Defining Competency for Professions

Jeff Griffiths, FCMC CTDP

Profession: An occupation in which a professed knowledge of some subject, field, or science is applied; a vocation or career, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.  – Oxford English Dictionary

Creating competency frameworks and competency models is an evolving field that has gained greater prominence over the last 20 or so years, and it is where I’ve spent the majority of my time as a consultant. A lot of the work in the field – and the techniques used to accomplish that work – have focused on vocational education and training, and defining the necessary competencies for technical occupations. This work has been very successful in developing task-focused, competency-based training and certification criteria for a great many occupations. However, attempts to develop similar task-based frameworks for ‘professional’ work have been less successful, due to the nature of professional work – and this can lead to a dilution of the value of the credentials that are based on these frameworks.

In the context we’re discussing, professional work differs from technical work in a number of ways, but perhaps the most important is the nature of the way ‘competency’ is demonstrated. In a technical occupation, the emphasis is on “doing the job right” within a well-defined or “bounded” scope of practice. Professions, by contrast, can be thought of as “doing the right job right” – there is the understanding that a professional takes his or her broad and deep body of knowledge, and applies it when and how necessary to solve problems within a less well-defined “field” of endeavour; often the problems encountered are new and emergent, and the processes used to solve those problems are developed by the professional “on the fly” to suit the situation and the desired outcomes. This level of underlying knowledge and higher-level analytical and problem solving skills are characteristic of all true professions.  

For this reason, competency frameworks, models –  and the competency definitions –  for professions must be constructed differently from those of technical occupations. Professions work from a foundation of a codified ethical framework and standards of practice, which supports the application of a body of both general and specialized knowledge and skills that are used in numerous (and often unique) ways in a wide variety of contexts. Competency in this type of occupation cannot be defined by traditional task-based definitions of how well a specific task is performed.  What is needed instead is a set of overarching definitions of what competent performance would look like across a wide variety of contexts.

Professions are thus “centre-out”… with professionalism and ethics at the core, and can only be evaluated situationally through observation of the processes applied, the context of their application and the outcomes produced. Competency in the case of professionals is something that “you know it when you see it”… but it is much more difficult to clearly define.

Figure 1: Adapted from Lester, (2017)

Nonetheless, there are rules of thumb that can be applied to develop competency statements for the elements of the professional competency framework, as shown in Fig 2 below.  

Figure 2: Adapted from Lester (2017)

The key to effective development is the diligence and commitment of subject matter experts (SMEs) from the ranks of the profession who take part in the development process – they must be experienced, represent a broad cross section of the industry, fully aware of the need to create standards that by their very nature must remain open to a certain degree of interpretation in the field while providing sufficient guidance to be relevant – maintaining this balance requires proper selection and orientation along with effective facilitation.

Peer review of the work of the SMEs is also essential – a “trial and validate” process needs to be undertaken to ensure that the framework is “fit for use”. This will involve simple review by others not involved in the development process, but ultimately will involve trials in using the framework as a tool to aid in evaluating competency at the front line. Multiple trials and iterations may be necessary to ensure that the completed framework is useful, usable and fit for purpose.


Professional competency frameworks aren’t the same as those for more bounded, task-based occupations. Flexible application of the framework across the breadth of professional practice means that task-based definitions of competency are too prescriptive. Recently developed processes point the way toward the continued evolution of competency frameworks and ensure their relevance for professional occupations.  For credentials based on competency frameworks to have relevance in the marketplace, these next-generation framework approaches are essential.

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