IPMA International Project Management Association
9 August 2017 / 7:36

What exactly is competence?

When interested in the question of what exactly is competence, having a look at the OECD definition of competence is of course a must: they describe competence as “personal attributes or underlining characteristics, which combined with technical or professional skills, enable the delivery of a role / job”. http://www.dictionary.com takes another route and defines competence as “the quality of being competent; adequacy; possession of required skill, knowledge, qualification, or capacity.

Independent of any definition – there are many more available – two rudiments seem very important:

  • There are elements which need to be at disposal (either attributes, characteristics and skills, being hereditary or acquired)
  • There is a context, an aim, a target which drives competence

IPMA took this into account and provides in its new Individual Competence Baseline Version 4.0 (IPMA ICB4®) a definition of individual competence: “the application of knowledge, skills and abilities in order to achieve the desired results.”

  • Knowledge is the collection of information and experience that an individual possesses. For example, understanding the concept of a Gantt chart is considered knowledge.
  • Skills are specific technical capabilities that enable an individual to perform a task. For example, being able to build a Gantt chart is considered a skill.
  • Ability is the effective delivery of knowledge and skills in a given context. For example, being able to devise and successfully manage a project schedule is considered ability.

But although knowledge, skills and abilities are important, they always have to be put into the very specific context – every project, every person, even every minute in a project is different. To better understand this, let’s look at a few examples: a manager might be the most successful one in a directive culture like in Germany, but may dramatically fail in an Asian type of culture. The best PERT-planner may theatrically fail applying his best-handled approach in a basic research environment. The most successful risk manager of a traditional megaproject may dramatically fail in an agile software development project. While on a specific project day the team performance might be excellent, on another day an intervention is urgently required to bring team performance back to normal.

As a consequence, IPMA has significantly enhanced in its IPMA ICB® version 4.0 all competences regarding the context – describes as the “perspective” competence area: Strategy, Governance, structures and processes, Compliance, standards and regulations, Power and interest, and Culture and values. Not taking these elements into account will let the project fail, or at least makes project live very difficult.

Furthermore, a project, programme or yet a portfolio manager has to take all these perspective elements into account to define the best approach for his or her undertaking: described as the “Design” competence. Design describes how the demands, wishes and influences of the organisation(s) are interpreted and weighed by the individual, and translated into a high-level design of the undertaking to ensure the highest probability of success. It includes all thoughts needed to think through and work needed to be executed before jumping into the new challenge.

Derived from this outer context, design drafts how resources, funds, stakeholders’ objectives, benefits and organisational change, risks and opportunities, governance, delivery, and priorities and urgency are all considered in the way the undertaking is set up and laid out in a ‘charcoal sketch’, a blueprint or an overall architecture; and how it should be managed.

Design – one important competence to improve the delivery rate of projects, to enable a world where all projects succeed.


  • Bob Dignen says:

    Great. Let’s abandon universalist models and get situationally aware.

  • Sorry Martin but having been a lifelong practitioner who came up through the trades, being a PADI Scuba Diving Instructor and Private Pilot as well as having researched and written extensively on this topic, I think your definition is incomplete.

    The definition I have researched and use covers not only the semantic definitions from several reputable dictionaries (restated) but also the legal context to meet “professional” standards and this is the definition I’ve come up with: “For professional level practitioner to be COMPETENT, he/she has to be “functionally adequate, characterized by marked or sufficient aptitude + attitude + skills + strength + knowledge” ordinarily possessed by reputable professionals practicing in the same or a similar locality and under similar circumstances.”

    In reviewing the latest IPMA ICB 4.0 standards, I think far too much emphasis has been placed on strategic issues (which in my 45+ years of experience have yet to see most project managers empowered to make strategic decisions) and not enough focus put on the tactical decisions which is where I see most project managers failing.

    More specifically, there are two areas of great concern to me and that is one CANNOT learn project management by analyzing case studies or worse yet, studying books of sample questions in preparation for certifications using multiple choice exams. The only way to master the “aptitude + attitude + skills + strength + knowledge” is by “doing projects” which means that all training programs intended to produce more competent project managers need to be based on the principles of Project Based Learning (PBL) https://www.bie.org/about/what_pbl and that anyone providing training in project management as well as those seeking training, need to be benchmarking the RESULTS of that training by adopting the Kirkpatrick 4 Level Assessment http://www.kirkpatrickpartners.com/Our-Philosophy/The-New-World-Kirkpatrick-Model

    Anything less is, IMPO, NOT going to result in producing more COMPETENT practitioners. For more on this, here is a recent article on the topic- http://pmworldjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/pmwj36-Jul2015-Giammalvo-producing-competent-practitioners-second-edition.pdf

    Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

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Author of this post

With more than 35 years of professional experience, Martin Sedlmayer leads successfully complex change programmes. During his career, he has worked in the domain of project management as a project manager, programme leader, portfolio manager, and manager of project organisations. His industry experience includes finance, manufacturing, logistics and not-for-profit organisations.

His special interest is the challenge of competence development. He was lead editor and project manager for the new ICB4® (global competence standard for individuals working in project, programme and portfolio management). Currently, he serves as Vice President of IPMA’s Executive Board for Products and Services, as board member of both the Swiss national project management association spm and the Swiss certification body VZPM.

Martin is IPMA Level A® certified, acts as an assessor for fifteen years in various countries and holds a MBA in International Management from the University of Applied Sciences in Berne Switzerland, the University of Freiburg Germany, the State Polytechnical University of St., Petersburg Russia, the Babson College of Boston USA and Jiao Tong University of Shanghai China. He publishes regularly, speaks at conferences and events worldwide.

He can be contacted at martin.sedlmayer@ipma.world

His LinkedIn profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/sedlmayermartin