Competence – what does it mean?

What does it mean to be competent, either as an employee or by carrying out a specific activity?

Competence is ‘The ability to do something successfully or efficiently’, (Source:

If you are carrying out any task, especially in the workplace, then it’s probably reasonable to expect that this is what the outcome should be; if an employee wasn’t performing to an appropriate standard (i.e. ‘competence’ within the context of that organisational expectations) then I would expect an employer would have something to say about it.

A broader, yet more specific definition of competence is given by the HSE as, “… the combination of training, skills, experience and knowledge that a person has and their ability to apply them to perform a task safely. Other factors, such as attitude and physical ability, can also affect someone’s competence.”


Each employer most likely has a different understanding of what they consider as competent. To provide a more objective understanding, and demonstration, of what was competent for different industries and at different levels of complexity was the basis of the introduction of NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) way back in 1986; these competence based qualifications have been mainly replaced by what are termed ‘Work-based Diplomas’, but even these qualifications are now being removed as they have not been as well received as being ‘fit for purpose’, as originally planned.

Having the ability to judge whether a person is competent at carrying out an activity to an agreed national standard can be considered an important prerequisite for the basis for raising standards within any industry.

Large documents called ‘National Occupation Standards’ were supposed to set the standards from which qualifications could be constructed to meet different industry sub-sector needs.

“National Occupational Standards (NOS) are statements of the standards of performance individuals must achieve when carrying out functions in the workplace, together with specifications of the underpinning knowledge and understanding.” (Source:

Many of these ‘standards’ were and are open to much interpretation and thus subjectivity, which I would argue have lead to the confusion and falling out of favour of NVQs and then the Work-based Diploma qualifications.

Having clearly defined, objective, readily measurable outcomes that are appropriate to the activity and expectations of the complexity involved help to determine whether someone is competent, or has carried out an activity competently. Effectiveness and efficiency are the keys to competence, with safety being an embedded feature, however, being able to objectively define requirements has clearly proven difficult in some industries.

Someone can be competent one day and for sometime thereafter, however, without keeping our skills and knowledge up to date, especially with the technological advances in machinery and materials that the turf care and horticulture industries are routinely developing, it can be difficult for someone to justify saying they are still competent if they have not carried out any professional knowledge and skills development on a regular basis.

For example, just being aware of new machinery and materials is clearly inadequate: having an understanding of the principles of application and implications of the effects of applied materials and their uses is essential.

There is a wealth of marketing spin on new products to obviously drive sales, but users need to be able to see through the often ‘white wash’ of the marketing literature to judge how effective the product/s might actually be and if they are ‘fit for purpose’ for what the individual wants with their available resources, not what the sales person wants to sell.

Maintaining and improving professional knowledge and skills is arguably more important than ever before due to the changing nature of society and technological applications.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is an important lifelong process which all employees should see as an essential activity to maintain their continuous and long-term employability. The process of learning itself should also be enjoyable and part of the social fabric of society, enriching individuals and society.

“Professional development refers to the process of learning and keeping up-to-date in one’s area of expertise both for personal development and for career advancement. Those who engage in professional development are interested in increasing their own skills/knowledge, enhancing their ability to do their work, and lifelong learning. ” (Vu, et al, 2014)

VU, Phu et al. Factors driving learner success in online professional development. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, [S.l.], v. 15, n. 3, jun. 2014. ISSN 1492-3831. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 11 Jun. 2017. doi:

For an individual to say they are competent and for them to be able to demonstrate this to their peers and employers, the engagement with professional development (on a continuous basis), which is recognised by a professional organisation that validates the learning, is an activity that forms the cornerstone of competency and the right to call oneself a professional within any industry.

Not to engage with professional development may not only present a poor image of the individual involved, but can also undermine those who wish to make a success of their industry and to ensure activities are undertaken effectively, efficiently and safely within all working practices: competency is what professionals strive for.

Competency is a good initial goal, but shouldn’t we be wanting to develop further – to develop capability, which extends competence into being able to respond effectively and efficiently to different situations and unforeseen circumstances. A subject to reflect on in another article I think.

Chris Gray, 11th June 2017