Central to man’s existence is the ability to do things, and to know and understand stuff. For our existence we’ve needed to be able to hunt and feed our family. And for our wellbeing and security we’ve needed to be able to hold a conversation with others.
Being able to do stuff brings huge benefits. The more things we can do, the more complex those things are and the more valuable these things are to others, the more we benefit. Our careers typically describe the steady progression from early efforts to mastery.
Without such abilities, knowledge and understanding, we can’t be economically active and must rely on others for our existence.
And so the ability to do, to know and to understand are fundamental to our existence. Competence is key to fitness and survival of all firms.
Having committed to some job role, demands are put on us to achieve certain outcomes. The more we can meet these demands, the more we are rewarded, so it’s in our interests to gain the ability, knowledge and understanding needed.
If we have the ability, knowledge and understanding, we can do things to the level required by the task. Then the resources we bring and the demands of the role are in balance. Demands and resources must at least be in balance. If they’re not in balance, we fail to achieve the required outcomes.
At worst, imbalance threatens our future in that role. At best the imbalance will create stress. Imbalance between job demands and personal resources is one of the primary sources of stress and subsequent absence from work in the UK.
Competence is being able to do, to understand and to know. We talk of having competency in certain sub-sets of activities. Multiple competencies are needed to achieve significant outcomes.
For example, if the desired outcome is to successfully and safely navigate a ship up Southampton Water, we’d likely need to be able to read charts, understand how the forces of tides act on a given type of ship and know the ‘rules of the road’ and what the various buoys and navigation marks mean. That’s (at least) three competencies required for a single outcome.
Competencies can be defined for a given level – performance adequacy or performance excellence – and that determines the nature of the outcome.
Each job comprises a set of outcomes to achieve and these are defined in the Principal Accountabilities section of the jobholder’s Job Description. As illustrated above, each outcome needs a raft of competencies. Employees need competencies in the technics of the work. Managers typically need technical competencies (to know what their teams are doing) and managerial competencies (to be able to cause their teams to do what’s needed.
Managers promoted from employees typically have the technical competencies but rarely learn managerial competencies. Government statistics show that less than 20% of all managers are trained to manage people and finance and arguably therefore, unless managers have taken other action to learn, less than 20% have the necessary competencies for the demands of their job.
Since imbalance between job demands and job resources causes stress, and since stress is a cause of burnout, this is a worrying statistic for UK plc.
Imbalance in job demands and job resources can only mean one of three things:
- The job is done with inadequate safety, quality, speed or effectiveness;
- Stress rises in the jobholder, resulting in sickness or burnout;
- The jobholder quits.
It is therefore important for both managers and employees to determine the competencies needed to excel in the job they’ve chosen to do. And it’s for each to take whatever action necessary to develop their competencies.
Mind the gap
This requires two activities. The first is to objectively measure the gap between existing competencies and those needed. The second is to put in place the learning needed to effect the move from current to new competencies.
The personal benefits of success through competence are manifold. Successful outcomes build confidence. Confidence and competence join to yield even greater performance and outcomes achieved. Competence is therefore central to employee and manager success and progress.
And the dis-benefits of poor competence are so obvious.
Make or buy
Every firm has a choice when it comes to acquiring the competencies needed by its managers and staff. The choice is called the ‘make or buy decision’. In essence the firm can train and develop its managers and staff or it can buy in the required competencies from consultants and contractors.
Whether a firm makes or buys depends on which of the competencies it regards as essential in its staff and managerial body and which it sees as able to be bought in when needed. Sensible use of external competencies is beneficial.
After all, many skippers employ specialist pilots to take their ship up in to Southampton. Few can be expert in navigating every port in the World.
Having the right competence is fundamental to employees, managers and the business as a whole. Ability, knowledge and understanding permit performance. Lack of these characteristics means under-performance and problems for management.
Acquisition and management of competence is key to organisational fitness and survival.