perspective on competencies is analogous to
differences in emphasis about the function of
that adopted in the UK. Orstenk (1997) and
Oliveara-Rees (1994) suggest, for example,
that in Germany competencies are
conceptualised in terms of the capacity of
The content of competency and individuals to perform within a function or a
competence profession and the focus is therefore on the
qualification or certification they receive.
The lack of a precise or widely accepted
definition of competency in the literature is Qualifications are viewed as denoting an
considered problematic (Jubb and Robotham, official certification of knowledge, skill and
1997; Gorsline, 1996; Nordhaug and attitude.
Gronhaug, 1994). The terms ‘‘competence’’ Both UK and US approaches differ
and ‘‘competency’’ are attributed multiple fundamentally in their pedagogical
meanings depending on the context and the perspective and assumptions about the
perspective advocated. It appears that our learning process. The US approach places
understanding of these terms depends on the emphasis on a cognitive perspective of
scope (individual/organisational), aim learning, whereas the UK and certainly the
(improving performance/gaining market European variant place emphasis on a
power), range of HR instruments utilised constructivistic view of learning. Both
(selection/pay/training/staff appraisal/career approaches offer alternative explanations of
development), and the structure of the HR the context of competencies, their interaction
function (centralised/decentralised) within with work and their measurement. Cognitive
the organisation (Hondeghem and approaches place a lot of emphasis on
Vandermeulen, 2000). objective measurement, whereas
Such divergence in meaning presents constructivist approaches give emphasis to the
difficulties when one makes comparisons subjective and motivational dimensions of
across industry. It becomes difficult to competency.
Competencies and workplace learning Journal of Workplace Learning
Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

Table I Differences in definition of competencies: the UK versus the US approach

Basis for difference UK approach US approach
Purpose Assessment and certification of employees Development of competencies to enhance performance
Focus Focus on job/individual characteristics and skill Focus on individual behaviour and attributes
Procedure to develop Produce performance standards for job functions and Produce descriptions of excellent behaviour and attributes
professions to define standards
Role of organisational Context is not as significant as professional area and Context defines the behaviours and traits required
context specific job functions
Conceptualisation of work/ The characteristics of the work are the point of departure Greater emphasis on the individual rather than specific
individual tasks
Methodological approach More multi-method and quantitative Rationalistic and positivistic
Scope Competencies are specific to professions and job functions Competencies are specific to organisations
Measurement Documentation of evidence of work activities and Quantitative measurement and identification of a
experiences denotes evidence of competency correlation between possession of attributes and work
Role of assessor Formally assessed by external assessor to determine level Assessment of performance by job supervisors and job
Perspective of learning Constructivistic perspective of learning Cognitive perspective of learning

Worker, work and multidimensional Significant contributions within each

approaches field
Table II presents some definitions of In his earlier work, Boyatzis (1982) defined
competency commonly found in the competency as ‘‘an underlying characteristic
literature. These definitions reflect three of a person, which results in effective and/or
particular approaches to its definition: superior performance in a job.’’ From this he
(1) worker-oriented; developed the notion that there exist different
(2) work-oriented; and levels of competencies, ranging from a
(3) multidimensional. ‘‘threshold level’’ to a ‘‘superior performance

Table II Some common definitions of competency found in the literature

Worker-oriented definitions
(1) The behavioural characteristics of an individual that are causally related to effective and/or superior
performance in a job. This means that there is evidence that indicates that possession of the characteristic
precedes and leads to effective and/or superior performance on the job (Boyatzis, 1982).
(2) An underlying characteristic of an individual that is casually related to criterion referenced effective and/or
superior performance in a job or situation (Spencer and Spencer, 1993).
(3) A high performance or H-competency is a relatively stable set of behaviours which produces superior
workgroup performance in more complex organisational environments (Schroder, 1989).
Work-oriented definitions
(4) Occupational competence (is) . . . the ability to perform the activities within an occupation or function to the
level of performance expected in employment (Management Charter Initiative 1990).
(5) The ability to perform the activities within an occupation (Nordhaug and Gronhaug, 1994).
(6) An action, behaviour or outcome which the person should be able to demonstrate (Training Standards Agency,
Multidimensional definitions
(7) The ability to apply knowledge, understanding, practical and thinking skills to achieve effective performance to
the standards required in employment. This includes solving problems and being sufficiently flexible to meet
changing demands (NCVQ, 1997).
(8) The skills, knowledge and understanding, qualities and attributes, sets of values, beliefs and attitudes which
lead to effective managerial performance in a given context, situation or role (Woodall and Winstanley, 1998).
Source: Adapted from Woodall and Winstanley (1998) and Horton (2000)

