“Soaring” and “Seizing,” the Roots of Competency

When our goal is understanding, it is generally a good rule, if time permits, to explore the foundations – the roots – of the concept and principle. Often, we find those explorations, similar to the actual roots which we use as a metaphor, lead us in directions and with twists and turns that were unexpected, but interesting and insightful for our purposes.

English and most of the so-called Romance Languages share origins with a language that existed about five thousand years ago: Proto Indo-European. When we seek a deeper or more fundamental understanding of a word or term, and we can sometimes trace its origins to Indo-European, where new insights and perspectives can often be found. Clearly, even long before then our ancestors needed a word to convey the meaning “to fly.” By extension, that term – a suffix “pet” – soon conveyed the meaning “to rush.”

As the proto Indo-European language branched and fragmented and evolved and was mixed and remixed throughout Europe and beyond, “pet” had been applied in new situations. By the time it had reached Latin many centuries later, it had expanded its meaning to convey the sense of going forward, therefore, seeking. By combining com- and petere, the meaning broadened into asking for, seeking, pursuing, or striving to gather.

Competere continued to be used and its meaning broadened as it made its way into English through Old French and then Middle English. Today, in general, competent conveys meanings which include to be capable of (suitable, adequate, qualified) of striving with others, together in the same activity, as in a contest, match or trial of skills or abilities in which the outcome is measured in terms of success or achievement. When we are after the same thing, and doing so with others, we are seeking and striving together. We are said to be in competition with others when we are seeking, generally or specifically, the same thing(s), e.g., a job, a promotion, a mate, a goal.

Competent is the term we most likely have in mind when we want to convey the meaning of capable or qualified, adequate, suitable or sufficient for the purpose – in short, to be prepared for the challenges of striving with others in the same basic activity(ies) that are measured by success or achievement.

And to think, the original meaning was to fly. However…

Just because we may be seeking the same things as others, does not necessarily mean we have, as the saying goes, “the right Stuff,” to be successful, i.e. – to have the combination of knowledge, behaviors, skills, actions, activities, that when performed effectively in the area in which we have chosen to strive with others, enables us to “fly or rush forward,” to get there first, and secure the prize we seek.

Increasingly these days, having the Right Stuff to rush forward in order to get there first and fly away with the prize, first requires “flight school and pilot training.” But before we can fly, we must complete “ground school,” where we explore the relevant, organized body of factual or procedural information (Knowledge), learn the required proficiencies in manipulating data or things (Skills), and demonstrate the power – mental or physical (including the requisite skills)— and behaviors needed to perform an activity or task at a high level of competency (Abilities).

Enriched Information Required to Make Knowledge Needed to “Soar” and “Seize”

Every day most of us try to swim in a Tsunami of what purports to be Information, but it is probably just data, and it certainly isn’t Knowledge.

As we prepare ourselves for successful soaring and seizing, we need to understand the “enrichment progression” ocean and hierarchy in which we swim every day.

The Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom (DIKW) enrichment progression hierarchy was proposed by Ackoff (1989), and discussed by Bellinger, Castro and Mills (2004). The five levels of the DIKW hierarchy include:

Bit: a digit in the binary number system. It can have two values, 0 or 1. In computer RAM and ROM memory, a bit is a small electrical switch which is either on (value 1) or off (value 0). A bit (short for “binary digit”) is the smallest unit of measurement used to quantify computer data. It contains a single binary value of 0 or 1. When someone brushes off information as “just ones and zeros,” the bit is what they mean.

Byte: bits are often grouped together in 8-bit clusters called bytes. Since a byte contains eight bits that each have two possible values, a single byte may have 28 or 256 different values. Computer memory is often expressed in megabytes or gigabytes.

Data: raw symbols/factual information that has no significance other than its existence, which can be collected and organized to enable reference or analysis.

Information: Data that has been given meaning (form and shape conceptualization, and thus, the ability to be useful) through relational connections–perhaps useful, perhaps not. (Think: relational database.)

Knowledge: An organized body of information, usually factual or procedural in nature–collected information with the intent to be useful, e.g. for example, answers the question “how.” The potential meanings inherent in previously unrelated information are given additional value of utility, of being able to be put to a particular use. The now connected information justifies, or makes the case, for our belief in the truth of our conclusions and supports our using them as a basis for decisions or actions.

Understanding: Cognitive, analytical state of new knowledge synthesized from previously held knowledge.

Wisdom: Connotes predictability based on understandings, in turn, based on previous understandings. Includes the processes of determining right from wrong, i.e. judgment.

Adapted in part from the Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom (DIKW) enrichment progression hierarchy proposed by Ackoff (1989), and discussed by Bellinger, Castro and Mills (2004).

