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The Concept of “Competence ” and Different Approaches

McClelland [22] was a pioneer author in the definition of the concept “competence”, in his famous article “Testing for competence rather than intelligence”. He believed that the traditional selection tests presented several shortcomings; namely, they did not allow for the measurement of all the aspects which are relevant to the performance of an established function. Academic certifications and intelligence tests are not in themselves wholly sufficient in predicting an employee’s future performance; it is for this reason that it would be necessary to adopt a more comprehensive concept, namely that of competence.

The term “competence” has since been defined differently in literature, by researchers in the various knowledge areas [23]. Psychology refers to the concept as a measure of ability, associating performance to personality traits and underlying capacities. Management uses a functional analysis of competencies to determine how the improvement of individual performance contributes to the attainment of an organization’s objectives. sees competence as a key concept for the implementation of a strategic direction in processes such as recruitment, selection, training, performance assessment, promotion, reward systems, and staff planning. Finally, education relates the concept to the idea of preparing for employment and as professional acknowledgement. As a result of this fragmentation, literature in this area is divided into two approaches [5, 19, 24, 25]. These use specific terms and give them distinct meanings: (a) competence: understood as a performance standard, i.e. which allows for the efficient performance of a task and (b) competency: considered as the behaviour one must reveal in order to carry out the job tasks and functions competently.

In the UK, the concept of competence was associated to the Management Charter Initiative (MCI). This undertook an analysis of 3000 managers and culminated in the production of a typology, which established the competencies required for managers in various organizations and in diverse sectors. This initiative was used as a reference for the drafting of the NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) in 1988. This defines “competence” as the capacity to perform a specific function, perceived as a performance standard, which allows one to acknowledge and qualify a job as being efficient [24, 26].

In the North American context, the approaches tend to focus on the individual and on the behaviour he must reveal to ensure competent performance [24]. Studies which subscribe to this view were mainly carried out in the context of education/training and deal with the acquisition of tools for more efficient task performance [26].

There is, in addition to the above, another approach to be found in literature which focuses on the person’s qualities and characteristics (competencies) as constituting determining factors for higher performance [24, 27, 28]. Levy-Leboyer [29] relates competencies to an individual’s psychological aspects, such as personality traits, skills, and the acquisition of knowledge. Since the latter approach constitutes a comprehensive perspective of the concept of competence [19, 24, 28, 30], it includes all three aspects: requirements or qualities needed for a specific task (competencies), observed behaviour (competency), and result of an individual’s performance (competence).

Woodruffe [25] classifies competencies in two nuclei: (a) technical skills which are specific to the job and (b) generic skills, which can be universal or transferable. In the UK, the DfEE (Department for Education and Employment) and the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) proposed a classification of competencies [7], which is presented in Table 1.

Table 1 Classification of competencies




Key (or core) skills

The general skills required for various jobs, which include basic literacy and numeracy, as well as a set of transferable personal skills such as the ability to work well with others, communication, self-motivation, and the ability to organize one’s own work and to use information technology



The skills required for specific jobs or occupation groups, which are less useful outside these areas. They are less general than key skills, but can be transferred from a job in a specific area to another



Skills which are specific to a particular job or even an organization, also designated as technical skills

Source Adapted from Stewart and Knowles [7]

Lawrence [31] proposes a typology which has been adopted in the USA:

  • (i) Academic skills (knowledge and skills associated with the academic disciplines of reading, writing, mathematics, and science);
  • (ii) Employability skills (used to perform effectively, which are transferable to a broad range of occupations, such as teamwork, decision-making, and problem-solving); and
  • (iii) Occupational and technical skills (specific technical and occupational knowledge and skills which are job-specific, such as knowledge of sales methods, engine repair, and database programming).

The concept of “key (or core) skills” [7] thus draws closer to “employability skills” [31], in the sense that both refer to skills which are transferable to different subject areas and professional contexts. The following section analyses this concept in greater detail, from now on designated in this chapter as “transferable skills”.

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