Competencies and workplace learning Journal of Workplace Learning
Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

level.’’ He generally subscribes to a worker- identified by Boyatzis and his US colleagues,

oriented approach. Spencer and Spencer are already assumed to exist.
(1993) provide another worker-oriented Multi-dimensional definitions tend to draw
definition. The notion of causation on the best of both approaches; an indicative
differentiates both definitions. Spencer and example is to be found in the work of Woodall
Spencer require a higher standard of and Winstanley (1998). Veres et al. (1990)
causation; they advocate that a link be adopted a multidimensional perspective to
established between a particular competency assess the ideal competencies of police. Their
and superior performance. Their work has as description consisted of 46 personal attributes
its ultimate aim the measurement of and they were expressed in the form of
individual characteristics and movement statements of knowledge, skills and attitudes
towards an index of key behaviours and skills. that corresponded to 23 police attributes. The
The worker-orientated definitions are work activities and the personal attributes
generally associated with the US approach were then quantified in percentage terms as
and US academics. Dale and Iles (1992) they related to police work. Woodruffe (1991)
summarise the outcomes of the US approach more or less accepts that problems of
as follows: definition exist and that different models may
The competencies generated have been primarily lead to an alternative definition.
behavioural, specifying the skills or qualities that Despite the plurality of definitional
a person will use to do a job. They are often approaches and the use of competency
generic, trying to describe as succinctly as approaches in educational and
possible the behaviours that high performers entrepreneurial arenas, Boon and Van der
may display, though in different proportions
Klink (2001) suggest that the vagueness
according to level, function or context.
surrounding competencies seems not to
The conceptualisations of Boyatzis and hinder discourse on the topic. On the
Spencer and Spencer of competency are contrary, they posit that the strength of the
predominantly input-based and worker- concept lies in its complexity, serving to
oriented and focus on person related variables embrace educational and labour
that individuals bring to a job. Another organisations, internal and external
perspective argues that competency notions organisational experts and management and
should be output-based or work-oriented and employee interests at the same time.
considers the outputs associated with effective
The observable and non-observable elements of
performance (Martin and Staines, 1994). The
Management Charter Initiative definition, for Some commentators question the value of
example, takes work as its point of departure speaking of competence in a plural sense.
and focuses on occupational areas or Indeed, it has been suggested that
activities. However, such lists of activities do competence is a molar concept similar to the
not of themselves indicate the attributes concept of intelligence. Both concepts imply
required to accomplish such activities that they are composed of a complex of
effectively. European researchers generally important interrelated elements. It follows
advocate a work-oriented approach. that to speak of competencies as sub-parts of
Nordhaug and Gronhaug (1994), who work pieces that combine to make up the total is as
within an output perspective, define illogical as calling ‘‘intelligences’’ pieces of
competency as ‘‘the ability to perform the intelligence. There is some agreement,
activities within an occupation.’’ Tolley however, that there are observable and more
(1987) also advocates a work-oriented non-observable elements of competence
approach and suggests that organisations are maybe. Birdir and Pearson (2000) suggest
increasingly looking for indicators of that these components consist of skills,
achievement such as adaptability, flexibility judgements, attitudes, values, entry skills,
and enterprise. Stuart and Lindsay (1997) knowledge, ability and capacity.
conclude that the UK approach is more The iceberg model can be used to illustrate
heavily focused on the organisation and the observable and more non-observable
performance requirements of job positions elements of competency. Knowledge and
than on the job holders themselves. Within skills form the tip – at the bottom of the
such a model, the underlying characteristics, iceberg, the less visible elements of
Competencies and workplace learning Journal of Workplace Learning
Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