Knowledge, Skills & Abilities (KSA’s) Enriched Into Competency

Similar to the DIKW progression of function and usefulness, combining Knowledge, Skills and Abilities as a progressive hierarchy or “pyramid” of proficiency, suitability and readiness to fulfill job-related responsibilities provides the basis for a much richer, more practical and useful state: Competency.

Collectively, KSA’s include the qualities and competencies (ability of an individual to perform a specific function or job) required to perform a job and that are generally demonstrated through qualifying service, education, or training.

NPM KSA’s are recognized, observable management or leadership attributes and behaviors that have been acquired or developed through experience, e.g. proficiency, ability, expertness, or technical competence in managing/leading non-profit, charitable-philanthropic organizations. Establishing an adult-centered learning environment specifically focused on providing those competencies identified by practitioners as highly valuable to them as management tools should be a primary objective of any graduate university NPM concentration.

KSA’s represent a general answer or response to the implied question by potential employers: “what can you do that will help me achieve my goal(s) (e.g., make a profit, provide a service)?”

Relevant Management Knowledge Definitions
Skills

The proficient manual, verbal, or mental manipulation of data or things. Skills are the natural or learned capacities (expertise) to perform specific acts, usually with pre-determined results or outcomes. That capacity includes the proficiency, facility and/or dexterity obtained or developed through training and experience.

In management education contexts: recognized, observable management or leadership abilities and competencies that have been acquired or developed through experience, e.g. proficiency, ability, expertness, or technical competence in managing/leading non-profit, charitable-philanthropic organizations.

Abilities

The power, mental or physical (including the requisite skills), to do something, typically meaning to exhibit appropriate behaviors (or behaviors that result in an observable product/service) that accomplish something at a high level of competency. Also, qualities that enable a person to accomplish something within a specific environment or situation.

In management training and education environments abilities should be validated through the written projects and products prepared by the student, including: SWOT analysis, Strategic Plan analysis, HR/VRM plan analysis, Communications/Marketing Plan analysis, Budget/Financial analysis, and Program Review/Evaluation analysis.

Competency

The term competence or competency conveys the general meaning of being capable or qualified; adequate, suitable or sufficient for a/the purpose; a synonym is ability. The word is derived from Latin, competens; generally, to be capable of (suitable, adequate, qualified) of competing (striving with others, together in the same activity), as in a contest, match or trial of skills or abilities in which the outcome is measured in terms of success or achievement.

Competency includes the ability of an individual to perform a specific function or job. Typically, that job or function resides within an organization setting, and represents a predetermined aggregation of behaviors, actions, activities, that when performed effectively, produce outcomes (e.g., service, product) that are valued/needed by the organization, e.g., contribute in some way to its ability to fulfill its mission and purpose.
Thus, competency represents the collective, combined ability of an individual to use applicable knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform a function to an acceptable level of proficiency, especially in conditions or situations where others are performing similar functions. Therefore, demonstrated competencies help validate that an individual has acquired the KSA’s needed for a position or function.

Competencies refer to the collective abilities that enable an individual to properly perform a function or a job – to be successful in their positions and/or responsibilities. Competency combines theoretical Knowledge, cognitive Skills, and the acquired Abilities needed by an individual to perform a specific role. In short, competencies include all of the Knowledge, Skills, Abilities, Values, and Behaviors, that have been identified by an organization or professional association as needed by individuals in order to successfully fulfill a position of responsibility.

Job/Position Description

A job represents a collection of responsibilities for actions and activities, the successful fulfillment of which requires an incumbent with the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities. Some jobs or areas of responsibility pertain to environments or situations that are ambiguous or volatile, e.g., emergency services. Competency in these positions requires a different set of abilities, e.g., situational awareness and a repertoire of potential actions and activities needed to bring about the desired outcome.

Competencies should be an integral component of a job/position description. In turn, the position description should be aligned with the organization’s purpose and strategic goals. Collectively, when properly defined, aligned with strategic goals and objectives, and practiced by enough people in the organization, core competency(ies) can become an organization’s strategic strength. Competency understanding, clarity and alignment with strategic directions enables organizations to define the behaviors needed within the organization to produce the results needed to achieve organizational performance goals.

“KSA” Spells Competency

Useful definitions.
Competency is the ability of an individual to perform a specific function or job. Typically, that job or function resides within an organization setting, and represents a predetermined aggregation of behaviors, actions, activities, that when performed effectively, produce outcomes (e.g., service, product) that are valued/needed by the organization, e.g., contribute in some way to its ability to fulfill its mission and purpose.
Thus, competency represents the collective, combined ability of an individual to use applicable knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform a function to an acceptable level of proficiency, especially in conditions or situations where others are performing similar functions. Therefore, demonstrated competencies help validate that an individual has acquired the KSA’s needed for a position or function.

