Competencies and lifelong learning: Attitudes & values, skills and knowledge

Matters of terminology

Training and development terminology can be confusing, even at times a minefield to navigate to those unfamiliar with it. The difference between Competencies and Skills is generally well understood, but it becomes less distinct when applied in common organisation-wide practices such as Performance Reviews and Training Needs Analyses, and often the two terms are used interchangeably. More importantly, as we shall discuss, in discussions around competencies and skills, attitudes and values are often neglected or under-represented.

Training needs Analyses are similar to Skills Audits, with the difference that a Skills Audit seeks to identify the skills among staff, and their usefulness and level, without limiting them to those already identified as core skills for specific roles and for the business operation. Though a wider, time and resource-consuming activity, a Skills Audit can unearth underused skills which can be harnessed into competitive advantage.

A Training Needs Analysis tends to be more focussed and aligned to predetermined business objectives, and aims to identify which skills, and in which areas of the organisation, need development. A third exercise, the Competency Assessment, is focussed on the effectiveness among staff of the competencies (core and role-specific) that will enable the achievement of the business strategy and results.

To make more sense of all this, we need to clarify exactly what is meant by a “competency” and by a “skill”.

Competencies and the implications of practising them

There are differing definitions around, but we can safely state that a Competency is an ability, or capability that enables us to achieve a purpose and to obtain results. For this reason, competencies are a vital means for organisations to ensure that the application of staff capabilities results in strategic benefits for the organisation, its clients and partners. In short competencies connect human capabilities with organisational results. In the professional and workplace context, a competency comprises three components, although these essential elements are not always given due recognition or indeed equal weight:
1. Attitudes (or aptitudes) and Values
2. Skills (cognitive, social, emotional, physical and practical)
3. Knowledge (practical, disciplinary, interdisciplinary etc)

The deployment of a competency involves the integration of these three elements for the achievement of specific purposes. In practice, when we deploy a competency, we are motivated and ethical in so doing, empowered by the necessary skills and informed by the relevant combination of knowledge. Quite a demanding requirement if you stop to think about it!

A competency in people management, for example, means in practice the ability to motivate, appraise, support and develop people (skills), applying up-to-date and appropriate knowledge, and a constructive and empathetic approach (attitude and values) in so doing. In contrast, suppose we are experts in applying the most advanced, high tech and engaging methods of people motivation and staff development, or we use highly sophisticated psychometric testing, but at the same time we are judgemental, insensitive or detached in our interaction with our team members; then we do not possess the competency for people management. Demonstrating a competency therefore means putting into practice all three components to achieve a purpose, whether managing people, managing a project, leading a research initiative, or developing a new vaccine, for example.

We can see with this illustration how vital attitudes and values are as an inherent component of a competency. This principle goes for any level of staff; it is merely that expectations in terms of the level of skill, knowledge, emotional and interpersonal intelligence are lower for the less experienced or less senior roles.

Challenges to the attitudes and values component of competencies

In the current technology-driven and globalised “infosphere”, many managers are expected to be proficient in a wide range of competencies, many of which are new and emerging, such as the ability to analyse data and extract business intelligence from it, or the ability to have a good understanding of online marketing. These (understandable) additional pressures and expectations often distract from and undermine their ability to practise good people management.

In such cases, the business sometimes requires managers to be firstly data analysts or business developers, and secondly people managers, with predictable results. If employee engagement, professional development, tools for dealing with uncertainty and staff self-management are all found to be effective and at healthy levels across the organisation, that may not be such an issue, but it is quite rare that all these factors are embedded as effective practice across an organisation, so an element of individual and team people management is almost invariably essential.

The people management example is useful to demonstrate how essential interpersonal and emotional skills (“soft” if you like) are to the healthy functioning of any team or organisation. But the same principle holds for most other competencies. If for example, we take a sales and marketing competency, this includes not only the classic sales skills such as confidence, communication skills, persuasion and negotiation, or the marketing skills of channel marketing, market analysis, marketing funnel management, marketing materials creation and exposition and so on, but also, critically, an appreciation of diversity (if you want to grow or diversify your market), active listening, empathy and integrity.

In the modern diffuse marketing environment, if these attitudes and values and qualities are lacking or falsely claimed in the marketing messages of a product or service, it is only a matter of time before people see through it. In general, if the proposition remains sound, the attitudes and value are what help make the activity sustainable – so people come back for more. There are cases which appear to be exceptions, but they tend be “captive” markets or cases whereby the selling organisation has cleverly created a new market where previously one did not exist, through concerted campaigns of advertising and making their product ubiquitous. Even in such cases, the organisation will have to demonstrate that its activity is invested with positive values and constructive attitudes to be sustainable.

Recruitment and assessment: assumptions about values

When an organisation recruits new staff, besides the interviews, there are typically tests to aid selection, and these may range from reasoning to psychometric tests to presentations, or from problem-based challenges to leaderless group discussions to other methods for the demonstration of the requisite skills, knowledge and attitudes. In these assessments, it is generally assumed that the candidate, especially if they come from a successful educational background, already has the requisite values such as honesty, integrity, and equality.

The assumption is in part driven by another assumption – that such values are innate, or the product of early childhood, and cannot be taught, so the best you can do is judge through the interview or by how someone behaves in a team or problem-based scenario. Evidence from prison education, from child adoption and from innovative educational approaches has demonstrated that teaching values may be challenging but is certainly possible. The effects of the Australian government Values Education initiative were analysed in 2008 and amongst other conclusions attesting to the effectiveness of that particular initiative, it was found that the “explicit teaching of values provides a common ethical language for talking about interpersonal behaviour. It also provides a mechanism for self-regulated behaviour.” Maria Montessori’s approach to education, now diffuse throughout the world, was based on cultivating values in the whole child (not just intellectual and physical but also spiritual and emotional), drawing on the essential good of humanity, so that the children discovered the value of responsibility and self-discipline, and how they lead to independence, with a conscience, in society. There are many examples that demonstrate that positive value and attitudes can be cultivated even quite late in life, as evidenced in the effectiveness of rehabilitation (rather than punishment) programmes, which also have economic benefits.