competencies exist and these control surface appropriate configuration to meet the
behaviours. These attributes include social requirements of the job, role or profession.
role, self-image, traits and motives. In this Webster (2000) suggests that competence
model, social role and self-image exist at a should be conceptualised as ‘‘the quality or
conscious level, whereas a person’s traits and state of being functionally adequate or of
motives lie further below the surface and having sufficient knowledge, judgement, skill
closer to the core. If one adopts such a or strength for a particular duty. This
conceptualisation of competency, it has perspective on competence emphasises
important implications for workplace particular knowledge and specific tasks.
learning. The top level of knowledge and skill Krogh and Roos (1995) reinforce this view
is generally easier to train for, while those and suggest that one may only speak about
attributes at the lower level are more difficult competence where a particular fit or
to develop. It is also arguable that the more agreement between the knowledge and task
complex the role, i.e. managerial, the more exists. This would lead to the conclusion that
likely it is that effective performance is driven competence is perceived as both knowledge-
by characteristics at the lower levels of the specific and task-specific and evolves through
iceberg. Derouen and Kleiner (1994) divide an interplay between both execution and
competence into technical, human and knowledge acquisition.
conceptual components. They further divide
the technical component into professional
and managerial elements and expand the Competency frameworks and typologies
conceptual category to include mental
competence, which consists of the ability to There exist some differences in perspective on
identify and solve problems, to memorise and how competencies should be categorised.
create, for example. The three competency Sparrow and Hiltrop (1994) suggest that
components need to be operated using mental competencies fall into three categories:
skill. The first three competency components behavioural, managerial, and core.
are termed intangible, recessive skills, while Behavioural competencies are defined as
the latter is a tangible skill. behavioural repertoires which employees
An individual’s work performance is bring to and input on the job. The level of
influenced by professional, managerial, analysis used is the person and the job and
people and mental components, but also by there is a clear specification that these
work values and attitudes. A person’s attitude competencies are what employees need to
is influenced by his values, while these values bring to the role/job to perform to the
are, in turn, influenced by mental state. required level. Managerial competencies tend
Therefore, competence as a holistic concept to be defined as knowledge, skills and attitude
consists of technical, management, people, and a small number of personal behaviours.
attitude, value and mental skill components. The unit of analysis is the organisation and it
They argue that mental skill components are is assumed that such competencies are
the foundation of all the other components. generic; are externally transferable and there
The intangible elements of mental skills and is an entry threshold standard. This contrasts
values influence the tangible elements of with the concept of a behavioural competency
attitude, professional, people and where the performance criterion is based on
management components. This characteristics of excellent individual
categorisation has major implications for performance.
workplace learning activities. Some Core competencies derive from within the
competencies are easier to develop and realm of strategy and competitive advantage
transfer to the work context, whereas others and some would argue that it is stretching it
take longer periods to develop and transfer. somewhat to call the strategic resources of the
They suggest that professional and organisation core competencies. The unit of
managerial components are difficult to analysis is both an organisational and an
develop and require a significant investment individual one. While more commonly
of time and financial resources. Other referred to in an organisational context
components such as work values and (Prahalad and Hamel, 1990), in explaining
attitudes, people and mental skills are easier organisational competitiveness, the core
to transfer, assuming that they are in the competency approach is also used to
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Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

