Competency Badges: the tail wagging the dog?

Introduction

More than three decades ago, I started a journey exploring how technologies could contribute to making one’s competencies more visible, especially for those who didn’t have the chance to receive a formal qualification. Started in the world of formal1 education this journey led me to pay increasing attention to the informal world in which we spend most of our life (including during our schooling years!).

After discovering the competency portfolio2 I became actively engaged in the work on ePortfolios (that led to many European projects and conferences) and, more recently, Open Badges. While the “normal” trajectory should have led to my becoming an ardent defender of “competency badges”, it did not go that way. Quite the opposite in fact: from my positive experience with competency-based education and qualifications, I also learned that these are far from flawless, not primarily because of “the human factor”, but from the implicit message they convey: only formal recognition has value, that which is not formally recognised has little or no value.

In focusing our attention initially on competency badges we were shifting to another level the problem Open Badges were designed to solve, i.e. making informal learning visible. Initially, 99.99% of the time Open Badges were being used to formally recognise informal learning and competency badges sold like hot cakes. What Open Badges also had to offer, and was neglected at the time, is their potential to make informal recognition visible: if probably over 90% of our learning is informal, then, for sure, 99.99% of all recognitions are also informal—cue: the recognition by an employer of a formal qualification is informal!— and not visible.

This is what in 2016 led to the authoring of the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration and today’s article.

A bit of context

While we are witnessing the rise of Open Badges worldwide, the rhythm and the way they are being adopted greatly varies from one country to the next, from one community to the next. In this context, France undeniably occupies a very special place with the multiplication of projects and regional initiatives pioneered by Badgeons la Normandie, the recognition of the importance of Open Badges in public policies such as the PIC (Plan Investissement dans les Compétences, Competencies Investment Plan), the wealth of tools developed in cooperation with recognition practitioners, the proposal for a national framework for the development of Open Badges developed at the initiative of #Leplusimportant with the participation of Reconnaître—Open Recognition Alliance, to name the most visible. Within all this activity we should not forget the growing adoption of ​​”open recognition,” the idea of badges as tokens of mutual recognition and not mere micro-credentials, nano-diplomas or pico-certificates.

Unfortunately success often generates its share of nuisances and opportunists ready to rush on the Open Badges like poverty on the world 3. We already sell competencies so it shouldn’t be that complicated to sell competency badges: just add the word “badge” and replace the paper certificate with a digital one. The trick is easy, except that in the badge version of the Three Card Monte hustle, the innovation card is never to be found where one thinks it is.

It is the purpose of this article to explore why competency badges are probably the wrong answer to a real problem, larger and more complex than the one originally formulated. In particular, we suggest a more open approach exploring the potential of recognising practices in lieu of recognising competencies.

In the space defined between informal and formal, within the framework of this text, practices are rather located in the informal (pre-formal) space while competencies in a space where the formalisation of the practices is more or less advanced4.

Competency frameworks are no longer what they used to be

Speaking at the end of the first day of the Université d’Hiver de la Formation Professionnelle (Winter University of Professional Training), on January 29, 2020, the High Commissioner for competencies and inclusion by employment, Jean-Marie Marx, declared:

“For a long time we reasoned exclusively on the certification and diploma frameworks and curricula. Today’s rapid evolution of occupations requires greater flexibility in the recognition of competencies, both professional competencies and soft skills. It will undoubtedly be necessary to further develop the digital badges which are already widely [used] in other countries, to further develop the validation of acquired experience, which is unfortunately still very limited and constrained in France, and also to have a competency passport to classify and integrate all the competencies acquired.” (Source: AEF).

While the remark “digital badges […] are already widely [used] in other countries” is debatable—France is probably not at the bottom of the pack— on the other hand the observation that the instruments and processes we use to recognise competencies are obsolete is accurate.

And while Open Badges would be excellent candidates to fill-in the gap, it is at the express condition of not thinking of badges in relation to [existing] competency frameworks, but of the competency frameworks in relation to badges!

And the best way to get there is probably not the path of “competency badges” which will remain a dead end as long as we continue to think that a competency only exists if it is represented through a pre-existing framework: a competency framework is usually the formalisation of something informal that pre-existed its formalisation. The authoring of a competency in a framework is an attempt to represent something embodied in a person and the community in which it operates.

