Optional parts of competence

(15th in my logic of competence series)

Discussion suggests that it is important to lay out the argument in favour of optionality in competence structures. I touched on this post 7 in this series, talking about component parts, and styles or variants. But here I want to challenge the “purist” view that competence structures should always be definite, and never optional.

Leaving aside the inevitable uncertainty at the edges of ability, what a certain person can do is at least reasonably definite at any one time. If you say that a person can do “A or B or C”, it is probably because you have not found out which of them they can actually do. A personal claim explicitly composed of options would seem rather strange. People do, however, claim broader abilities that could be fulfilled in diverse narrower ways, without always specifying which way they do it.

Requirements, on the other hand, involve optionality much more centrally. Because people vary enormously in the detail of their abilities, it is not hard to fall into the trap of over-specifying job requirements, to the point where no candidate fits the exact requirements (unless you have, unfairly, carefully tailored the requirements to fit one particular person who you want to take on). So, in practice, many detailed job requirements include reasonable alternatives. If there are three different reasonable ways to build a brick wall, I am unlikely to care too much which a builder users. What I care about is whether the end product is of good quality. There are not only different techniques in different trades and crafts, but also different approaches in professional life, to management, or even competences like surgery.

When we call something an ability or competence, sometimes we ignore the fact that different people have their own different styles of doing it. If you look in sufficiently fine detail, it could be that most abilities differ between different people. Certainly, the nature of complex tasks and problems means that, if people are not channelled strongly into using a particular approach, each person’s exploration, and the different past experiences they bring, tends to lead to idiosyncracies in the approach that they develop. Perhaps because people are particularly complex, managing people is one area that tends to be done in different ways, whether in the workplace or the school classroom. There are very many other examples of complex tasks done in (sometimes subtly) different ways by different people.

Another aspect of optionality is apparent in recruitment practice. Commonly, some abilities are classified as “essential”, others are “desirable”. The desirable ones are regarded as optional in terms of the judgement of whether someone is a good candidate for a particular role. Is that so different from “competence”? One of the basic foundations I proposed for the logic of competence is the formulation of job requirements.

Now, you may still argue that does not mean that the definitions of particular abilities necessarily involve optionality. And it is true that it is possible to avoid the appearance of optionality, by never naming an ability together with its optional constituents. But perhaps the question here should not be one of whether such purity is possible, but instead what is the approach that most naturally represents how people think, while not straying from other important insights. Purity is often reached only at the cost of practicality and understandability.

What does seem clear is that if we allow optionality in structural relationships for competence definitions, we can represent with the same structure both personal claims without options, requirements that have options, and teaching, learning, assessment and qualification structures, which very often have options. If, on the other hand, we were to choose a purist approach that disallows optionality for abilities as pure concepts, we would still have to introduce an extra optionality mechanism for requirements, for teaching structures, for learning structures, for assessment structures, and for qualification structures, all of which are closely related to competence. Having the possibility of optionality does not mean that optionality is required, so an approach that allows optionality will also cover non-optional personal abilities and claims. So why have two mechanisms when one will serve perfectly well?

To have optionality in competence structures, we have to have two kinds of “part of” relationship, or if you prefer, two kinds of both broader and narrower. Here I’ll call them “necessary part of” and “optional part of”, because to me, “necessary” sounds more generally applicable and natural than “mandatory” or “compulsory”.

If you have a wider ability, and if in some authority’s definition that wider ability has necessary narrower parts, then (according to that authority) you must have all the necessary parts. It doesn’t always work the other way round. If you have all the necessary parts, there may be more optional parts that are needed; or indeed there may be some aspects of the broader ability that are not easy to represent as distinct narrower parts at all.

Obviously, the implications between a wider ability and its optional parts are less definite. The way that optional parts contribute towards the whole broader ability is something that may best be described in the description of the broader ability. OK, you may be tempted to write down some kind of formula, but do you really need to write a machine-readable formula, when it may not be so clear in reality what the optional parts are? My guess is, no. So stating the relationship in a long description would seem to me to work just fine.

Real examples of this kind of optionality are easy to find in course and qualification structures, but I can’t find good simple examples in real-life competence structures. In place of this, to give a flavour of an example, try the pizza making example I wrote about in post 13.

I might claim I can make pizza. That is a reasonable claim, but there are many options about what exactly it might entail. Someone might want to employ a pizza maker, and it will be entirely up to them what exactly they require — they may or may not accept a number of different options.

In the fictional BSHAPM pizza making framework, there is optionality in the sense that there are three different ways to prepare dough, two different ways to form the dough into the base, and three different ways of baking the pizza. Defining each of these as options still leaves it open how they are used. For example, it may be that the BSHAPM award a certificate for demonstrating just one of each set of options, but a diploma for demonstrating all of the options in each case. I could claim some or all of the options. An employer could well require some or all of the options.

In the end, marking parts as options in a framework does not limit how they can be used. You could still superimpose necessity and optionality on top of a framework that was constructed simply in terms of broader and narrower. What it does do is allow tools that use a framework to calculate when something deemed necessary has been missed out. But marking a part as necessary doesn’t mean that a training course, or an assessment, necessarily has to cover that part. The training or assessment can be deliberatly incomplete. Where optionality is really useful is in specifying job requirements, course and assessment coverage, and the abilities that a qualification signifies in general, leaving it to individual records to specify which options have been covered by a particular person, and leaving it to individual people to claim particular sets of detailed abilities.

Perhaps the argument concludes there: it is useful (I have argued) for people constructing competence structures to be able to indicate which parts are logically necessary and which parts are logically optional. Other tools and applications can build on that.

Does that make sense? Over to you, readers…

Meanwhile, next, I’ll write something about the logic of National Occupational Standards, because they are a very important source of existing structured competence-related definitions.

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