Are you a Homo Competens?

Bert de Coutere

How does he manage all this? Bert de Coutere is not only responsible for the development of comprehensive e-learning games and applications; he also regularly attends and contributes to international and national conferences such as OEB, where he chaired the Battle of the Bloggers session in 2009. And beyond this, the highly engaged IBM Learning Development Europe Business Area Manager recently authored and published a book entitled Homo Competens. Let’s Talk About Competent People in the Network Age, which is causing a sensation in the e-learning arena. Here he talks about what is needed to become a ‘HoCo’.

OEB: It is quite certain that all of us – whether we admit it or not – want to be a Homo Competens or ‘Hoco’. Who, in your opinion, really deserves the attribute ‘HoCo’?

Bert de Coutere: A Homo Competens, which is Latin for a competent person, is someone who is good at what he or she does and who also has ways to become good at what they want to do. Luckily, it is human nature to want to be good or even excel in what we do in life, at work or at home. When I asked my friends if they were a Homo Competens, many said ‘yes’ without blinking their eyes. Actually, you can’t be competent full stop. You can only be competent in specific domains, such as selling, gardening, raising children, etc. But who deserves the title ‘HoCo’ for a particular competence domain? I’m afraid I can’t be the judge of that. That depends on the evidence which that person can provide. If talented people are indeed our greatest asset, we should not treat competence like a black box or worse, leave it to chance. I believe all types of evidence counts to prove your competence. In a survey discussed in the book, passing an exam scored a trust of 51%, good evaluations of a previous employer were good for 68%, and teaching a class on the topic gives you 78% credibility. I do recognize levels in competence. For me a competent person can be at the apprentice, practitioner or master stage, depending on the type of evidence.

OEB: And once I’ve achieved this status, what do I have to do to maintain it?

Bert de Coutere: If you don’t cultivate or maintain your competence in a particular domain, it fades away. The shelf life of competence grows ever shorter, and the competence once certified in a diploma won’t last you a career any more. We can discuss how fast competencies fade, and that probably depends on the particular domain and degree of specialization. I’d say, though, that if you don’t keep up or apply your skills within a three-year period, your particular competence is as good as obsolete. Letting competencies fade can be an excellent strategy, by the way. You don’t have to keep doing anything for the rest of your life, as long as that is a choice rather than a nasty surprise.

If you remember anything from the book, remember this: learn, do, share. Those are the three sets of activities a HoCo undertakes to build, grow and maintain his competence. Let me repeat them: learn, do, share!

Learning activities include courses and conferences and talking to experts. Doing activities include work and internships, for example. And sharing activities include coaching and speaking, amongst others. You are meant to do these activities all together. It is not a linear sequence where you first only learn, then get to apply it in practice and later on teach others about it. The majority of activities will determine your competence level.

Learn: if you mostly learn, you are an apprentice. You are building your knowledge, skills and behaviour.
Do: if you mostly do, you are a practitioner. You are building experience.
Share: if you mostly share, you are a master. You are building a reputation.

OEB: In your book, a keyword is self-reliance, in particular when it comes to learning and acquiring competencies. So what do you think is the best way to manage our learning autonomously?

Bert de Coutere: Becoming competent in this day and age is different from before. The world has become flatter, faster, smaller, more spiky, and as a consequence, more blurry in the sense that the world is not as predictable as it used to be in the golden age of corporate training. Self-reliance is a consequence of the times we live in. We are the prime owners of our competence now. Nobody else can take care of our competence as well as we can ourselves. There are still governments and employers to help us out – and make use of our talents – but whether we like it or not, we are at the steering wheel.

The best way to go about it is to set directions, keep track of your Learn-Do-Share activities and provide evidence. The tool kit for a HoCo contains a compass, a journal and a passport.