determine the promotional readiness of a (3) Career related competencies, which are
manager within an organisation (Langley, defined to manage working and learning
2000). In this context, it is argued that it can competencies within a personal career
act as a useful tool in assessing the path.
developmental needs of future managers.
Nordhaug (1998) advocates a more robust
There exist many examples of attempts to
classificatory framework of work-related
devise competency frameworks with
competencies. This framework is different
application to practice. Boyatzis (1982) made
from previous typologies in that it utilises
earlier attempts to specify competency
three levels of analysis: task-specific, firm-
frameworks, when he distinguished between
specific, and industry-specific. Nordhaug’s
‘‘threshold’’ and ‘‘high performance’’ level
contribution to the debate is significant
competencies. Whereas this approach
because it considers non-firm or industry-
equated competencies with levels of
specific competencies. He suggests three
performance, other approaches sought to
categories here. He uses the term ‘‘meta-
classify competencies in terms of different
competence’’ to encompass a broad spectrum
levels of generality and specificity to the
of knowledge, skills and aptitudes such as
organisation. The Kioto people management
analytical capabilities, creativity, knowledge
model, for example (Devisch, 1998),
of culture and capacity to tolerate and master
categorises competencies as core, functional
and specific competencies. uncertainty. His additional categories here
Devisch (1998) argues that the concept of include intra-organisational competencies
core competencies refers to the means by which include knowledge about
which employees adjust to the corporate organisational culture, informal networks, the
culture of the organisation. Such political dynamics of the organisation and
competencies are considered non-transferable general industry competencies such as
and differ from one organisation to another. knowledge about industry and the ability to
Functional competencies are linked to job analyse the activities of competitors.
roles and the way in which they interact with Considerable doubt exists as to whether
other roles. They are considered essential to competencies can be truly classified or
performance and can be both technical and formulated into typologies. Collin (1989),
organisational in nature. Specific referring to Stemberg’s triarchic theory,
competencies are defined as the attributes argues that ‘‘underlying successful
that a person is required to bring to a job, in performance in many real-world tasks is tacit
order to ensure successful performance. knowledge of a kind that is never explicitly
These competencies may be transferable if a taught and in many instances never even
person accepts a similar job in another verbalised.’’ Given the intangible nature of
organisation but are generally not thought to many competencies, this is a valid argument.
be transferable to other dissimilar work. Many It raises the question as to whether
competency frameworks are static, classification is possible or valuable. Linked to
mechanistic, and seek to prescribe a fixed list this is the argument that the ‘‘whole’’ may not
of desirable competencies. They generally fail be capable of division into sub-categories for
to take account of the need for flexibility and the purposes of classification. In this context,
openness to change and underestimate the employees are viewed not simply as
importance of non-task-specific practitioners of specific competencies, but as
competencies. actors sensitive to a wide range of factors,
Kuijpers (2000) adopts an even broader particularly intuitive experience. This
perspective and proposes a typology of reasoning advocates that the study of
competencies which consists of three levels: competencies should take place within a
(1) General working competencies, which context, which addresses the employee as a
she defines as competencies required for whole person.
different working situations and at
different time periods.
(2) Learning competencies, which consist of Identifying the existence of competency
a bundle of competencies which facilitate
the development of working Competency identification and assessment
competencies. are controversial issues. Considering
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Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

criticisms about the validity and the reliability superior performance. The research evidence,
of identification processes (Burgoyne, 1989; however, reveals mixed evidence of this
Collin, 1989; Jubb and Robotham, 1997), relationship. Early work by Boyatzis (1982),
many of the assessment methods are strongly for example, found that, where a relationship
based on positivistic traditions and reflect the exists, it could at best be described as
scientific principles of quantitative associational. Parker and Wall (1998) take a
approaches. The methods used relate to the more definite position and argue that no
definitional perspective advocated. Work- systematic relationship exists between the
oriented approaches advocate methods such possession of particular competencies and
as the job element method, whereas worker- performance outcomes. Recent research
oriented approaches advocate personal reveals a more positive picture of the
profiling; multidimensional approaches do beneficial role of competencies to individual
not advocate any particular method but and group performance improvements. The
instead suggest the use of multiple methods. Competitiveness White Paper (DTI ,1995:
Some of the methods merit specific comment. pp. 116-18), for example, argues that
One frequently advocated method is critical management performance can be improved
incident, where employees of average and through the development of standards and
high performance are asked to describe qualifications for management, which are also
critical situations, which have occurred while linked to development and training
at work, and how they reacted to these opportunities. In a comprehensive study of
situations (New, 1996; Thomson and Mabey, competency-based management development
1994). The learning specialist tries to in sixteen organisations, Winterton and
establish the important factors, which Winterton (1996) reported major
distinguish the high performance of one improvements in individual performance
employee from the average performance of attributable to the effective use of competency
another. This method is problematic (Orpen, frameworks.
1997). The choice of incident by the The model implemented further
employee as well as the employee’s complicates the problems of competency
description of their own actions can in many measurement. Work-oriented models view
cases be a subjective exercise and this has competencies as recognisable in terms of job-
implications for the usability of the outputs. specific outcomes. It follows that the
The evaluation of an employee’s performance competencies required for a job or role are
is subjective in itself and generally, in critical assessed through an analytical process called
situations, it is difficult to predict individual functional analysis. It is envisaged that such a
behaviour, whether of high-performing or top-down process will yield a set of items
average performance, and consequently the including the job’s key purpose and key roles.
future consistency of behaviour is difficult to Each in turn is broken down into units of
predict. competence, which in turn are referred to by
Job function analysis is also commonly elements of competence and performance
used. Pottinger (1987) suggests that it standards. UK organisations use a variation of
involves the identification of the task the work-oriented approach, where they try to
functions which are used to infer the ascertain the manner in which the
knowledge and skills for job performance. It components of competence interact. The UK
has the potential to identify in an effective system views competence as consisting of
manner the essential prerequisite skills and three basic components: tasks, task
knowledge for a job in addition to the management, and the job environment.
identification of possible training and Worker-oriented models see measurement
development issues. It is argued that job concerned with the generation of lists of
function analysis is not very effective at behaviours or personal attributes that relate to
identifying the soft components of the job, effective role performance. Essentially the
such as the measurement of behaviour, problem is that in order to measure something
attitude, intuition and creativity. one needs a yardstick. Consequently, where
The literature on competency identification alternative models of competence exist, it is
is strongly positivistic in orientation. It difficult to arrive at a universal understanding
assumes a causal relationship between of a notion of competence that is amenable to
underlying characteristics of competence and measurement for the purposes of
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Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

