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A Systems View of Competence

A competence, in the way it is used in training, is simply a construct that describes a class of behaviour that is deemed significant in the performance of work. The conventional approach to describing a competence is to identify both the specific behaviours needed to do the job and also any underpinning knowledge that supports performance but it is important to remember that ‘behaviour’ and ‘knowledge’ are of a different order. For example, to write this book, the performance is the way I express my ideas and formulate my arguments but in order to do so, I also need some knowledge of syntax, grammar and vocabulary and of the use of a word processing package on a computer. Comprehension, integration of data, manipulation of information and the creation of new ideas might be considered ‘competence’ but knowledge about MS Word is not.

It is possible to differentiate between knowledge that is essential for a specific behaviour and that which underpins performance generally. We can trace a line from an understanding of climate, through knowledge of local weather, to sources of current weather information and how to interpret a weather report until, finally, we get to decision-making in relation to fuel loads based on the probability of holding at the destination because of weather. The underpinning knowledge around climate and weather is generic but supports the specific skill of processing meteorological reports. This, in turn, facilitates effective decision-making, which is probably a competence. The fundamental question is, what background information supports performance?

We also need to recognise that information has a half-life in that, over time, research will render previously agreed knowledge incorrect. The knowledge base that pilots draw upon is refreshed in cycles, each of a different duration. Some fundamental information might survive a career. Policies will change over a shorter cycle while procedures can be quite unstable. The other side of the equation is the fact that information stored in memory is not stable. We forget and memories become unreliable. When we check a specific element of a policy in a document we find that it is not quite as remembered. Neither the knowledge base that supports operations nor the knowledge held in memory is stable but maintenance of both is effortful. Knowledge, then, needs constant housekeeping but recognition of this fact and taking the necessary action possibly reflects an attitude to both the individual’s role and to the job.

Throughout this book, I have suggested, possibly by implication, that mastery of technology and familiarity with policies and procedures is the foundation upon which competent performance is built. In simple terms, for each component or system on the aircraft we need to know, or have knowledge of:

What it does

How it works

How to work it

What it interacts with

How to deal with malfunctions

How to operate with degraded or non-functioning equipment What additional risks are associated with reduced capability

For policies, procedures and checklists I need to know what information is available, where to find it, what its scope is, what is not covered and how to use it.

If systems knowledge is the foundation then the next step is to consider how it supports the management of a task. We now need to integrate this knowledge into the operational context and, therefore, our goal in relation to aircraft control might be to:

Configure and operate systems to the required standard Maintain a valid conceptual understanding of what automation is trying to achieve at each stage of the trajectory

Use appropriate and optimal automation modes

Evaluate situations to confirm congruence between actual and desired conditions

Project how interventions will affect the trajectory

Communicate to sustain crew understanding of aircraft status and goal


From this analysis, we can start to identify what skills can be aggregated into competence and what aspects represent underpinning knowledge. A top-level conceptual structure such as this allows us to audit in-service training to see if there is a need for specific training interventions but these performance elements would need to be further analysed in terms of behavioural objectives for use in ab initio training development.

In this section, I have simply tried to clarify the relationship between underpinning knowledge and competence. The application of a systems concept to the task of aviation suggests that crew have to function in three specific domains. First, we can identify a space bounded by the normal variability of the operation and that of the performance of human actors. This is the domain of ‘normal operations’. Next, there is a point where the crew are having to cope with contingencies that require additional effort. This could simply be events that are non-routine but, nonetheless, normal (Kluge, 2014) that require physical reference to checklists, documents or third parties to verify processes or it could be anomalies that require clarification before action. This class of activities will add to cognitive load, have additional risks attached to them but should be with the expected capability of the crew to resolve. The final area of interest is the space where the operation is approaching the system boundary. Buffering capacity is limited and crew typically have to shift to a new mode of functioning in order to restore margins. Here, we might expect higher rates of failure among crew.

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