The importance of competence


The phrase ‘training for competence’ is often used among professionals serious about developing skills and talent in our country. But the big question remains: Are we actually doing it?

Are we training people for competence? Pulling no punches, one of South Africa’s top experts in skills development, learnerships and training, Suzanne Hattingh—who heads
the human resource development consultancy, Learning For Performance Improvement—says no, we are not!

Presenting an edgy and outspoken presentation at the 2014 ArcelorMittal Skills Development Summit, Hattingh, who has written many books on the subject, says the biggest mistake industries are making is to train for credits on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), as opposed to training for competence—which, in her opinion, is not exactly the same thing. In fact, Hattingh, who also specialises in strategies, processes and action plans focused on improving individual and organisational performance to ensure return on investment in human resource development (HRD), says at times we’ve lost the plot “in this maze of skills development systems”.

With more than 20 years’ experience consulting to clients in the private and public sector, including the SA Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and the sector education and training authorities (Setas), she highlights what she calls some basic truths about training for competence. “The first truth is that the Setas didn’t invent training. I think some of them think they do; they think they established the system. Training for workforce competence existed long before the Setas were established and it will continue long after they have died. We’ve had continuous disruptive changes in the system. We started with 27, then there were 25, 23, 21 and it’s actually nice when you put them together, because one day we will get to zero. It is an ineffective, complex bureaucratic system and we battle with employers, training providers, learners—everybody battles with it.

“The Setas have been around for 20 years. If any company had a system that had not worked for 20 years, they would scrap it. But we keep trying to fix this thing, but we don’t really manage that well.

“I’m not saying the Setas must go, I don’t argue that. I work with some Setas that are extremely effective. I also, unfortunately, work with some that are totally useless. All I’m saying is, let’s just think about what we are doing and recognise that we’re not always doing the right thing. As an example: I have recently been working with a company that has been waiting for three years for the qualification certificates to come from the Seta—that is totally unacceptable,” says Hattingh, who has published numerous practical implementation toolkits and guidelines, including the Staff Development Guide for Employers, Skills Planning for Improved Staff Performance and Roadmap to Learnerships, as well as a wide range of training materials.

The second point she highlights is the Seta grants and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) Scorecard, which more often than not drive decisions regarding training. Hattingh says this is unfortunately the case, as when employers implement learnerships, they also decide to “employ learnerships”. And mostly, when asked why, it is because they get Seta grants and B-BBEE Scorecard points.

“I’ve done a lot of work in learnerships and I often find that the employers don’t have the resources or the actual commitment to really implement them properly. You actually do need that capacity to do that. Any employer, small or large, needs a business-driven, long-term focused skills planning process. It must be driven by internal needs. It can be influenced by the Seta grants and BEE, but that shouldn’t be the starting point.

“So I’m not saying BEE is wrong. I’m merely saying you cannot use BEE to determine the kind of training you are doing in your company. We have to focus training on competency requirements. That’s, again, a very simple, straightforward sentence. This is usually the process I use when I consult companies. You start with the organisation’s business strategy—and you determine what the key performance areas (KPAs) are to achieve the desired business results,” says Hattingh.

According to her, some key questions to ask in this process are:

  • What are the job categories you need for the KPAs?
  • What functions must be performed?
  • What kind of deliverables are needed?
  • What are the outputs expected?
  • What are the competencies?

Only after determining these can you determine what kind of training or other interventions you need to do to address your skills needs. “But you have to go through that logical process. You cannot just jump and say, the Seta is going to give X amount of money if we start with a learnership, so we start with a learnership. The one thing we don’t do well enough in South Africa is to analyse the causes of performance gaps, like maybe what the performance gaps of the Setas are.

“You really need to do that in training, but what do we do when somebody’s not performing to standard? We send them on training courses and hope that training will fix the problem—but when they come back, it hasn’t addressed the problem,” she says.

Hattingh suggests that decision-makers ask a number of questions to help them make informed decisions when it comes to training their workforce before embarking on a training mission. These would include:

  • Why are people not performing to standard?
  • Are their outputs and standards clearly communicated?
  • Do they have the knowledge and skills?
  • Do they have the correct tools?
  • Is the work environment conducive?
  • Is management actually giving staff corrective feedback?

Hattingh, who had the audience glued to their seats at the summit, strongly advises that training needs analysis. “It’s not a questionnaire that you send out to say, what training do you want to do next? That’s a wish list, that’s not a training needs analysis. We know that training cannot fix performance problems. If you remember nothing else from this session, remember this: Training is only effective when the person does not have the skill to perform the job. That’s the only time you send somebody on training."