benchmarking levels of competence across whether they can be derived from acquired
industry sectors. knowledge, skills or attitudes. It raises
Table III presents a summary of the questions regarding to what extent, if any, an
literature on a number of competency organisation’s culture and external
identification methods. environment moderate the development of
competencies (Townley, 1994).
Universal or context-specific It is arguable in the context of managerial
competencies work, with its unpredictable and uncertain
Kakabadse (1991) suggests that superior character, that a list of core competencies is
performance often occurs in hard-working largely irrelevant and impractical (Hayes et
collaborative environments. Consequently, an al., 2000; Burgoyne, 1989). Commentators
important question in the context of argue that effective management relies to a
workplace learning is whether the competency considerable degree on intuition or ‘‘tacit
bundle, which allows individuals to achieve knowledge’’ that cannot be fully defined
superior performance levels in one (Antonacopoulou and Fitzgerald, 1996;
organisation, can be replicated when they Cappelli and Crocker-Hefter, 1996;
transfer to other organisations. The answer to Albanese, 1989). Hogg (1994), for example,
this question depends on whether one argues that a context-specific argument is
espouses that belief that competencies are flawed in its assumption that a specific job
specific to a particular organisation or consists of a number of discrete tasks. An

Table III Competency identification methods: a summary of the research evidence

Method Researchers Process Effectiveness
Direct observation Boam and Sparrow (1992) Employees are asked to perform a number Relatively cheap to implement and not time-
Mirabile (1997) of critical tasks consuming
Observers record the tasks being performed, Provides a clear picture of the observable
which in turn form the basis of elements
competencies Not effective observing mental processes
Subject to observer error
Critical incident technique New (1996) Involves clarifying the differences between Ability to capture unusual behaviours
Thomson and Mabey (1994) average and superior performers Involves key individuals in the job process
Interviews with the job-holder, supervisor or Requires a long data collection process
other relevant person Requires critical knowledge of the position
Participants asked to describe particular job Capacity to identify good and bad
incidents behaviours
Process is repeated a number of times
Individuals must describe what behaviours
were displayed, who was involved and the
Job competency Spencer and Spencer (1993) A team is formed to identify the skills and Data can be collected in an effective manner
assessment method McClelland (1973) knowledge required Useful to identify job functions of individual
Team conducts interviews to identify jobs
attributes of outstanding performers Tends to focus on job functions and
Data are used to develop a competency overlook personal attributes
model May take some time to generate an
Expert panels validate the model to outcome
determine its effectiveness
Expert panels Spencer and Spencer (1993) Selection of a panel of in-house experts and May give the process legitimacy and
Cockerill and Hunt (1995) others who have superior knowledge credibility within the organisation
Boam and Sparrow (1992) Panel observes employees performing tasks May have difficulty pulling together a panel
and identifies a list of competencies which of appropriate experts
they consider relevant to job Suitable to larger organisations
Prioritising of the list to identify those that A tendency to miss out on certain
require priority development competencies

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Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

