What is Competency? The Answer Seems Subject To Change.

| August 25, 2008

In a previous blog, I discussed the difference between competency and awareness in an occupational health and safety management system (OHSMS).  In that blog, I used the ISO 9000:2000 definition of competence as “demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills” since OHSAS 18001:2007 does not include a definition. 

It seems that the appropriate definition of competence is now subject of some debate within ISO and may be subject to being “re-defined.”

Competency is a significant component of at least four standards currently under development within ISO –

  • ISO 10018 – Quality management: Guidelines on people involvement and competencies
  • ISO 14066 – Greenhouse Gases – Competency requirements for greenhouse gas validators and verifiers
  • ISO 17021 Part B – Conformity assessment – Requirements for third-party certification auditing of management systems
  • ISO 19011 (revision) – Guidelines for management system auditing

Interestingly, each of these standards has apparently rejected the dictionary definition, as well as the ISO 9000 definition, and each ISO Technical Committee appears to be in the process of developing its own concept of competence. 

ISO 10018 is apparently focusing on how “human factors” impact the effective functioning of management systems with the definition of competency being passed to a subcommittee.  ISO 14066 is structured to set out detailed lists of the skills and knowledge that must be possessed by GHG verification and validation teams – with the focus on team rather than individual competency.  The initial committee draft of ISO 17021 defined competence as “personal attributes and ability to apply knowledge and skills” with a heavy focus on personal attributes and generic audit skills but essentially no guidance as to the needed discipline-specific knowledge (e.g. quality, environmental, OH&S).  The revision of ISO 19011 has just begun; however, the issue of auditor competency has already been identified as one of the “hot-button issues” associated with revision of this standard.

A review of the various standards and other reference materials appear to set out three different, and distinct, attributes that underlie competency:

  • Attitude and personality traits –who you are
  • Knowledge – what you know
  • Skills – what you can do

Where the ISO standards seem to diverge is in the relative importance to be given to each attribute (personality vs. knowledge vs. skill) as well as in the specifics of what is actually required and how it should be demonstrated.

What do you think?  What is competency?

© ENLAR® Compliance Services, Inc. (2008)

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Category: Standards & Certification, Training & Communication

Comments (3)

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  1. Interesting content. Are we not perhaps making a simple definition too complicated. “Competent” is the effective balance between knowledge and skill. This however is determined by the area or subject of concern. Although adequate knowledge is necessary to be an auditor, the emphasis would lean heavier on the actual application of this knowledge in reality (in other words “skill”) within the auditor discipline. However if we take “workplace inspections” the knowledge part is critical at this level whereas the application would still be important but the balance would weigh heavier on the knowledge part as opposed to the skill part. The definition of competency remains as described in the article – it is the subject that differs in level that requires different approaches towards successful application. Regards. Christel.

  2. MOHAN says:

    What is meant competency requirement of workers and those working on behalf of the company

  3. Thea says:

    Unlike ISO 14001, OHSAS 18001 does NOT require that persons “working on behalf” of the organization be competent. Instead, the requirement is that the organization “ensure” that persons “working under its control” performing tasks that can impact on OH&S are competent.

    This is an important distinction. Individuals may work on an organization’s behalf, and therefore need to be competent for purposes of ISO 14001, but that work may not under the control of the organization. In that case, the organization does not need to ensure their competency for purposes of OHSAS 18001. The issue is not the nature of the work being done but the control the organization has over the work activity being performed.

    An organization can “ensure” that individuals are competent in a variety of ways. This can include requiring that contractors are able to demonstrate that their employees have the necessary competency to work safely.

    Like ISO 14001, this competency requirement also does not apply to every job, position or task. In determining what activities “could impact on OH&S” the organization should consider the results of the organization’s risk assessment, whether the tasks being performed are intended to reduce OH&S risks and/or whether the tasks are specific to the implementation of the OHSMS.