Representing common structures

(8th in my logic of competence series)

In the last two posts, I’ve set out some logic for simple competence structures and for more complex cases. But we still need to consider how to link across different structures, because only then will the structures start to become really useful.

If you look at various related UK National Occupational Standards (NOSs), you will notice that typically, each published document, containing a collection of units, has some units specific to that collection and some shared in common with other collections. Thus, LANTRA’s Production Horticulture NOSs (October 2008) include 17 common units that are shared between different LANTRA NOSs, and Agricultural Crop Production NOSs (May 2007) include 18 of these units. Ten of them appear in both sets. Now if, for instance, you happen to have studied Production Horticulture and you wanted to move over to Agricultural Crop Production, it would be useful to be able to identify the common ground so that you didn’t have to waste your time studying things you know already. And, if you want to claim competence in both agriculture and horticulture, it would be useful to be able to use the same evidence for common requirements.

How can what is in common between two such competence structures be clearly identified? There are currently common codes (CU2, CU5, etc.) that identify the common units; and units imported from other Sector Skills Councils (as frequently happens) are identified by their unit code from the originating NOSs. However, there are no guarantees. And if you look hard, you sometimes find discrepancies. CU5, for example, “Develop personal performance and maintain working relationships”, is divided into two elements, “Maintain and develop personal performance” and “Establish and maintain working relationships with others”. In both sets, “others” are defined as

  1. colleagues
  2. supervisors and managers
  3. persons external to the team, department or organisation
  4. people for whom English is not their first language.

But when the unit CU5 appeared in Veterinary Nursing NOSs in 2006, non-native English speakers were not explicitly specified. Do we have to regard the units are slightly different? We can imagine what has happened — presumably someone has recognised an omission, and put it what was missing. But what if that has been reflected in the training delivered? Would it mean that people trained in 2006 would not have been introduced to issues with non-native speakers? And does that mean that they really should be given some extra training? And later the plot thickens… LANTRA’s “Veterinary nursing and auxiliary services” NOSs from July 2010 has CU5, “Maintain and develop personal performance” and CU5A, “Establish and maintain working relationships with others”. This seems to follow a pattern of development in which the NOS units are simplified and separated. The (same) different kinds of “others” are now just included in the overview paragraph at the beginning of CU5A.

I hope it’s worth going through this exercise in possible confusion to underline the need for links across structures. Ideally, an occupational standard should be able to include a unit from elsewhere by referring to it, not by copying it; and there would need to be clear versions with clearly marked changes. But if people insist on copying (as they currently often do), at least there could be very clear indications given about when something is intended to be exactly the same, and when it is pretty close even though not exactly the same.

Back in the simple competence structures post, I introduced the SKOS relationships “broader” and “narrower”. There are other SKOS relationships that seem perfectly suited for this job of relating across different competence structures. These are the SKOS Mapping Properties. It would seem natural to take skos:exactMatch to mean that this competence definition I have here is intended to be exactly the same as that one over there, and skos:closeMatch would serve well for “pretty much the same”, or “practically the same”. If these relationships were properly noted, there could be ICT support for the kinds of tasks mentioned above — e.g. working out what counted as evidence of what competence, and what you still needed to cover in a new course that you hadn’t covered in an old course, or gained from experience.

And if all parts of competence structures were given globally unique IDs, ideally in the form of URIs, then this same process could apply at any granularity. It would be easy to make it clear even to machines that this NOS unit was the same as that one, right down to the fine granularity of a particular knowledge or ability item being the same as one in a different unit. An electronic list of competence concepts would have alongside it an electronic list of relationships — a kind of “map” — that could show both the internal “skos:broader” and “skos:narrower” relations, and the external “skos:exactMatch” and “skos:closeMatch” equivalencies.

This gives us a reasonable basis for reuse of parts, at any level, of different structures, but we haven’t yet considered comparison of competence structures where there aren’t any direct equivalence mappings.

5 thoughts on “Representing common structures

  1. Perversely, by increasing the granularity at which individual competence structures can be cited I’d be less inclined to accept their validity in different contexts.
    For example if I was assessing an agricultural NVQ portfolio, with evidence for “Establish and maintain working relationships with others” gained from the context of Veterinary Nursing, I might be concerned at the different natures of such working relationships.
    This is rather odd, as up to now, I’d been developing a line of thought regarding the “required precision” of such assessment, thinking such detail isn’t needed… but it patently is.
    I’ll try and think through what is perplexing me, and articulate it more clearly.

  2. Rob, I think you’ve hit on an important point. There isn’t any guarantee that sub-competences can be transferred across different contexts. This relates back to my earlier post in this series. People really need to think carefully whether it is genuinely the same competence or not; whether it actually transfers or not.

    Really to fix this requires an enormous amount of work, assessing whether people with a skill gained in one context perform well on the same skill in another context. When the empirical evidence is in, we have a better chance of nailing this one. Until then … ?

  3. This is one of the points we are considering carefully in the InteropAbility Project. The issue of granularity is potentially very important. In our current (May 2011) ‘straw man’, re-using a formal competence spec involves taking across all the sub-competences, in other words, you have to import all the granularity that’s there. If you don’t, then you’re effectively copying and creating your own competence *based on* the original. There is no Exact Match relationship here.

    Personally (and this view may not be shared by colleagues in the project), I feel that there is judgement to be used to decide whether concatenating the sub-competences is to all all intents and purposes the same as using each one separately.

    Of course, once you’ve imported it, you make your own arrangements for how to use it…

  4. It is a matter of pure context. As with all competency statements / sources “works well with others” should have some kind of evidence or trusted source for it to be valid. Therefore we should also add to a context statement in which the decision was made i.e. in the fields or in the cowsheds.

  5. Tom

    Not sure what you are saying is “a matter of pure context”. Certainly I agree it is vital to allow evidence to be attached to claims. That, to me, is the logic of evidence. But can’t we first separate out the logic of competence by itself, leaving evidence (and assessment, etc.) to be filled in separately?

    I would take your ideas forward in this way: (a) if working well with others in the cowsheds is actually a different competence to working well with others in the fields, then that needs to be made explicit in some way. Or (b) maybe the different contexts for working well with others are secondary? In that case, the context-specific versions are sub-competences in some way? I think they could perhaps best be seen as variants or styles – see later posts in the series.

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