Blog post

Compliance v Competence

Most industries adhere to some form of compliance, be it generated by government legislation or by industrial sector standards.

As a result such standards are often interpreted as a way of measuring competency. This confusion often equates to a muddied picture as to just how competent a workforce is.

As ever Dilbert offers a crisp, if satirical viewpoint.


The following is a succinct analysis of two approaches offered by Clive Shepherd, a leading training expert with over 30 years in this field.

The implications of an approach based on compliance

So what are the dangers of basing your approach to training on simple compliance?

  • Executives and learning professionals regard the whole exercise as a box-ticking exercise.
  • The training is designed to deliver as much dry and abstract information as possible in the minimum time. Subject-matter experts rather than learning professionals drive the design.
  • Knowledge is typically assessed immediately after delivery of the information, invalidating the results. No effort is made to assess whether this information can be applied effectively in context, in other words competence.
  • Employees will do the minimum possible to complete the training, focusing all their attention on passing the assessment rather than on gaining useful information that is important for their job.
  • On the basis that people resist ‘being changed’, it is possible that the whole process makes them less likely to comply rather than more so.
  • E-learning is often used as the means of delivery to minimise costs and take the pressure off trainers who understandably don’t want to deliver training that nobody wants to do. As a result, e-learning becomes synonymous with compliance and bad training generally.

Shifting the emphasis to competence

How would the picture change if a genuine attempt was made to ensure competence?

  • Executives and learning professionals would themselves be committed to change and would model the desired behavior consistently.
  • The training would focus on encouraging positive attitudes to the necessary change, providing critically-important information (the rest can be accessed as reference resources), putting principles into context with examples and case studies and, most importantly, providing plenty of opportunities for practice (with supportive feedback).
  • Employees are assessed on the basis of their ability to apply what they have learned in context rather than their ability to retain information.
  • Management reinforce the desired behavior when it is put into practice.
  • E-learning is used when it is an appropriate medium for delivering elements of what is likely to be a blended solution.

Clive Shepherd, Strategies for transformation 3: from compliance to competence

Competency Management Systems can greatly assist in the process of making the shift from compliance thinking to achieving a competent workforce.

Competency management is a strategic process that supports corporate goals and initiatives. It is not a rote procedure that can be purely automated. An enterprise that is considering software for competency management should therefore look for a tool to assist its efforts, not to entirely automate them. Tools cannot find employees, analyse a market, or perform many of the other tasks that are part of managing competency.

By developing processes first, an organisation can help itself choose competency management software that will best meet its needs and then configure that software in a way that closely conforms to its own methods.

In a research paper published in the journal Business & Information Systems Engineering, Bernd Simon of Vienna University wrote that “Before a CMS is introduced, the stakeholders involved in the competency development processes must be identified and should have the opportunity to influence the definition of the goal and the implementation of the processes. Many interview partners confirmed that such a procedure is desirable and that social aspects with regard to the project definition determine the success or failure of a CMS already at a very early stage.”