Competencies and stereotypes: examples from popular mass media

The problem comes when society, or dominant and high-profile components of it, appears not to hold these values in high esteem or practice them consistently. The same principle goes for leaders and the board of Directors in organisations. We cannot expect citizens or staff to be driven by these values in their interaction in society or organisations if they see around them prominent and successful examples who are manifestly driven by priorities quite different these values, and sometimes actually in conflict with them.

There are two well-known programmes in the UK that supposedly represent the real business world, and both have gained a vast audience: Dragons Den, in which people pitch ideas to successful potential investors and The Apprentice, in which talented young individuals are selected for coveted employment opportunities through demonstrating their capability in problem/opportunity-based group situations. In both cases, the TV production pressures unfortunately have led to an unseemly distortion of supposedly successful business behaviour in the shows, especially in the earlier years of these productions.

As these are two of very few TV shows in the UK which focus on business innovation and skills to succeed in the world of work, they have had a considerable influence on people’s perception of how business works. The phrase “you’re fired”, delivered with such finality, is clearly the very opposite of empathetic, and in fact many commentators have argued that the process in the show is designed to humiliate, in order to get higher viewing figures. The same tendency characterises Dragons Den, in which the investors, sitting all-powerful next to their piles of cash, would dismiss carefully constructed pitches by some nervous individuals who had perhaps spend years and a lot of money on developing the idea.

Defenders of these caricatures could argue that one of the most important skills or qualities we need in business, not to mention life, is resilience, And, certainly, that is undeniable; the OECD and World Economic Forum would agree. Also, of course, if we can’t persuade others of the value of our business proposition, then it won’t succeed. But it would be surprising if the shows did not actually put many viewers off the world of business, and deter them from innovating and pitching their idea, because the resilience gained came at the cost of humiliation and being publicly demolished as an individual!

Skills such as opportunity evaluation (and to some extent futures thinking), collaborative problem-solving and initiative are showcased in these two TV programmes, and these are indeed essential skills for the future of work. Knowledge of markets, of pitching techniques, of specific business sectors and of motivational techniques are equally evident in these shows. So far so good.

But are constructive attitudes and positive values much in evidence in the shows? Understanding and forgiving attitudes, empathy, integrity, and honesty are not exactly the defining characteristics of these programmes; the entertainment formula (such as it has been conceived) does not really allow space for these qualities to emerge. How does self-esteem fare in the process of rejection and humiliation? In the context of the programme these factors may be a necessary evil, but someone whose self-esteem has been damaged at work or in life often goes on to damage others. One can’t help asking oneself, therefore: do the supposed experts/ paragons of business success portrayed in these programmes actually have the competencies that are routinely expected in most job roles?

The behavioural norms in business are supposedly the attitudes and values expressed by the decision-makers of these “reality TV” programmes. Many people, including the writer of this article, would contest this and assert that in “reality”, business is not really like that and people are generally more cautious, courteous and understanding of others, especially across cultural and international boundaries. If the objective is “success at all costs” and especially, financial success at all costs then such negative behaviours can become normalised in certain contexts, but they are ineffective when to comes to lifelong learning and to adapting to change, which are widely agreed to be utterly essential for the future of work and workers.

Attitudes and the aptitude for lifelong learning

In 2015, the CBI’s Education and Skills Survey in the UK reported, from extensive research with businesses employing over 1 million people between them, that 85% of business respondents considered that attitudes and character were the most important factor when recruiting young people, and 58% cited aptitudes as the most important aspect. These figures dwarfed the number of respondents who regarded qualifications (39%) or academic results (31%) as the most important factor. Six years later, in the attitudes and character category, we can add growth mindset and learning agility – i.e. the attitude that change and challenge are learning opportunities – and in the skills category, resilience, the ability to deal with uncertainty, change readiness and adaptability. These are some of the key prerequisites for effective lifelong learning, in work and in life.

Why is lifelong learning so important, and why are learning strategies such highly valued competencies according to the World Economic Forum, UNESCO and other national and international organisations? Because the momentous changes we are experiencing, especially demographic transformation, climate change, rapid technological advancement and globalisation, call for massive and urgent reskilling and upskilling – of 40% of workers worldwide by 2024, according to the Future of Jobs report in 2020.

As set out in “Upskilling for Shared Prosperity”, the WEF and other global organisations set the ambitious target to upskill 1 billion people by 2030. If all the workers involved in this “upskilling revolution” are to have some say in their futures, to thrive and survive in this radical near-future reality and wish to be fulfilled in their work – rather than merely being pawns in yet another industrial revolution – they will need to embrace lifelong learning and make learning strategies foremost among their most well-developed competencies.

Facing the considerable challenges of mass upskilling while dealing with monumental challenges like climate change, water scarcity, demographic and health crises, it is also abundantly clear that, as well as new combinations of skills and constantly developing knowledge, we need the values component of competencies as the critical foundation for our response. We need to develop our “common ethical language for interpersonal behaviour” (Dr Neil Hawkes) as adults in a globalised, collaborative world, and to develop self-regulated behaviour and the vital skill of self-management and awareness, as responsible lifelong learners.

written by: Simon Whittemore , 22 September 2021

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