CBTA: Competency Based Training Assessment

History of CBTA

Traditional Competency Training [training]

There is nothing particularly new about competency training and though in the past people might not have called it CBTA they were of course doing exactly what the title says, Competency Based Training. Take for example how primitive man might have passed on necessary survival skills such as say building a fish trap. The young man or woman, who needed to learn how to build a fish trap, would start by watching an expert fish trap builder. They would learn where the best reeds to make such a trap could be found; they would learn how to weave reeds into a trap and how best to secure these reeds so as to make an effective trap. They might break the task down into its component parts, that is start of by learning where to collect the best reeds. Then they might learn how to shape the trap; the final assessment of the trap’s effectiveness was done on the job–did the trap work and catch fish. All the elements of Competency Based Training Assessment were present: analysis, practice and assessment.
CBTA has been the basis of all training and has been practiced in all countries and in all cultures. The Roman Army for example, were masters of competency training as applied to large groups and their effectiveness in delivering such training was a major contributor to their military success. [See Roman Army.] A perfect description of competency training is as follows:

“Their drills are like bloodless battles, and their battles are like bloody drills.”

Joseph Ben-Matthias, aka Flavius Josephus (Untrustworthy source, possibly subject to revision by latter historians.)

US Origin

Competency Based Training Assessment was a critical factor in the US Army’s ability to train several million young men during World War II [WWII]. With the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942 [1] the US Military was faced with the requirement to train millions of young men for its rapidly expanding armed forces. This rapid expansion required a method for quickly providing people with the knowledge, skills and attitudes required to do a particular job.

The US adopted a competency based approach to training which set out to do for training what Taylor’s scientific approach to workplace organisation had done for management. [Taylorism ]

CBTA is basically a scientific approach to training that relies on identifying the knowledge, skills and attitudes required to do a particular job, for example: infantry soldier, gunner, pilot, navigator, rear gunner etc, etc. The approach taken was to break each job down into groups of competencies. Competencies related to any particular job could be identified through a careful process of training analysis in terms of performance, conditions and standards. For example an infantry soldier might be required to do the following:

Performance: Fire a rifle.
Conditions: At night, during day, during rain, during snow. While lying, standing, kneeling etc.
Standards: During day on a range at one hundred meters score fifty hits on a target measuring three foot high two foot wide, while standing.

There is considerable debate as to what actually makes a competency, but for general purposes it can be identified as a readily identified group of related knowledge, skills and attitudes, which taken together constitute a major part of a job which is subject to measurement and assessment. Generally if you cannot measure performance with a stop watch then it is probably not a competency.

To give an example, firing a rifle in terms of infantry training can be regarded as a competency. It is a major part of an infantry man’s job. It can be measured in terms of performance, conditions and standards and you can put a stop watch to it e.g., ten shots in the target within one minute.

Once the competencies have been identified then it is relatively easy to structure a training course. You might break the competencies down into component tasks, for example before you can fire a rifle, you would have to learn how to strip and assemble that rifle. That particular task might be listed as a specific learning outcome which has to be performed before meeting the final competency of firing a rifle under specific conditions. It would then be relatively easy to structure a training course, which might involve initial training and then further ‘On-The-Job’ training (OJT), that would deliver to the US armed forces young men with the necessary competencies to do the job required.

Using variations of CBTA, millions of young men were trained, shipped to Europe or the Pacific and due to their training played a major role in the defeat of Germany and Japan. The role of training in enabling the USA to expand from a very small army to one of several millions in only a short period of time is mainly due to the effectiveness of competency based training.

However, the US was unusual when compared to other countries and that was that it had a society with a high degree of existing technical competence. A great many of its young men knew how to drive a car, they knew how to strip an engine, they knew about technology as many of them had access to such technology in their homes. In addition the US regular army officer corps had through West Point received a good technical education, their officers could add up and knew about engines and mass production and were quite prepared to recognize skills acquired in civilian life as being applicable within the military. Such recognition of previous skills or competencies has its place within a CBTA system being known as Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) and Recognition of Current Competency (RCC). Australian Qualifications Framework web site provides a definition of RPL

UK Officer Training

The UK like all industrial economies used Competency Based Training; however, it never actually called it that. The UK also considered that where army officer training was concerned, character was important. The Royal Navy also believed in character, but it also knew that character alone didn’t enable a Captain to stop his ship running aground. So it sent its potential officers to sea at the age of nine or ten to serve a long apprenticeship as midshipman. As part of the midshipman’s training he was subject to constant competency assessment. At the end of his apprenticeship he was subject to an oral knowledge test before earning his lieutenancy.