Job represents a collection of responsibilities for actions and activities, the successful fulfillment of which requires an incumbent with the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities. Some jobs or areas of responsibility pertain to environments or situations that are ambiguous or volatile, e.g., emergency services. Competency in these positions requires a different set of abilities, e.g., situational awareness and a repertoire of potential actions and activities needed to bring about the desired outcome.

Job/Position description. Competencies should be an integral component of a job/position description. In turn, the position description should be aligned with the organization’s purpose and strategic goals. Collectively, when properly defined, aligned with strategic goals and objectives, and practiced by enough people in the organization, core competency(ies) can become an organization’s strategic strength. Competency understanding, clarity and alignment with strategic directions enables organizations to define the behaviors needed within the organization to produce the results needed to achieve organizational performance goals.

Competence and Motivation

The term “confidence” is often defined in terms that include the quality of effectiveness, sufficiency, ability, and success. Most sources analyzing competence do so based on the premise that it is an inherent psychological need for human beings. In short, most authorities see the need for competence “… As a fundamental motivation that serves the evolutionary role of helping people develop and adapt to their environment… Individuals learn to direct this general motivational energy using concrete, cognitively-based goals and strategies…Learn to use self-regulatory tools to channel their general desire for competence toward specific outcomes and experiences that satisfy the competence need” (Elliot & Dweck, p. 6). Significantly, competence-related behavior also includes motivations to avoid the negative outcomes and emotions generated by possible incompetence.

Confidence motivation and competence achievements have a substantial impact on our emotional profile and self-concept. When our efforts to improve our competency results and success, we experience happiness, joy, and pride. Negative outcomes on the other hand, can bring anxiety, shame, and sadness.

While we may experience different levels of competence motivations across our lifespan, typically competence motivations begin at birth with our desire to explore and control our environment. As we reach adulthood, our competence motivations and standards grow more challenging and complex as they interact with other motivational concerns, e.g., self-preservation. As we reach late adulthood, typically, our competence motivations are challenged by declines in our skills and abilities, but even more typically by the subtle pressures of society to exclude and marginalize older workers.

Nevertheless, throughout our lifetimes competence motivation remains an important contributor to our overall behavior and well-being. While competence motivation can be seen in all cultures, it may be expressed and manifested differently depending on the culture. Competence is generally understood to be a basic psychological need that has a significant impact on our behavior, regardless of age or culture (Elliott & Dweck, 2005).

Competence Acquisition and Development

Competency development can be seen as an ongoing process of acquiring and integrating the knowledge, skills, and demonstrated abilities (KSA’s) needed to perform successfully in one or more of the life domains at or above the journey man-level. When these KSA’s are further honed through practice and experience to high level of mastery in one or more domains, we can become experts in that area, e.g., Subject Matter Experts (SMA’s).

As Sternberg (2005) points out, expertise is achieved by “… purposeful engagement involving direct instruction, active participation, role modeling, and reward” (p. 17). The author sees the process of advancing toward KSA’s into competencies, and competencies into expertise as including five elements:
• metacognition (planning/evaluation);
• learning (explicit/implicit);
• thinking (critical/creative);
• knowledge (declarative/procedural); and,
• motivation (intrinsic/extrinsic).

However, he points out that development of competencies or expertise in one domain or area does not necessarily provide competencies or expertise in another area, although in some cases there is some degree of transfer.

The overall process of acquiring important competencies needed for career advancement and success is labor intensive and therefore time-consuming. Therefore, it is all the more important that programs preparing management professionals in a particular field focus on competency acquisition and not simply the acquisition of knowledge. Most academic institutions focus on the acquisition of declarative knowledge, i.e., facts, principles, concepts. However, achieving competence requires more than simply “knowing about” an area of management or other topic. Of equal, and some would argue even greater, importance is “knowing how” (procedural knowledge), and further, that “knowing how” (knowledge and skills) has been validated in a way that demonstrates ability – KSA= Competency.

Also highly important since the process is so labor intensive, is that programs of study and preparation emphasize the acquisition not simply of any competencies that might possibly relate to the field, but those competencies that have been validated and ranked by senior (e.g. successful) practitioners as being most contributory to career success in that field.

References

Ackoff, R. L. (1989). From data to wisdom. Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, 16, 3-9.
Bellinger, G., Castro, D., & Mills, A. (2004). Data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. In Systems thinking. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from http://www.systems-thinking.org/dikw/dikw.htm
Elliot, A. J., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Handbook of competence and motivation. Guilford Press.
Morris, W. (. (1981). The American heritage dictionary of the English language. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton-Mifflin Company.
Schunk, D. H., & Pajares, F. (2005). Competence perceptions and academic functioning. In A. J. Elliott & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 85-104). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Suggested citation:

Connors, T. D. (2015, September 1). “Soaring” and “seizing,” the roots of competency. In Transformational organizations. Retrieved from NPO Crossroads: http://www.npocrossroads.com/soaring-and-seizing-the-roots-of-competency/

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