over-reliance on the use of context-specific been important in the past are becoming
competencies may lead to a situation where outdated by virtue of technological and
managerial work is reduced to a series of market changes. Consequently, employees
atomistic tasks. Johnston and Sampson must ensure that they invest in competencies
(1993) suggest that skills must be understood that are in tune with prevailing business and
as integrated and holistic and it is difficult, if technological trends.
not impossible, to separate them into Increasingly, individuals are taking
constituent parts for competency responsibility for their own professional
classification purposes. development (Kossek et al. 1998; Metz, 1998;
In contrast, to focus on universal Arthur and Rousseau, 1996). They must
competencies assumes that all managers therefore ensure that the bundle of
require a similar set to be effective. Raelin and competencies they acquire makes them
Cooledge (1995) argue that such an approach uniquely marketable in meeting the high skill
is too prescriptive, embracing some requirements of employers. In this regard, the
competencies and rejecting others. They transferability of competencies has attracted
advocate that management requires a myriad much attention. It has been argued that the
competencies, some of which may appear to competencies developed in one job may be
be contradictory but are required by the helpful, or even essential, for successful
circumstances in which the manager operates. performance in other jobs (Greenhaus and
The concept of experience is a relevant one Callanan, 1994). Employees with highly
in the context of competencies but is often transferable competencies are not
ignored. Martin and Staines (1994), for organisationally bound, as their competencies
example, argue, in the context of small firm are portable and can be used to good effect in
management, for the requirement of different organisations (Sullivan et al., 1998).
managers to possess a sound technical In contrast, employees with low transferability
knowledge of the industry derived from of competencies are less employable, as they
working a considerable period of time within are bound by their present employer’s
it. There is strong empirical evidence to organisational-specific skills, which may not
suggest, in the managerial context, that be effective in other employment (Hirsch and
experience colours the way in which managers Jackson, 1996). In conclusion, Baker and
approach particular problems and difficulties Aldrich (1996) argue that employees trying to
(Townley, 1994; Ashworth and Saxton, build up transferability of competencies have
1990). The value of experience is significantly to try to balance the possible stagnation and
underestimated in the academic literature boredom of high transferability against the
written about competencies and would tend threat of losing all previously acquired
to side with a context-specific argument competence, if they move to a position for
(Brown, 1994).
which prior competence has been poor
The employability debate raises a number
of important questions with respect to the
issue of universal versus specific People versus task-oriented competencies
competencies. Feldman (1996) points out The person versus task dichotomy represents
that competency development in the form of another lively debate. Bergenhenegouwen et
seeking out opportunities to develop universal al. (1996) argue in the managerial context
competencies enhances an individual’s that managers must possess both a range of
employability. In an increasingly competitive personal competencies and task competencies
business environment, with decreasing to perform effectively. They must also possess
promotional opportunities, job rotation the vision to encourage the development of
strategies allow employees to increase their personal and task competencies among
skills, knowledge and experience and increase subordinates. The argument runs along the
their marketability in the external labour lines that such a perspective allows employees
market (Greenhaus and Callanan, 1994). to share a common vision of the organisation
Indeed, DeFillippi and Arthur (1996) and permits organisations to link resource
convincingly argue that firm and task oriented requirements to business strategies. However,
competencies are changing rapidly, causing a it is argued that competency models do not
sharp decline in the life-span of many specify the balance between these two sets of
competencies. Competencies that may have competencies. This represents a significant
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Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

drawback, because it in turn inhibits the predicts that collections of individuals, who
potential of workplace learning to correct any have conflicting norms of performance, may
imbalance between the two sets. Currie and result in the creation of an organisation-based
Darby (1995) posit that competency models action bias. Havaleschka (1999) posits that
fail to provide a weighting system, which organisational success is often contingent on
would allow organisations to prioritise the proper cohesion of top team members and
competencies. Consequently, all the mix of competencies, which these
competencies carry equal importance. A individuals possess. In agreement, Alderson
production manager may be more focused (1993) identifies five behavioural
on task-oriented competencies, whereas competencies essential for organisational
a sales manager may be more concerned success:
with enhancing person-oriented (1) Good interpersonal relationships among
competencies. team members.
The balance between person- and task- (2) Capacity for openness and willingness to
oriented competencies will vary according to discuss issues.
the organisational and industry context. (3) High levels of trust among team
Nordhaug (1998) suggests that person- members.
centred competencies can be called meta- (4) Discipline and cohesion in decision-
competencies, because they encompass a making.
broad range of personal skills and aptitudes, (5) Capacity to discuss and understand both
such as creativity, ability to communicate and long and short-term issues.
to cooperate with others, the capacity to While studies reveal that the correct
tolerate and master uncertainty and the ability identification and implementation of generic
to adjust to change. Van der Wagen (1994) team competencies can lead to more effective
highlights the importance of person-oriented organisational outcomes (Winterton and
competencies in the service industry, which is Winterton, 1999; Hoerr, 1989; Shea and
heavily dependent on customers and service Guzzo, 1987), little work to date focuses on
quality. This led her to suggest that the focus the individual competencies that team
of future research should be on the members should possess and the optimum
development of competency frameworks for mix of individual competencies within
industry segments. a team.
Individual versus team competencies Maximum or minimum competency
The unit of analysis utilised in the Whether competencies constitute a minimum
competency literature is the individual; in level of performance, which employees are
more recent years the organisational level of expected to achieve or a maximum level, one
analysis is more pronounced in the which is suited to the realms of top-class
organisational behaviour literature. employees is contentious (Athey and Orth,
Increasingly, the emphasis in the literature 1999). In his early work, Boyatzis (1982)
and in organisational practice is on the clearly demarcated these issues, creating a
development of teams at all levels within the range from ‘‘Threshold level’’ to ‘‘Superior
organisation (Prager, 1999; Taggar et al., performance level.’’ He recognised different
1999). Strategic decisions are no longer taken levels of competency. Stuart and Lindsay
by individuals acting alone, but by teams. (1997) suggest that the lens of the
Kakabadse and Anderson (1993) argue that organisation should define the level of
the prevalence of mergers, the focus on competence required by individuals. By using
product and service quality and customer care the image of a lens, they recognise that the
and orientation suggest that teams are now organisational focus (and thus the focus of the
the unit of focus for learning interventions, lens) is liable to vary over time as
not individuals. Top-team composition is circumstances change. Jubb and Robotham
currently an important issue within the HRM/ (1997) warn of the risks of using a
D literature. Boam and Sparrow (1992) posit competency approach in such a fashion. They
that organisations should consider top teams argue that, due to varying levels of
in terms of a bundle of competencies, rather competency, the boundaries may be
than seeking out individuals who each fit a perceived differently by individuals within
desired competency profile. Overmeer (1997) organisations. They suggest that, if
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Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

