The quest for competence

The quest for competence

This articles describes several approaches to identify competent persons in work and more in general the meaning of several words related to competence. Please note the starting definitions:

  • Competence = the capability to perform well a job or task, hence
  • Competent = capable to perform well a job or task
  • Competence framework = a list of elements that should assure competence in workers or perspective workers

There are several approaches to assure competence in work, some better than other, sometimes combined together. I can recognize as competent:

1. Who holds a specific educational qualifications
2. Who holds a specific experience
3. Who holds specific personal features -skills, knowledge, etc.
4. Who can directly prove a good performance in the specific job.

Case 1 can be defined as ‘The educational qualifications approach to competence’. Assessment is carried out simply asking the person to produce the prescribed educational qualification.

Case 2 can be defined as ‘The experience approach to competence’. Assessment is carried out simply asking the person to produce evidence (could be for example a declaration of his/her employer) about the prescribed experience.

Case 3 can be defined as ‘The competencies based approach to competence’ or ‘The American approach to competence’ because has been developed in the US by McClelland (1973), Boyatzis (1982) and others. The personal features are called ‘competencies’ (singular competency). So please note the definition:

• Competencies: the human factors by which competence depends.

To define the human factors by which competence depends (left side of the table below), McClelland created a new word, ‘competencies’ (singular competency). This is not comprised by many authors who think ‘competencies’ and ‘competency’ are simply the American spelling equivalent of the UK spelling ‘competences’ and ‘competence’ and use competence and competency (and their plural form) interchangeably, as in CEDEFOP 2007. In McClelland competencies are not ‘concrete’ factors in the same way as personal characteristics such as ability and aptitude. The term competency is only a generic term (a label) used to indicate the personal characteristics which, from all those possible, are considered important each time. The term allows reference to such factors without having to list them every time. For a detailed description of how the concept of competencies evolved see Evangelista 2006. The American approach is usually adopted when is not possible (for example in recruiting or in career guidance) to observe directly the person carrying out a job.

The human factors by which competence depends can be assessed by different means depending on their nature: personality tests, attitudes tests, oral or written tests (for technical and general knowledge), interviews focused on personal skills such as the BEI Behavioral Event Interview developed by McClelland. In the classic BEI (McClelland 1998) the person is requested to describe six episodes –three positive and three negative- occurred at work focusing on what they said, thought, felt and did. Then the interview is transcribed and scored for previously defined human factors (competencies). In BEI inspired interview transcripts and scoring may not be used and questions are more directly focused on personal features, elicited by episodes occurred at work such as: ‘Describe the worst project you worked on’, ‘Describe a time you had to work under stress’; ‘Describe a successful outcome you accomplished working in a team’ or by direct questions such as: ‘What motivate you in work?’, ‘What do you think are your strong and weak points?’, ‘How do you deal with stress?’


Case 4 can be defined as ‘The performance based approach’, ‘The task based approach to competence’ or ‘The UK approach to competence’, because it is used in the UK’s NVQ, National Vocational Qualification framework. The focus here is on how the person performs his/her job. This way we assess performance in carrying out job tasks (tasks are the actions that can be identified in a flowchart describing how a job is carried out) and the overall performance results (right side of the table above). Personal attributes can be assessed too (for example technical knowledge) but only related to a specific task (for example ‘How you choose your tools when cutting seasoned wood?’).

In this approach, most used methods for assessment are a combination of the following evidences:

1. direct observation of the person whilst carrying out his/her work
2. simulation of tasks and work situations,
3. discussion of case studies,
4. testimonies from colleagues and supervisors,
5. examination of documentation produced by the person whilst carrying out his/her work,
6. examination of portfolio based evidence etc,
7. task based interview.

In the task based interview the questions are not focused on personal features (as in BEI) or on personal work or life experiences, but on how the person carries out the main tasks of his/her job. For example a task based interview aimed a assessing competence of a career guidance practitioner in performing interviews will be based on questions such as: ’1. which are the main steps of your interviews? 2. in an interview, how do you (please tell me the exact words): explain your role / explain privacy arrangements / start the interview / end the interview / signal time is limited / ask permission to take notes / signal time is expiring / 3. which authors/models do you refer to when performing a guidance interview? 4. what are the main challenges in managing an interview? How do you address them?’ plus several other of the same kind. An example of a task based framework applied to career guidance is described in Evangelista 2008.

Please note when dealing with assessing competence of people at work, the task based approach scores best. Why? Because the first three approaches are all indirect, that is to say speculative. ‘If the candidate holds the prescribed qualifications / experience / personal qualities than PROBABLY will be capable to carry out the main task(s) for which accreditation is sought.’ The task based approach instead focuses and assesses directly what we are interested in, work performance that is to say competence at work.

This excursus allow us to give several other definitions:

• Competence based approaches: all the approaches aimed to recognize competent people
• Competencies based approaches to competence: the approaches were competence is recognized thanks to the assessment of human factors (or personal features, if you prefer)
• Performance based approaches to competence: the approaches where competence is recognized thanks to the assessment of how the person performs his/her job


Boyatzis, R. (1982). The Competent Manager: A Model for Effective Performance. Chichester: John Wiley.

CEDEFOP (2007) Presentation of CEDEFOP manuscripts for publication in English, dated March 2007 retrieved at on the 8th of October 2008.

Evangelista (2006) Competencies and Careers Guidance.

Evangelista (2008) EAF Accreditation Framework for the European Career Guidance Practitioners at glance.

McClelland, D. C. (1973). Testing for competence rather than intelligence. American Psychologist, 28(1), 1-14.

McClelland, D. C. (1998). Identifying competencies with behavioral-event interviews. Psychological Science, 9(5), 331-339


Author: Leonardo Evangelista © Leonardo Evangelista. First placed in this website on 15 October 2008. Version of 10 October 2008. This article can be reproduced quoting Author’s name and article’s address