The eighteenth and nineteenth century British army was never that concerned about training its officers believing that character was the important thing and that the officer being a gentleman already knew how to use weapons and ride a horse. What was important was character.

During World War II the UK was faced with the major problem of having to train many thousands of lower middle class and working class, young men as officers. These young men had the military skills, they were veterans of campaigns in the desert and the jungle. They knew about war but they weren’t gentlemen as defined by the existing Army hierarchy.

The British Army developed a course based to a large part on the competencies related to being a gentleman. They realised of course that attitude and character are almost impossible to assess in terms of competencies so they had to identify the competencies that a gentleman would require and that could be assessed within a CBTA model.

The competencies identified involved such things as accent, the way one walks (the Royal Navy officer walking with his hands clasped behind his back is another example of an easily identified officer trait) what one reads, and most important how one eats. Middle class British Officers had been taught to hold their knife and fork with the index finger resting firmly on the top of each implement. The working class when faced with the problem of holding a knife and fork generally held them in a way which felt uncomfortable and posh, they held them like pencils. This was therefore an easily identifiable trait. An officer might not be a gentleman but at least he could sit down in the mess and eat like one. British officer training courses therefore taught would be officers how to hold their cutlery, how to hold a cup etc–such courses designed for training NCOs as officers came to be known as colloquially as ‘a knife and fork course’.

The British obsession with how one holds one’s knife and fork doesn’t apply in countries such as Australia where it is quite common to see senior officers holding their knifes and forks like pencils–it might make senior British Officers wince but Australia and the US were always much more focused on providing their officers with competency training related to the actual conduct of war rather then turning officers into gentlemen.

Attitudinal Competencies

In a superb essay on competency training, David McElvenny argues that basically competency training is most effective when applied to behaviors that can be measured.

New Competencies: They just don’t make the grade

CBTA is not effective when used as a basis for training in areas such as leadership, and management where it is almost impossible to measure competency in terms of clearly defined behaviors that contribute to effective management and leadership. Such areas still rely on a subjective assessment made by experts in the field. For example many special forces training courses do use competencies as part of the training package where these competencies relate to measurable behaviors. Literally behaviors which can be measured with a stopwatch. However, the final assessment must be subjective. Such assessment could take the form of a group of experts examining each individual and asking a question that can only be answered subjectively such as ‘would you go to war with this man’. If the answer is no, then it doesn’t matter how many behavioral competencies the individual has passed, he is not suitable.

Such subjective assessment is probably still appropriate in assessing candidates for jobs where qualities are required that can only be defined subjectively by experts. For example priest, teacher, military officer, flying instructor etc. All of these types of jobs require qualities that it is almost impossible to define in terms of behavior. A priest can do everything by the book, meet every competency in terms of say giving a mass, hearing confession, visiting the sick and still not be a good priest in terms of the X Factor, that human quality that lets other people know that the individual cares. The X Factor applies to defining a good leader or a good manager. It is hard to say what exactly a good leader is actually doing, but we know it when we see it.

Attitudinal competencies generally fail because they can only be measured in the negative. For example, a competency might require the individual to demonstrate the right attitude to safety. Well you can easily measure the wrong attitude, if somebody lights a cigarette in a no smoking area, you have a behavior which clearly demonstrates a poor attitude to safety. But if the individual is not smoking, it doesn’t demonstrate a positive attitude, all it shows is that the person is not smoking.

Officer training courses where students are aware that attitude is being assessed tend to lead to students falsifying their behaviors that they believe will be viewed in a positive light. For example demonstrating keenness by always smiling and being willing to do a task. Any assessment could only conclude that the person is competent at smiling and effective in using the language of volunteering, it says nothing about the individuals attitude. The keen individual might well turn out to be displaying a competency in duplicitous behavior, which might well be useful but is hardly a trait likely to endear the individual to his or her subordinates.

It is possible to identify a poor attitude but nearly impossible to assess in terms of measurable competencies a positive attitude, for example some companies encourage people attending an interview to arrive in their own cars. The company arranges for parking by a valet. This provides the company with the opportunity of trying to gauge an individual’s character from the way they keep their car. A person applying for a job as a data base manager, where precision and attention to detail are vital, might be able to demonstrate all the necessary competencies but if that individual arrives in a car with food wrappers discarded in the back seat and empty cans rolling around the floor, the company might conclude that that person does not demonstrate the right attitude. But arriving in a clean car doesn’t demonstrate the right attitude, but it may well be an indication. Generally it is very easy to falsify behaviors relating to attitude and generally CBTA is ineffective in such situation, far better to rely on the subjective assessment conducted by experts.

Recent Investigations…1995
Australian Qualifications Framework
National Training Information Service


January 1, 2007 - Posted by | Blogroll, Competency Training

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