organisations use competencies as ideals to Conclusion

strive for, the risk exists that they will ignore
competencies which are viewed being less This paper considers issues emerging from
important. However, it is argued that, to be of the use of competencies as a basis for the
value, competency models need to encompass provision of work-based learning activities.
the total range of competencies necessary for The competency approach, in essence,
effective performance. suggests that, if organisations design learning
Cornford and Athanasou (1995) suggest events to enhance the competencies of
that current notions of competence set levels employees to perform specific job functions,
too low. They highlight that competence- then they can develop individuals who are
based learning activities do not set high competent and do it in a more targeted
enough goals. They view competence as a fashion. Debate exists about the constitution
mid-way stage of attainment in the skill of competencies. Some commentators view
learning process and argue that the objective competencies as bundles of demonstrated
of any learning within organisations should be knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) and
on maximum proficiency and preferably argue that, to define competencies in this way,
expert levels. Commentators such as one goes beyond the more traditional KSAs –
Cornelius (1999) take issue with this competencies represent KSAs that are
perspective and advocate the notion that demonstrated in a job context influenced by
competency is level neutral and all an culture and business context. Competencies
organisation is required to do is set a level are also to be considered as elements of the
high enough to achieve excellence, given the job that are important for employees to
context in which it operates. perform effectively, if they are to be deemed
However, a practical difficulty with such an competent. Some researchers view
argument is that any model of competence, competencies as clusters of KSAs that make a
which advocates an excellence standard, real difference in the competitive
would allow too few employees to be certified environment. This moves the concept into the
as competent. The setting of competency realms of resource-based theory and marks a
levels is of particular concern to organisations significant shift in thinking in that
operating in tight labour markets, where competencies are generally thought of as
any competency frameworks developed individual attributes, organisationally-specific
must be perceived to have a beneficial and job generic (relevant to all jobs within one
impact on both employee development organisation), the performance components
and morale and in addition should align with of which may be either job-generic or job-
the organisation’s employee retention specific depending on the competency.
strategies. Competency models consider the
Given the strong behaviourist background development of competence not in terms of
of the competency concept and the focus any set programme of learning: the issue is
on modelling employees to meet the not whether the employee is trained but
standards of so-called ‘‘experts’’, it is whether the employee can do what is required
postulated that the use of competencies as by the role, function, job or profession. How
an idealised level that employees should strive the competency is developed is unimportant.
for is the dominant model currently used by It is argued that competency has no time
organisations. limits: individuals develop and acquire them
In this regard, parallels can be drawn at their own pace. Employees are considered
between competency frameworks and to be not yet competent rather than
mentoring and coaching initiatives, where the incompetent. Notions of competency are
main emphasis is on providing psychological advocated as egalitarian and premissed on the
and skill-based support to the employee to aid view that, given the right motivation,
their development and improve performance. circumstances and practice, anyone can
While both approaches can work successfully develop almost any set of competencies. In a
in tandem, training departments are often workplace learning context, the notion of
reluctant to move from centralised to competency is based on the job, rather than
decentralised forms of employee on common standards of performance
development, with the inevitable loss of achievable in the workplace. Competence is
power and control. generally considered relevant to the job
Competencies and workplace learning Journal of Workplace Learning
Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