As John Seely Brown writes:

“Learning is a remarkably social process. In truth, it occurs not as a response to teaching, but rather as a result of a social framework that fosters learning […] Knowledge is inextricably situated in the physical and social context of its acquisition and use.” (Learning in the digital age)

For the recognition of competencies, we could paraphrase John Seely Brown and write:

“Recognition is a remarkable social process. In truth, it does not occur when a diploma or certificate is issued, but rather as the result of a social framework that promotes recognition […] Recognition is inextricably located in the physical and social context of its delivery and use.”

Recognition is from a certain point of view hyperlocal, and it is this hyperlocality that gives it its global value – not the other way around. The space of recognition is the community in which the competency is developed and activated. The recognition of a practitioner in a community is not reduced to those generally considered to belong to a “community of practice”, but to the intersection of multiple communities and practices, starting with the clients of these practices: the community of practice of chefs does not exist independently of the communities of their suppliers and clients. There is also a very strong link between individual recognition and that of the community to which the person is identified: shady notaries and politicians can bring discredit on an entire community.

The problems with competency badges

The main problem with the so-called competency badges, is that they walk on their heads: “where is the competency framework” is often the first question that comes up when a person seeks to build a competency badge. There is an expression in English that best describes this situation: the tail wagging the dog. The absence of a framework (the dog’s tail) leads to paralysis. This approach would require starting with the establishment of the framework, a process which could take several months if done seriously, that is to say based on a proper functional analysis5 of an occupational domain and not shallow task analysis as is too often done. And once the framework is published, it might already be obsolete.

This dominance of frameworks makes one lose sight of the fact that a skill is embodied in a person and a community of practice, the framework being only an abstract representation of this practice, an approximation at best. Axel Honneth’s aphorism “recognition precedes knowledge6” literally applies to this situation: if the framework is a representation of knowledge, the recognition of practice necessarily precedes its formalisation which is itself a process of recognition. It is because a practice has been recognised that it can be known and translated into the abstraction of a competency framework.

Scout badges are first and foremost meaningful within the Scout community. What defines a Scout is a practice, scouting, which is based on values. It is not the badges that define the Scout, but the exact opposite. Taking Scout badges out of context, like creating an accessible “fire maker” competency badge that would be “recognised” by Scouts, would be a complete heresy. Besides, Scouts are much smarter than that. If we refer to the site of the British Scouts, most of the badges offered are linked to practices –they use the term activity which is probably more accessible to their audience: Artist Activity Badge, Global Issues Activity Badge, etc. The practice of scouting is connected to other practices in which scouts meet other practitioners.

“How is it that it is not the actual job and its conditions of practice that dictate its operation? Who would dare to dictate to the “Compagnon du Devoir” and craftsmen how they should work, learn or progress in their trade? Do you have a competency framework for [building a] cathedral, please?” (Denis Crisol, Neither God, nor master, nor certification! Always the freedom to learn).

Disconnecting recognition from practice and from one’s community runs the risk of reifying the individual into a series of attributes defining the person who would have the injunction to comply with a norm. And if the norm does not exist, then neither does the person.

Another problem with badges when they are used to “recognise competencies” is that they are often an additional “thing” that does not subtract or transform anything from the existing. It’s a bit like the introduction of the ePortfolio in formal education: we add an ePortfolio layer but we don’t change anything to the existing ones so the ePortfolio becomes one more formal constraint that one has to go through to get good grades…

Now what would be really useful is to imagine what could be transformed or even replaced. Competency frameworks are probably a good candidate, as well as competency-based education and assessment which, according to a recent study7 can have devastating effects on the poorest populations.

Of course, the idea is not to reject anything that would look like ​​a competency badge, but to place them in relation to practices and communities of practice. A community of practice shares values, knowledge, skills and attitudes that it can wish to make visible8. A person may want to share her knowledge and do so by sharing an Open Badge. This is something that le Dôme in Normandy and Casus Belli understood perfectly well when they led the design of a “badge grammar” whose starting point is “Recognition before the competency framework9“, a statement aligned with Axel Honneth’s iconic statement: “Recognition precedes knowledge.”

