Why do organisations pay us to train their staff? Typically, its because the organisation wants their staff to do something new or better. They have a performance problem and they want us to fix it. Organisations are shelling out their hard earned cash to meet some desired level of performance. Organisations want their staff to do stuff and do stuff properly. They seek competent staff and they often want our help to achieve that. Competence can be considered broadly (a competent pilot, for example) but training requests are typically much more specific and task related. The focus of this article is on those providing technical training but also has broader relevance.
The problem with the terms competent and performance is that they are used everyday in our profession and by those who require our services, yet its often unclear what they actually mean. Let's take a look at the word competent first. The Oxford dictionary meaning of the word is:
“Having the necessary knowledge, skills, or abilities (KSA’s) to carry out something successfully”
I doubt if many people would argue with that definition. However, when we drill down to the detail level, we strike several possible issues. One is a debate about what is necessary. We cant clarify any issues around what’s necessary until we define successful. That is where we can really hit a snag or three. Its where loose and vague training objectives, the lack of definition and clarity around customer expectations can really come home to bite those involved. A falling out can rapidly occur between training provider and their customer over whether those expectations have been met.
Training providers, wary of such potentially business damaging situations, often go one of two ways. The first is to make promises around improvements in knowledge and/or skill while deliberately avoiding detail about how much or what specifically. Customers are left wondering what they actually got for their money, unsure of whether any meaningful gains in skills or knowledge were achieved. Being vague may have avoided any criticism for failing to achieve some quantified objective but it certainly isn’t going to leave the customer with feelings of confidence in the effectiveness of the trainer.
The second is to rely on some qualification. Qualifications have become popular as an indicator of training success. The training provider will say something along the lines of “My training allowed Bob to achieve the requirements of qualification 1234”. “Thank you”, says the grateful organisation, “that must mean Bob (the trainee) can actually do what qualification 1234 relates to”. That’s when Bob pipes up and says, “I did a bit of study in the classroom and I did a bit of practical stuff (maybe) but don’t expect me to be competent on machine ABC!” “But you have the qualification for this!”, retorts his boss, “You must be competent”. The boss gets in touch with the training provider who states that having qualification 1234 doesn’t actually mean that the person is competent to use machine ABC. “But thats the whole point of me putting Bob on your course!”, the exasperated boss exclaims.
There is nothing wrong with qualifications but there should be, as with any customer/supplier relationship, no gap between expectations and what is delivered. To avoid gaps, we need clarity in what we are talking about, removing uncertainty and doubt. Let's get clear and specific then.
Since the word success conjures up different things to different people, we need to remove ambiguity around what success or good looks like. Remember that we are talking about performance and this relates to getting tasks done. Work is task based and results are defined as how well we perform those tasks. This leads us nicely to defining success in terms of task performance.
Being competent infers satisfactory performance through the demonstration of applicable KSA’s. Performance, therefore, underpins competence.
Just as you are either successful or unsuccessful, your performance is either satisfactory or unsatisfactory. There should be no doubt. If there is doubt, what is deemed satisfactory needs to be more accurately defined and agreed. Its all very well to talk about different performance levels but my experience is that managers want to answer a simple question; can she (or he) competently perform task X? Those managers often expect us to provide the answer if we are training their staff.
To perform satisfactorily, a person should carry out the task:
Many people would consider that error free performance is an unrealistically high standard. To calm such concerns, error free is defined as:
How long a task takes is often not included in assessments. However, from a work perspective, there are typically time constraints; tasks need to be completed by a certain date or time. A reasonable period of time can be defined as:
The definition of approved work practices is:
A customer can be defined broadly as anyone receiving a product or service. For example, this could include a supervisor who has asked a tradesperson to carry out a task. The tradesperson is the supplier and the supervisor is the customer. It is critical that both parties understand when the product or service should be supplied by. Without this understanding and an agreement, satisfactory performance is unlikely.
Depending on the importance or risk involved with the task, it can be common for supervisory checks to be required by the organisation or regulations. However, if the supervisor is checking a persons work because of doubts over his ability to satisfactorily complete the task, there is clearly a lack of trust in that persons performance. Consequently, carrying out work without needing supervision can be defined as:
The supervisor has confidence in the employees ability to satisfactorily complete the task
This confidence may come from previous satisfactory attempts at completing the task or from the demonstration of the applicable skills, knowledge, and abilities when performing related tasks satisfactorily.
If a person needs the skills and/or knowledge of another person to carry out a task that is typically carried out by a single person, then that indicates a lack of skill and/or knowledge. Consequently, the person is not demonstrating the necessary KSA’s. Many tasks require more than one person to complete. In this case, it can be difficult to ascertain if one member of the work team performed satisfactorily. Difficulties can be minimised by assigning sub tasks to individuals and agreement over what is expected from each member of the team. In circumstances where a person is under training, it is the trainer who is responsible for the task performance.
The key difference between performance and competence is consistency. If a person performs satisfactorily consistently (building up the confidence of work colleagues and supervisor in the persons work), then competence is achieved. Performance is the measure of each task but competence is measured over time and after several tasks.
A person can perform a task satisfactorily but not necessarily be competent at that task. He may have performed that task unsatisfactorily before. He may not yet have given a supervisor sufficient reason to trust his ability to consistently perform satisfactorily.
Competence can be defined as:
The consistent demonstration of satisfactory performance
Ultimately, a decision to state that a person is task competent is based on the confidence or trust in a person developed from past performance and the expectation that this will continue. As consistent task performance builds a perception of task competence, a range of task competences builds a perception of a broader role or position competence.
For a training professional, meeting all these performance and competence requirements may not be achievable on their course. If so, an open discussion occurs between the trainer and the customer around what is achievable and what, if anything, the customer needs to provide to meet competence. This is all part of understanding what the customer wants and providing a service that will aid the customer in meeting their needs.
We hear so much about judgement when assessing performance or competence. Even the most prescriptive forms of assessment eventually require a judgement call by the assessor. For the trainer to determine that a student has achieved X objective or standard, this article advocates a structured judgement process, whereby there is plenty of evidence to support the decision made. This evidence must be relevant to the customer and what has been agreed regarding the purpose of the training.
Fundamentally, competence is about trust and that trust comes from demonstrated performance. However, that is not smart trust unless satisfactory performance is clearly defined. It may be ok if nobody else is involved but short of being a mind reader, having performance defined between customer and supplier, trainer and organisation, can save a lot of hassles and misunderstandings.