Competence concepts and competence transfer

(2nd in my logic of competence series)

If we take competence as the ability to do what is required in a particular situation, then there is a risk that competence concepts could proliferate wildly. This is because “what is required” is rarely exactly the same in different kinds of situations. Competence concepts group together the abilities to do what is required in related situations, where there is at least some correlation between the competence required in the related situations — sometimes talked about in terms of transfer of competence from one situation to another.

For example, horticulture can reasonably be taken as an area of competence, because if one is an able horticulturalist in one area — say growing strawberries — there will be some considerable overlap in one’s ability in another, less practiced area — say growing apples. Yes, there are differences, and a specialist in strawberries may not be very good with apples. But he or she will probably be much better at it than a typical engineer. Surgery might be a completely different example. A specialist in hip replacements might not be immediately competent in kidney transplants, but the training necessary to achieve full competence in kidney transplants would be very much shorter than for a typical engineer.

Some areas of competence, often known as “key skills”, appear across many different areas of work, and probably transfer well. Communication skills, team working skills, and other areas at the same level play a part in full competence of many different roles, though the communication skills required of a competent diplomat may be at a different level to those required of a programmer. Hence, we can meaningfully talk about skill, or competence, or competency, in team work. But if we consider the case of “dealing with problems” (and that may reasonably be taken as part of full competence in many areas) there is probably very little in common between those different areas. We therefore do not tend to think of “dealing with problems” as a skill in its own right.

But we do recognise that the competence in dealing with problems in, say, horticultural contexts shares something in common, and when someone shows themselves able to deal with problems in one situation, probably we only need to inform them of what problems may occur and what action they are meant to take, and they will be able to take appropriate actions in another area of horticulture. As people gain experience in horticulture, one would expect that they would gain familiarity with the general kinds of equipment and materials they have to deal with, although any particularly novel items may need learning about.

Clearing and preparing sites for crops may well have some similarity to other tasks or roles in production horticulture and agriculture more generally, but is unlikely to have much in common with driving or surgery. The more skills or competences in two fields have in common, the more that competence in one field is likely to transfer to competence in another.

So, we naturally accept competence concepts as meaningful, I’m claiming, in virtue of the fact that they refer to types of situation where there is at least some substantial transfer of skill between one situation and another. The more that we can identify transfer going on, the more naturally we are inclined to see it as one area of competence. Conversely, to the extent to which there is no transfer, we are likely to see competences as distinct. This way of doing things naturally supports the way we informally deal with reputation, which is generally done in as general terms as seems to be adequate. Though this failure to look into the details of what we mean to require does lead to mistakes. How did we not know that the financial adviser we took on didn’t know about the kind of investments we really wanted, or was indeed less than wholly ethical in other ways?

Having a clearer idea of what a competence is prepares the way for thinking more about the analysis and structure of competence.

5 thoughts on “Competence concepts and competence transfer

  1. This is a great start but I think we need to critique the whole theory of competence and competency transfer. There may be indeed skills/competencies which are the same across all fields of competence, let’s say typing or spelling (allowing for differences in vocabulary in different domains). But competencies at the most abstract end of the spectrum are much more problematic (even more than those that are very specific like hip replacement). Things like ‘critical thinking’, higher mathematical reasoning, management skills, marketing, etc. may or may not transfer to other fields of competence. Some people are better at transferring skills but most are not. For instance, many successful ‘general managers’ did a good job of dealing with schools but just as many crashed and burned. In fact many of the assumptions behind the ‘education as a business’ metaphor proved to be just so much voodoo.

    There’s also a certain limit on the power of commonality between fields. In my experience, very often the surface closeness may hide fundamental differences and actually hinder transfer.

  2. Simon, I’m wondering to what extent we could distinguish between “competence transfer” and “broadly applicable competences”. Some of what is described as competence transfer, the key skills, seems to me to be competences that relate to very broad situations (where I guess the broadest is “being human”). Actual competence transfer, i.e. what an engineer might bring to horticulture, may be much more interesting, but is probably not relevant to defining what it means to be a competent horticulturist or engineer.

  3. Dominik – thanks for your interest and I very much agree with you. General management may indeed be like problem solving – and who knows (who has even researched?) how much of that ability transfers from one domain to another.

    Phil – you make good points, thanks! What I was trying to get at here was just a reasonable starting point. The common ground between the two things you distinguish is, perhaps, that if you assess a competence in one domain, that is to some extent predictive of a competence in another domain, and that can happen either because they are common or key skills, or because what is learned for one purpose is useful for another purpose.

    After further conversation with Phil (thanks!) I’d like to say that when I talk about “transfer”, really I don’t want to commit to any theory behind that, but rather (and this addresses also some of Dominik’s points) it is “merely” the observation of a correlation between ability in one area and ability in another. Calling it “transfer” does seem to imply some model of how it happens (which Dominik is quite right to call into question) which I don’t actually want to imply. I’ve edited the first paragraph to reflect this.

  4. Thanks, Simone, that looks like a good example of a coarse-grained set of generic / employability / key skills. One of the things I don’t see is a clear rationale for the assignment of level values. Yes there are different levels, but how are the different levels defined and differentiated?

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