Badge templates designed at le Dôme

Rethinking competency frameworks

Competency frameworks are a key instrument in human resources management. With the rapid transformation of the world of work, the obsolescence of occupations and the emergence of new roles and competencies (data scientists were not much sought after ten years ago) to remain operational, competency frameworks should be regularly updated. It rarely happens, and when it does, it is sometimes too late, with the risk of delivering obsolete qualifications with low value in the labor market.

“Indeed, between the time [the order for a competency framework is placed] and the time when the first graduates leave the training institutions, there is a minimum of four years10…”

One of the main reasons for the difficulty in keeping competency frameworks up to date are  the technologies and processes involved in their production. If we consider competency frameworks as competency maps describing a professional territory, the process and technologies used to establish these maps have not changed much since the 1960s. It is a top-down process which sometimes takes months, even years, involving a small number of experts and leads to an abstract representation incapable of accounting for variations between companies operating in the same sector. As Alfred Korzybski said: “the map is not the territory”.

“acquiring various competencies does not necessarily make a manager competent.” Contrary to the assumption of most leadership competency frameworks, there is neither a linear, nor even causal, relationship between competencies and job performance.11

What types of technologies and processes could contribute to the creation and updating of competency frameworks in real time and would make them relevant?

Map of Chemin des Dames12

If we turn our attention to another mapping exercise such as road maps, the maps provided by Google Maps and Open Street Maps have very little in common with the paper maps of the past. The difference is not that one is digital, the other is paper, but they are two entirely different objects13. “I honestly think we’re seeing a more profound change, for map-making, than the switch from manuscript to print in the Renaissance,” said University of London cartographer historian Jerry Brotton to the Sydney Morning Herald. “That was huge. But this is bigger.”

What kind of comparison could we make in relation to competency frameworks development? Not only does the construction process remain archaic, but the digital technology is generally limited to digitising content to be delivered in a pdf file… In the best of cases, the filing cabinets have been replaced by a database.

What has changed in the world of cartography which could be a source of inspiration? Digital maps are established by collecting (digital) data provided directly by users, either consciously (adding information) or unconsciously, using navigation systems and other sensors. It is about harnessing collective intelligence and crowd performance through feedback loops: the map is created / updated using the map itself. The old process of building maps from aerial photographs and drawing boards has been superseded by capturing information in real time. The digital map is both the result of a process (its use) and the tool enabling the process itself.

How could we translate the lessons learned from terrestrial mapping to competency mapping? How could we harness collective intelligence to create and update this map in real time and make both “competencies” and badges more discoverable and scalable. And artificial intelligence could be included in the process, something currently under exploration at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (CRI Paris) and was presented at ePIC 201914.

Being able to visualise, in real time, the evolution of competencies, elicit those that are emerging and in demand (or in decline) could be a powerful instrument for transparency in the labor market, something beneficial to all, students, employees, professionals, human resources managers, policy makers, etc.

This is precisely what we could start considering with badges by making each one of them the curators of the competency frameworks. But to create the conditions for mobilising this collective intelligence, developing the tools which would allow this collection of data in a non-intrusive way, it would undoubtedly be necessary to begin by adjusting our vocabulary, by putting aside for a moment the concept of “competence” to replace it with “practice” and therefore start building practices maps—from which competencies could be inferred, if necessary…

And through this work of mapping practices, current or expected (for example agro-ecology, sustainable development, chef) the curators, beyond a simple inventory, would have a tool to no longer be simply the toy of transformations decided by others, but the co-designers, the co-builders of a world to be invented. A future chosen and not simply endured.

To the words of the geographer Yves Lacoste who, in 1976, wrote ““La géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre“ (geography is first of all used to make war) we could propose “the mapping of practices, it is first of all used to build together tomorrow’s world”. An enabling and empowering technology.

Recognising practices and practitioners

While recognising competencies is a complex process that requires expertise and can take months and even years, whether in the construction of competency frameworks or prior learning and achievements recognition (PLAR), on the other hand, recognising practices and practitioners is an activity that everyone practices. First of all by recognising one’s own practices and those of the people and communities with which we are in contact. No need for a competency framework to recognise a good baker, as a client or as another baker. There is also no need for a competency framework to recognise the evolution of the practices of Master Chef candidates.

