While widely used in both educational circles and in the world of work, the term “competency” does not yet have a settled operational definition. Some use the term interchangeably with skills and tasks while other use competencies in reference to mastery of a particular knowledge domain or proficiency in the use of a particular tool or technology. No single syntax or format has been established for expressing competencies. That makes it difficult to compare tools and applications built notionally on the competency concept, integrate or articulate them into extensible and interoperable cross-domain applications, or to synchronize efforts among professionals to address common problems.
A Detailed Work Activity (DWA) statement describes how major units of a worker’s time are organized productively. Every DWA theoretically has distinctive starting and ending points. Each is observable and produces results susceptible to being measured. To facilitate comparisons among DWAs, descriptive statements are framed in a standard syntax: an action verb (required), an object (required) plus at least a modifier of the action or object and/or additional information about the context in which the object is acted upon. Example: “Solve engineering problem in a manufacturing process.”
DWAs in the library used by C4EO initially were sourced from the Department of Labor’s O*NET. Additionally, extensive validation done by subject matter experts from Texas business and industry through the Common Language Project. DWA statements in the O*NET were developed by Industrial & Organizational Psychologists and Labor Market Economists based on: a) desktop reviews of predecessor occupational taxonomies (e.g., the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and operational definitions used in the Occupational Employment Survey); and b) widely used job classifications, position descriptions and performance measures (e.g., federal civil service under the Office of Personnel and Management and major employers). Because the nature of work changes over time, DWA statements are reviewed and updated periodically based on observations of occupational worker samples’ on-the-job actions coupled with analyses of human resource documents and interviews with incumbent workers and their supervisors.
Researchers from many disciplines focus on DWAs as the key unit of analysis at a variety of intersections between talent supply and employment demand. In the O*NET data structure, they are more granular than highly abstract General Work Activities and Intermediate Work Activities. On the other hand, they are not as specific as: a) tasks/subtasks which exhibit wider variation in establish-level daily assignments; or b) tools and technologies where diffusion and uptake are disrupted by a dominant vendor’s releases of a new version or rival brands’ sudden market penetration.
DWAs provide a high resolution picture of workplace operations. They are sufficiently abstract to apply to more than one occupation in a job family – even if related jobs cut across several industries. That breadth facilitates analysis of transferable skills and career progressions – whether laterally into adjacent occupations or upwardly along an empirically definable pathway. That level of abstraction also gives DWAs a sufficiently long shelf-life to facilitate longitudinal analysis of patterns in: a) skill obsolescence or market value decay/depreciation (separate from fads and fluctuations in specific tool adoptions); b) the blending and mixing of skills as hybrid jobs evolve in the face of automation, offshoring, “leaner” management; and c) the emergence of new skill requirements as disruptive technologies or market conditions create new occupations.
Currently there are more than 2,700 DWAs in the working copy used in various analyses being done by the C4EO and affiliates. However, the world of work is not static. Disruptive technologies and new business models change the way workers’ time and effort are organized for optimum productivity and competitive advantage. Some DWAs can be “deactivated” (although preserved rather than purged from the library for continuity in longitudinal analysis). Others can be reworded for more precise, transparent meaning or as they are repurposed in evolving and hybrid contexts. And the need to draft and validate new DWAs accelerates with the pace of innovation and diffusion.
A wide variety of source materials can be tapped to spot commonalities in workplace behaviors that can be grouped inductively and expressed as new DWAs that strike a balance between abstraction and granularity. The Department of Labor underwrites ongoing development of the O*NET database on cycle which regularly rotates through industries and occupations as well as when prompted by special circumstances necessitating urgent off-cycle case studies.