Performance Based Competency

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.

I’ve been getting a fair number of questions recently about “performance based competencies,” and it’s been quite a while since I posted anything here, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and post something on the topic. The following text is adapted from the GAPPS Project Manager Framework.

Competent comes from the Latin root competere which means “to be suitable.” In today’s workplace, the term “competent” is generally used to describe someone who is sufficiently skilled to perform a specified task or to fill a defined position — a competent physician, a competent salesperson, a competent plumber. Organizations are interested in assessing the competency of individuals in order to guide employment and development decisions.

Broadly speaking, there are two major approaches to defining and assessing competency:

  • Attribute based wherein personal attributes such as knowledge, skills, and other characteristics are identified and assessed. Competence is inferred based on the presence of the necessary attributes.
  • Performance based wherein work outcomes and performance levels are identified and assessed. Competence is inferred based on the demonstrated ability to satisfy the performance criteria.

At IPMA-USA, we use the latter approach. Performance based competency assessment was invented by the US Army, and today, it is widely used throughout the world. For example, government endorsed standards and qualifications frameworks in Australia (Department of Education, Science and Training), New Zealand (New Zealand Qualifications Authority), South Africa (South African Qualifications Authority), and the United Kingdom (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) are all focused primarily on performance based competency assessment.

Our performance based competency assessment looks at the following two questions:

  • What is usually done in this occupation, profession, or role by competent performers?
  • What standard of performance is usually considered acceptable to infer competence?

We answer these questions by defining:

  • Units of Competency

A Unit of Competency defines a broad area of professional or occupational performance that is meaningful to practitioners and which is demonstrated by individuals in the workplace.

  • Elements of Competency

Elements of Competency describe the key components of work performance within a Unit. They describe what is done by individuals in the workplace but do not prescribe how the work is done. For example, project managers must “define risks and risk responses for the project,” but they can do it themselves or delegate the work to others. In addition, there are many different tools and techniques that they could use.

  • Performance Criteria

Performance Criteria describe observable results and actions in the workplace from which competent performance can be inferred. Performance Criteria can be satisfied in many different ways; there are no mandatory approaches, tools, or methodologies.

  • Explanatory Statements

Explanatory Statements help to ensure consistent interpretation of the Elements and the Performance Criteria by expanding on critical or significant aspects of them to enable consistent application in different contexts.

This approach is both consistent with and compatible with generally accepted practice within the field of competency development and assessment.

The Units, Elements, and Performance Criteria are not linear or sequential: there is no requirement that the work be done in any particular sequence or that the Performance Criteria be satisfied in any particular order. In addition, some Performance Criteria can be satisfied with relatively little effort while others will require a substantial commitment from the project manager over the full length of the project.

Our Performance Criteria address threshold performance — demonstration of the ability to do something at a standard considered acceptable in the workplace. They do not measure superior performance — what the best project managers do. Superior performers should, however, be able to satisfy the threshold criteria without difficulty.

We assess against the minimum number of Performance Criteria needed to infer competence. As a result, a candidate must satisfy all of the Performance Criteria in the applicable Units in order to be viewed as competent. In addition, the Performance Criteria represent different levels of detail. The number of Performance Criteria in a Unit or Element is not proportional to the amount of time or effort that a project manager must spend in that area to be viewed as competent.

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