By recognising practices and practitioners, we recognise implicitly the competencies implemented. The written formalisation of these competencies might be useful, but that comes afterwards, for example by contributing to a competency Wiki, an idea already already discussed several years ago in the 10 ePortfolio Challenges (2010).

Recognition precedes their formalisation in a framework. And this is particularly important to understand in order to be able to account for emerging practices: “30% of current professions did not exist 20 years ago” declared Marianne Thyssen, the European Employment Commissioner during the recognition festival organised in Brussels in 2018. And according to a study by the Institute for the Future “85% of the jobs that today’s learners will do in 2030 have not yet been invented” (source: the Next Era of Human | Machine PARTNERSHIPS, report sponsored by Dell).

It does not matter whether the predictions of the Institute for the Future are exact or not, what is certain is that the world is changing fast and the question is not so much how much will it change, but to what extent we educate and equip citizens so that they have the capacity to be the agents of this change, its co-designers, engineers and architects. Otherwise we will remain under the injunction to adapt to a world we have not chosen: who, in all conscience would choose to live in a society where zero hour contracts and Uber are the new norm for employment practices? The skills to be developed are not so much those needed to adapt to such a world, but those required to make “zero hour” and Uber contracts illegal.

No need to wait until the competency framework exists to set up a recognition system. As simple vehicles (images) used to transport information relating to a recognition in a standard way (the Open Badge specification), badges can carry all kinds of recognition, whether formal or informal and even a mixture of the two.

Take ACOUSTICE, a recognition environment that emerged in agricultural initial education. It is a community, the teachers in charge of ICT, developing its own badges to recognise each other and be recognised as a community by the institution. The badges describe practices, which are owned by practitioners. Recognition by the institution can take the shape of endorsement of the badges designed by the community, while recognition by peers can take the form of endorsement of the badges received by the practitioners’. And if new tools and practices emerge tomorrow, new badges will be created by the community, in real time.

There are many advantages to thinking of recognition in terms of practice rather than competency. First of all, avoiding futile and endless wars over the definition of competency/competence or who has the right to recognise, which is no small advantage. Then, the mental frame through which recognition is understood. With Open Badges thought of as micro-credits (micro-credentials) we commit three mistakes: the first is to ignore that a badge is merely a vehicle used to carry a piece of information which can be just as much a “macro-credit” like academic diplomas and professional certificates. The second error is to imagine Open Badges as a “shrunk” version of credits, like children in Honey, I shrunk the kids, the Joe Johnston’s comedy. The third, which is the combination of the previous ones, is recognition understood only as something happening at the end of a process: we learn, and if we pass the final test, (based on a framework which might be already obsolete) then we qualify to receive a token of recognition.

However, the recognition process which first made it possible to establish the framework… precedes the framework itself: the recognition of the practice of data scientist began long before these competencies were described in any competency framework or were the subject of a professional diploma or certificate. Similarly, the informal social recognition of specialisations in medicine evolved before the formal legal system and is not uniform from one country to another. So midwives existed, and were recognised as such, long before the midwifery diploma came into being — a “recognition” that resulted in midwifes being burnt alive after being formally “recognised” as “witches” by Pope Innocent VIII!

What ACOUSTICE teaches us is that if Open Badges can obviously be used to carry diplomas and certificates (duh!!), they can do much more than that, namely making visible informal recognitions, especially those produced within communities of practice.

Is there still the same need for competency frameworks when we have the mapping of competent individuals?

Uncoupling recognition and certification

While a person’s experience is often multidimensional or multidisciplinary, unfortunately, most of the current processes linked to the recognition of prior learning and experience (Recognition of Prior Learning and Achievements ( RPLA, VAE in France) are aligned with existing diplomas which, for most of them, are mono-disciplinary. The consequences of this normative alignment are:

  • It is not possible to recognise 100% of a person’s experience because only part of it can be recognised by a specific diploma.
  • It is not possible to recognise 100% of people because the process is often expensive and rigid.
  • It is not possible to recognise emerging knowledge and competencies, because there is no curriculum, diploma or formal framework to which they can be aligned.