It is a fact that many South African companies send “everybody” on training without having done a proper needs analysis, simply because it takes too much time. “If I were Minister of Higher Education and Training, I would say to everybody—employers, universities, everybody: This year you may only train half the people you trained last year. But this year, you’d better do it right. I believe very strongly we are doing too much training in this country, and we are not doing it properly. That’s why we end up spending millions with very little return.

“I don’t even want to calculate the millions we are spending through the Seta system. We are spending all these millions, but we’re not getting it right, because we’re just doing too much training and we’re not focusing properly. If we are not focusing it on clearly identified skills needs, we’re wasting our time,” she says.

Hattingh questions whether we are actually measuring the value add and the impact on the organisation’s business, and believes very few organisations actually do that. “We have in South Africa a wonderful target-driven skills development system. The minister sets targets, the Setas set targets, then they give grants to employers if they do the training that meets those targets. That’s actually wonderful because, at the end of the day, everybody’s happy because we’ve all met the target.

“I was asked to assist in a 1 000-learnership project whereby each province had to put 1 000 learners through learnership programmes.” After two years, and R32 million later, Hattingh says not one of those students had a qualification—and part of the problem is that learners are selected randomly. And it remains a fact that training can only contribute toward improved performance if organisations just focus on accurately identified and clearly described skills gaps and training needs that are derived from the organisation’s key business objectives.

She says we have to ask ourselves whether we’re chopping down the right forest. “My key concern about this is: Are we actually developing workplace competence, or are we developing competence in unit standards? Because it’s not the same thing. Not all training is NQF-able! And I will keep saying that, year after year. Because we have created this obsession with credits. So often you hear when people refer to wonderful programmes, they first ask how many credits they can get on the NQF. More often than not, you might not get any credits, but you might actually learn something priceless.”

Hattingh is adamant that, as it states in the Government’s Green Paper, much learning is very valuable: It doesn’t have to be quality-assured, it doesn’t have to lead to credits, and it doesn’t have to go through this ridiculous quality assurance system we have developed.

“The next simple truth is that the 1% skills levy is not your training budget. Many companies actually spend far more than 1%—but when the government came in with 1%, they said: okay, we’ve spent our 1% levy, so we’ve done our bit in training. The 1% is mainly intended for formal NQF-aligned programmes, so I’m not opposed to those programmes—but the 1% is only for that. Companies should be using a lot more money, but for other things. If your organisation wants to reach competitiveness; if you are really interested in participating in the global economy, NQF-aligned programmes are not going to help you.

“I work a lot with qualifications and I’ve developed quite a few qualifications. I’ve worked with the Setas and I don’t see that any of those are actually going to take you into the global knowledge economy. You have to do things other than Seta-aligned training if you really want to get to that. If someone is only interested in money, he cannot determine your training priorities. So basically, employers should be spending far more on training,” says Hattingh.

But not just the Setas came under fire, as she says employers are not doing enough to support the transfer of learning in the workplace—primarily because we assume in South Africa that when we send people on training, they’re going to come back fully competent and be able to do the work.

“There are a number of interesting publications we can take our cues from. The one is the old [Training for Impact by Dana Gaines Robinson and James C. Robinson], which preaches that the performance results you get from training come from the training experience plus the work environment. What that means is if the training experience has been excellent, say 80%, but there’s 0% support in the workplace to assist this person to actually translate the training in the workplace, your benefit is 0%. So the employers have an important responsibility.”

Hattingh says that there are certain things employers who send people for training should be doing. For starters, the line manager needs to to make sure that the training is actually translated into the business.

“Evaluating the impact on business results—we all know we have to do that—most of us do level 1 or level 2 training. But few of us actually do level 3 or 4, where we actually question whether they are applying it in the workplace. As for impact assessment, we need to ask ourselves how we’re measuring the impact, and can we show the link between the training and the business results? I think often we can’t because we didn’t start with business results when we sent people on training. If you want to do performance, focus on return on investment.

“I don’t know whether we still know the road to workplace competence. I think sometimes we get lost. I think we’ve got ourselves so embroiled in this system—where all these things and the portfolios and unit standards and the qualifications are designed, and the quality assurance partners and assessment design partners and the curriculum —and we actually forget what it should really be about.

“I also find that most organisations are just making sure they align whatever they do to the Seta in order to get money. But in the process, we’re damaging organisations and we’re not actually assisting people to become workplace-competent,” Hattingh concludes.

Lindsay King

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Issue 58