What is competency?

Competency - What is it really about? The regulator makes it clear that all authorised firms need to understand the concept and apply it in the workplace.

The word competency is often used as a buzzword, although in fact, a chap called Boyatzis popularised it over 30 years ago as a means of defining what the difference was between successful and unsuccessful managers.

Since then, much research along these lines has been undertaken, with the result that there is a general agreement about what ‘being competent’ at your job means.

Many of you will be familiar with National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), although in most organisations there is a lack of understanding about their value, as I have often heard them referred to as, ‘Not Very Qualified’. This is a shame, because:

  1. It demonstrates a clear lack of knowledge of the subject; and
  2. It tends to be uttered by people who are well able to cope with academic learning and feel that those who cannot are somehow ‘not as good’.

Back in 1988 competency was defined by the Training Agency as:

“A wide concept that embodies the ability to transfer skills and knowledge to new situations within the occupational area.

“It encompasses organisation and planning of work, innovation and coping with non-routine activities. It includes those qualities of personal effectiveness that are required in the workplace to deal with co-workers, managers and customers.”

In other words, quite simply, what an individual in a given occupation should be able to do.

Formal qualifications

This definition is no different for regulated industries. Consider those individuals in your firm who do not possess formal qualifications, but without whom your business would cease to function. You know how valuable they are but, if the regulator asked you to prove this tomorrow, how would you go about it?

The most common mistake that firms make is to present (usually proudly) a list of training courses that their employees have attended.

  • How do you know that the delegates learned anything?
  • How do you know that the course was teaching them something useful?

The sad fact is that many training courses are a waste of time and money, simply because they are either not relevant to the delegates, or because they are not teaching anything new.

That is not necessarily the fault of the training providers, but rather the lack of understanding of how competence to do a job should be measured.

The good news is that the subject of measuring competence is not rocket science.

Consider the method for passing your driving test. First, you are expected to demonstrate that you have knowledge of the rules of the road in a written test.

This is a parallel with the current regulatory situation of having to test knowledge, and it is a perfectly valid method of doing so, provided it is constructed objectively and well.

The second part of the test is an assessment of the pupil’s actual ability to drive the car safely in several controlled situations, including the ‘emergency stop’ should a hazard become apparent.

There is no other viable method of testing the ability to drive (or if there is, I haven’t yet come across it).

Now apply this to the work situation. You want to know, for example, that an individual has a clear underpinning knowledge of what is required for a particular motor insurance policy to be right for a customer’s needs. And you need to know an individual’s behavioural skills required to recommend that policy to a customer effectively.

What then would be the best way of ascertaining the knowledge required?

Hard knowledge is best tested by asking questions, most commonly in a multiple-choice format. This means that everyone taking the test is treated in exactly the same way and are required to demonstrate the same level and knowledge. All well and good.

A written test is not really an option since you have no proof that this is actually what happens when the employee is dealing with a customer for real.

Everyone ‘crams’ for exams, which provide only a snapshot of what your knowledge or behaviour was at that precise time. But what about observing the individual while they are actually working in a specific area? For instance, are they asking the right questions of a customer to satisfy an insurer so that it can provide a quote? Or are they gathering sufficient information about the customer so that adequate advice may be given to meet their needs?

Practitioners and support staff need to have the underpinning knowledge of why they must ask the right questions in order to know what is likely to be the outcome if they get it wrong.

Behavioural skills

They also need to have the behavioural skills necessary to get the customer to disclose the relevant information to them. For this method to be truly satisfactory you need to see the behaviour demonstrated consistently – that is, more than once and over a period of time. You also need to ensure that the individual, once deemed competent, remains so by repeating the process, say, at least annually.

Think also about how much better this hands-on method is in terms of the business:

  • You don’t lose the employee for a protracted period while they are out of the office on sparsely relevant training courses
  • You are observing them in a real (or sometimes semi-real if you are using roleplay) situation.
  • You are able to spot danger signs of lack of knowledge or understanding in a controlled situation (remember the driving test)
  • You retain control over what the individual is learning so that it is wholly relevant to your business (which is what the regulator wants to see).

The final, fundamental point is that you keep accurate records of your observation and assessment of an individual’s performance. After all, there is no point in making the observations if you cannot easily demonstrate to the regulator that you have done so – that is simply all that any regulator requires of you.

About the author

Kate is the chairman and co-founder of RWA and has worked for the company for nearly 20 years. She is a fan of developing practical, workable, business-led policies and procedures. Kate has specialist training experience within the financial services sector, including major general insurers, and the Lloyd’s underwriting and broking market.  She has researched and developed numerous training programmes, both for commercial and in-house use.  She has extensive experience of developing in-house and public training programmes for business skills, including Diversity, Employment Law, Management and Leadership, Motivation, Coaching and Feedback, Communication Skills and EQ.

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