A Holistic Approach to Workplace Competencies

So far in this series on e-learning ecosystems and approaches to workplace learning, I have discussed:

Today I will look at workplace com competencies.

US Department of Labor competency tiers - example from energy industry

Exemplar US Department of Labor competency tiers (Tiers 5-8 represent every industry & occupation specialities)

According to Klein and Eseryel (2005) “traditional” workplace learning environments have focused on developing technical competence and domain-specific skills. Other skills, including effective communication, teamwork, and diversity awareness, often referred to as “soft skills” are usually assigned a lower priority.

The authors continue :

The new development paradigms and work processes have moved these “soft skills” up the list of priorities. The roles of the staff have changed. Consequently, the learning environment must reflect these changes.


For example, the “animosity” between marketing/sales and engineering, which seems to be a tradition in most organizations reduces knowledge-sharing, collaboration, and (ultimately) productivity and revenue generation. Using a multi-dimensional or holistic approach (if implemented sympathetically) enables sales staff, motivated by closing the deal, and engineers and developers, motivated by creating elegant solutions to workplace or customer needs, can work to “reconcile their perspectives” (p.7) and collaborate.

Staff must work together across functional entities within the organization and learn to work with a variety of people as they deal with customers, colleagues, partners, and vendors spread across the globe. People are now required to have the skills, talents, and traits that will enable them to cohesively work together and deal with ambiguity in performing the most basic tasks.


Klein and Eseryel  identify “four areas of competence” that a 21st Century workplace learning ecosystem should support (see Table 1):

Table 1. Areas of Competence

Domain-specific KnowledgeDomain-specific knowledge includes the traditional areas of content expertise and skills.
Instrumental SkillsInstrumental skills refer to the skills needed in order to work effectively in social situations, which involve knowing how to get things done in the company.
Cognitive StrategiesCognitive strategies are the mental processes we use for reasoning, thinking, and solving problems.
“Traits”Traits are attributes of the personality such as motives, interests, creativity, and initiative.

The authors assert that all four the “dimensions of competence can be defined, developed, and supported.” They cite Kelly & Caplan’s 1993 HBR article How Bell Labs creates star performers describing how the product development division at Bell Labs’ Network Systems identified the  instrumental skills and traits that are necessary to be a “star performer.” These skills included

  1. organizational know-how
  2. networking
  3. perspective
  4. self-management
  5. teamwork effectiveness

According to Kelly and Caplan, simply defining and publishing a checklist of the skills made a significant difference in staff performance. This holistic approach to workplace learning is counter to the culture in most organizations. Serious efforts and commitment must be made to establish and maintain an effective corporate learning environment.

However, the emergence of Web 2.0 technology changed the focus of learning systems from task-based, procedural training to knowledge-intensive problem-solving that actually supports deep conceptual learning. I would assert that the deployment of more open collaboration and social network solutions and distributing processing, as well as the development of more non- and informal approaches to learning (not to mention the rise of our indigenous friends, the Digital Natives) are adding new stresses and pressures to learning systems that can barely keep pace with the current rate of change as it is.

Work today not only requires technical knowledge, but the “instrumental skills” that enable people to work cohesively across disciplines and geographies. I will begin to investigate these emerging challenges next time.



Kelly, R., & Caplan, J. (1993). How Bell Labs creates star performers. Harvard Business Review, 71(4), 128-139.

Klein, J. Eseryel, D. (2005). The Corporate Learning Environment. [Internet] Available from: https://www.igi-global.com/chapter/corporate-learning-environment/24410 [Accessed February 18th 2017]