performed and is viewed as the minimum based learning is considered too specialised to
level of achievement that is necessary to provide evidence of generalisable, cross-
perform that job effectively. functional use and not specialised enough to
On the surface, notions of competency be of utility to employers in filling specific
appear so obviously useful that they cannot be positions. Competency models are also
ignored. Consequently, the competence considered by some to be overly bureaucratic,
movement has taken hold in a number of overly elaborate and to factor the human
countries, among them Australia, the USA, agent out of the learning process.
the UK, the Scandinavian countries and On the epistemological and methodological
Israel. Contradictory evidence exists on levels, there is evidence of a bias in the current
whether competency models have as yet competency discourse. The literature treats
gained widespread acceptance within notions of competency as somewhat
organisations. Their use by organisations independent of context and the role of the
provokes much discussion within the human agent is not central to many accounts.
academic literature and amongst It is assumed that evidence of competence can
practitioners. Many of the criticisms are be objectively and quantifiably assessed.
pragmatic in nature, including the views that Many conceptions of competence are not
competency frameworks are a recipe for those of the agent or employee but of some
under-achievement and that competence is other party, i.e. the researcher. Limited
difficult (if not impossible) to define and emphasis has to date focused on employees’
measure. The non-pragmatic theoretical conceptions of competence and how such
critique focuses on the discourse engaged in conceptions may influence notions of
and around the competency movement. workplace learning and in particular the
Specific criticisms here relate to notions of learning process.
power relationships within organisations and Many pragmatic criticisms exist. Chief
the assumptions made about the usage of among them is the lack of a coherent
competence, the role of the individual and definition. The approaches broadly divide
assumptions about the organisation and the along US and UK lines. The US approach
philosophical basis of competencies. identifies itself with an input, worker-oriented
A number of non-pragmatic issues emerge model, whereas the UK model focuses more
in respect of the use of competencies as a on an output, worker-oriented model. Some
basis for workplace learning. Many of the commentators call for a more
non-pragmatic issues focus on questions of multidimensional approach. Academics have
philosophy, epistemology and methodology. to date found mixed evidence of links
The way in which competency ideas have between the use of competency models and
been incorporated into workplace learning specific improvements in employee and/or
discourse largely relates to issues of increased organisational performance. Such a
international competition and the potential preoccupation reflects the strong positivistic
for sustainable competitive advantage. It is assumptions that characterise the general
arguable that the philosophical and discourse on competencies. A view prevails
epistemological difficulties are more complex that, until there is a satisfactory resolution of
than the technical ones. Technical problems, the measurement problem, the competency
in particular questions of measurement, approach will be subject to questions
assessment and definition, undermine the concerning its validity. Others question the
credibility of competencies in a workplace futility of a positivist perspective and suggest
learning context. However, the philosophical that scepticism will exist as to whether or not
bias has resulted in greater attention being it is entirely possible to condense jobs into a
devoted to short-term control type learning at series of clearly defined competencies or
the expense of workplace learning in its attributes. An alternative, interpretivist
broader sense. paradigm argues that the notion of
Arguments are put forward that competence and competencies should be
competency models promote a conformist studied in a specific context, where the
culture and give recognition to rather insular interaction issues of worker and work can be
learning activities, limit more creative fully considered.
learning activities and ultimately reinforce Various dimensions of the measurement
organisational inequalities. Competency- debate are articulated in the literature:
Competencies and workplace learning Journal of Workplace Learning
Thomas N. Garavan and David McGuire Volume 13 . Number 4 . 2001 . 144±163

specifically, the lack of a universal model of requirement perhaps requires a shift in the
competence and a universal understanding of way competencies are defined and places a
the phenomena of competence. Many greater focus on their context dependent
contributions have sought to present nature.
classifications or typologies of competency.
Specific measurement and classification
issues emerge. One such issue concerns the
question of universal or context-specific
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