A compass is an instrument that points you to the north. It enables you to see where you are, relative to where you want to go. Similarly, we need a competence compass to help us decide what competences to build, grow or let fade. This depends on the competence we already have, what we want to do, what the demand for specific talents is, and how easy it is for us to become good. People used to do this once in their life, at the moment of study choice. Now, it should be a regular exercise, preferably something you evaluate together with your coach, peers and friends every year.

A journal is a day-by-day description of what you’ve done to build the selected competences. It is where you store the learning, doing and sharing activities. The important thing is to update regularly, for example once a month, and that it is your tool and your private property. It should not belong to any employer or educational institution. A passport holds the stamps of approval of your competence. It is where authorised instances like certification bodies have reviewed the evidence of your journal and which you can use to show potential employers.

OEB: What about the employers’ side? Should employers be more supportive?

Bert de Coutere: Employers and governments alike still have their role to play in the competence game. I struggled long with the question of ownership of competence and concluded that it is a shared ownership among government, employers and yourself. But whereas employers used to be the prime driver in the day of the “Organization Man” and lifelong employment in the fifties and further, nowadays the Homo Competens is in the driving seat. Employers will, depending on the fast-changing context, build, rent, and buy the talents they need.

I think, first of all, that employers should enable and support the HoCo and not make it difficult to build competencies or stand in the way. That means employers can help set directions by telling, for example, the kind of skills and competencies they deem critical for the business, and their predictions for key competencies in the next five years.

Employers can help us by giving us access to learning, doing and sharing. For example, they can allow us to take courses, provide e-learning and books, and bring relevant ones to our attention. What employers can really help with (far more than any educational institution can) is to give us access to experience. Employers provide us with the context to practise, and they can coach us on our first steps, too. Employers provide us not only with the opportunity to build experience, but also to connect with our peers and learn from them. As a last critical point, employers owe us regular and honest feedback. We need to know how we are doing, and far more than once a year. All this is how employers can support us: some of it doesn’t even cost money.

OEB: How can current corporate demands be met by innovative tools like, for example, e-learning?

Bert de Coutere: There are a lot of solutions out there for learning and finding information and experts. We first got (e-learning) content and systems to manage them, but now social tools bring in the human side of the story and link us with experts and peers in real time. For me, these tools greatly enable competent people to keep up, get feedback, and yes “learn, do and share” more productively. What we see happening right now in a lot of big corporations is that all talent-management components are becoming integrated. That helps to make smarter decisions by linking competence gaps with learning and performance evaluations, for example. A lot of the innovative tools are about analytics to make smarter decisions for the whole talent chain, rather than optimising a part of it. Corporations need analytics to make smart decisions about future competence needs and the right balance to making or buying them.

What I feel is missing is a technology that provides a non-intrusive way to keep track. I refer to it as a journal, and it is close to the concept of a portfolio. Portfolios have never become popular in the corporate world, however, such a tool where people can quickly store the evidence of their talent while doing their daily work would be a big plus.

OEB: Referring to your book again, it seems that you were definitely not a fan of the first e-learning tools that appeared on the market. What about what’s out there today? Is there anything currently available that really thrills you?

Bert de Coutere: The e-learning solutions around the turn of the century have left the landscape with a lot of poor products and disappointment. We learned the hard way that if you build them poorly, success will not come and that e-learning is not the answer to all learning needs.

So what thrills me today? There’s an ever-growing set of learning formats out there; some of them are ‘cool new things’. I’m building a simulation game for diversity training as we speak, for example, and I’m very thrilled about that. But that is the thrill of the moment. I get another thrill from any solution that is not just about the individual, because it isn’t really about the individual if you come to think of it. In very few professions is performance achieved by a single person. We usually need a team of competent people to get the job done, and it is team competence that matters. But how do you grow or measure that?

What would thrill me in few years’ time is to look back and see that in corporate circles we’ve diminished the course approach in favour of other formats. I’d like to see that we’ve grown out of pure learning into overall competence caretaking, including experience and sharing.

OEB: Thank you very much for your time, Mr de Coutere.

For more information and to purchase the book, please click and

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.