Monday, 12 September 2011

Guest Post - Professionalism and the need for a competence framework

Susie Kay from The Professionalism Group with her viewpoint on a competency framework for the information profession.

This article is also published today on The Information Professions wiki, where you can read more about efforts to bring the various groups, associations and societies that make up the information profession together to communicate and collaborate more closely.

It is just over two years since I last put pen to paper on this subject in an article for the Opinion page in CILIP’s Update.  Natalie Ceeney, then Government Head of Profession for Knowledge & Information Management (and CEO of the National Archive), took the time in a later edition to state her public agreement with my position that the missing element in CILIP's work to define and maintain professionalism in this diverse sector is a profession-wide competence framework and, further, that it is essential that it should embrace the whole knowledge and information management profession.

In light of the current changes happening at CILIP and the ongoing perception that the sector’s professional association is failing to meet the needs of a very diverse workforce under extreme pressure and, more importantly, not answering the ongoing questions about the profession’s value to society, I believe it is time to make the argument for a comprehensive competence framework once more.  In recent times those professions who have achieved both improved professional reputation and internal stability have all worked to either implement or update their competence frameworks and CPD requirements.  There really is nothing to be gained by delaying any longer.

There has been previous discussion about perceived divisions within the community about how we demonstrate professionalism, citing lack of employer engagement, disappointment with the skill sets of graduates and ‘de-professionalisation’, followed by the professional body reporting that it had embarked on a review supposedly designed to modernise how professional education is delivered for this sector (1).

I agree that a radical overhaul is needed and further believe absolutely that our understanding of what it means to be a professional must entail a demonstrable level of competence and range of abilities. There are three crucial missing elements in the argument which the professional body has never, unfortunately, addressed.  

Firstly, as the sector contains a vast, evolving array of specialisms, exactly how big is the sector, how do the specialisms connect, who is included and why? The work to construct a competence framework would, in itself, help to bring together those who should or could be part of the community while still leaving room at the periphery for new and future additions or changes over time.

Secondly, what does professional competence look like for all those who seek to be part of this profession, at all levels.  In such uncertain times it is crucial that we are able to demonstrate and describe the underlying, unifying assumptions and detail about our levels of competence.

Thirdly, how do we ensure that both our education and training processes keep up, building in consistency and agility, while also encouraging the free thinkers and pathfinders? How do we ensure that the skill sets on offer to employers of graduates and those transferring into the profession are relevant and useful? How do we ensure that innovative and ground breaking courses are given the support and approval they need?  How do we ensure that relevant short courses are available whenever they are needed to top up skills or quickly rectify a skills shortfall within the workforce? Critically, how do we ensure CPD is taken seriously and that personal and professional development are shown to be of paramount importance for all?

In my opinion the answer lies in a detailed and constantly refreshed competence framework for the profession. The best of such frameworks have review cycles built in which ensure that they take account of the latest thinking and developments within the sector as well as refreshing connections outside. This enabling mechanism would mean that the profession would firmly embrace and provide constant connection to all of the many interrelated communities of interest which currently have such difficulties in relating to each other.

Competence frameworks have two dimensions -- breadth and depth. The breadth describes the range of those to whom the framework applies, allowing inclusivity, defining the range and diversity of ability and specialisms within the sector.  The depth defines that ability at a number of levels, from student and entry level to the highest levels of management.  The addition of job role descriptors at appropriate levels then also provides a career structure across the sector and enhances the ability to link education, training and CPD opportunities to the framework at the appropriate points, as well as publications, events and other products and services. Such a defined structure then means that qualifications can be aligned at appropriate levels, further linking the profession to other structured disciplines.

Frameworks usually detail the various competence elements in groupings which loosely equate to technical, behavioural and contextual areas, with ethical considerations as an integral part of the overall framework. As an individual progresses to higher levels of responsibility, they will be required to demonstrate enhanced interpersonal and management skills which are an obvious overlap with frameworks from the leadership and management disciplines. These overlaps will be repeated in other frameworks such as IT, project management, HR, etc, offering opportunities for alliances and a modular approach for academic courses.

Entrants to the profession looking for  accredited academic courses could be reassured that the course content was directly linked and derived from the competence framework, thus ensuring relevance and consistency.  This would help to ensure employability of graduates and reassure employers about the quality and relevance of education and training.

The existence of the framework would also remove the perceived differentiation between academic and experiential routes as the expression of levels of competence would be of paramount importance, indicating an individual’s professionalism, not just their qualifications.

If we are serious about wishing to talk about maintaining professionalism in the workforce and raising the public profile and understanding of the profession then we need to better describe who and what we are - our uniqueness.  How better to do this than to develop a competence framework which declares unequivocally what we stand for and how we manage and maintain expectations of ability at all levels?

The CILIP Body of Knowledge is no longer an adequate vehicle to enable individual professionals to make commitments to the employer community.  We must move to a structure which enables us to specify the capabilities of each and every one of the individuals who make up this extremely talented sector. The Professional Skills for Government competency framework [2] is described as ‘a structured way of thinking about jobs and careers for Civil Service staff at all grades. It sets out the skills you need to do your job well...'.   That’s a great definition and statement of intent.

Until a competence framework exists for this profession with which all can identify then we will not take our place among the leading professions as we should do.  The lack of a framework which makes the statement on behalf of each and every individual means that everyone has to rethink who and what they are every time they are asked and no one has time for that. Recent discussion lists have demonstrated clearly that we have a range of abilities but few can identify how these skills and competences link together.  Identity needs a framework for support for now and for evolution into the future.

At the end of her article two years ago, Natalie made a unique offer to the professional body, to share what they had already accomplished while creating the Professional Skills KIM framework (3).  A large proportion of what is needed for the future of the profession is already in place so the work required to create the profession’s competence framework would not begin from a standing start but with a huge first stage lift.  What remains is to establish the breadth and depth, make some intelligent guesses about where we going in the not too distant future and ensure that we include everyone in the conversation.  I believe the time is well overdue to make a start on what could be the answer to this profession’s very considerable current difficulties.

1  Defining our Professional Future report
3 Government KIM Framework:

Susie Kay is Managing Director of The Professionalism Group, an advice and consultancy service working with individuals, businesses and professional associations focusing on the benefits of professionalism

Thank you to Susie for such an interesting and thought provoking post, which touches on career development, advocacy and professionalism, all issues relevant to librarians, records, knowledge and information managers alike.

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