To overcome the current limitations of most RPLA systems, we propose the concept of RE/VE (Recognition of Experience / Validation of Experience), whose object is to play on the dialectic (dialogic) recognition-validation, weakly coupled, or even decoupled, from any competency or diploma framework, and thus be able to:

  1. take into account the multi / interdisciplinary dimension of one’s current experience, something that current disciplinary diplomas are unable to address
  2. validate a level in relation to the European qualifications framework (which has eight).

The idea would be to establish the RE/VE process in the manner of the blank diplomas suggested by François Taddei15, that is multi-disciplinary diplomas built by the students from various learnings and experiences then validated by the academic institution.

The course of RE/VE would proceed as follows:

  1. Recognition: a person collects informal (but also formal) recognitions in her social and professional environment, her communities of practice which are at the center of the processes of informal recognition. The person is 100% in control of her recognition pathway.
  2. Validation: these informal recognitions are then recognised formally by an organisation empowered to validate a RE/VE pathway at level 1 to 8 of the European Qualification Framework16.

We thus clearly separate the notion of recognition (with a focus on informal recognition) from validation (formal recognition) that we want to be as open as possible by leaving aside competency frameworks (where they exist) so as to provide a validation at a level in relation to the European Qualification Framework. Of course, if occupational frameworks exist and are up to date, they could prove to be a great help, especially if this validation process was used to contribute to their own updating.

RE/VE would be one of the possible responses to creating the conditions for 100% of people to be able to have their competencies recognised by freeing themselves from the often limiting and sometimes obsolete standards… And if some wish to go further with a “full” academic diploma or certificate, RE/VE would certainly have contributed to facilitating the process.

Open Badges an opportunity to rethink the architecture of our recognition systems

What makes Open Badges strong is their simplicity. It is this simplicity that makes them accessible to everyone and which gives some the impression that “making badges” does not look very complicated. That’s right, issuing a badge is very simple (even if it could be simplified even more). The problem is that once a badge has been issued, if nothing has changed in the environment in which it was issued, it may remain ineffective, which is well reflected in the expression « spray and pray » used to describe the impact of lecturing: the lecturer sprinkles the audience with good words and prays that they will have an effect. Carpet badging, an expression coined by Dan Hickey17, expresses even better the situation, adding the nuance that Open Badges are not that harmless…

Carpet badging (source)

For Open Badges to have a positive effect requires several conditions that, somehow were implicit in the speech of Jean-Marie Marx quoted at the beginning of this post: we need to rethink the relationship between recognition and competency frameworks and not slavishly try to align badges to competency frameworks. It is a problem that goes far beyond the question of their inevitable obsolescence or non-existence, it is about the place of people and communities in their construction and implementation.

The current formal recognition system has a financial cost, but also a social one (non-recognition). It is becoming critical to rethink the architecture of our recognition systems to make them more open (e.g. François Taddei’s white diplomas) and ensure that they are able to take into account and generate value from the informal recognition generated within communities of practice.

One possible avenue: redesigning the architecture of our recognition systems based on the recognition of communities of practice and their practitioners. Starting with the recognition of practices instead of the recognition of competencies which is implicitly contained in that of practices. If practices imply the mobilisation of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values, the constituents of what is called “competency”, practices also generate new knowledge, new skills and new behaviours which, by definition, cannot be found in pre-existing, static competency frameworks, As for the question of “values”, too often ignored by competency frameworks, this is undoubtedly the most important and perhaps the most stable element structuring a community of practice.

Finally, thinking about recognition from communities of practice is the opportunity to movefrom ego-recognition to eco-recognition, from recognition that affects the individual and the individual alone, to the recognition within a community where individual recognition certainly affects the person, but simultaneously the recognition of the community as a whole, thinking of recognition as flows in motion within and across levels (micro, meso, macro) and not mere static states.

Moving from ego-recognition to eco-recognition is also the way to give back nobility to the informal: informal learning and recognition are not inferior to formal learning and recognition, they are at their origin and a source for their potential transformation.

It is time to put the informal and interdisciplinary back at the centre of our learning and recognition ecosystems for so long sterilised by the disciplinary and normative approaches to learning and recognition 18.

I would like to thank for their comments and suggestions Christophe Delamare, Bert Jehoul, Pierre Landry, Esther Linley, François Millet, Patrice Petitqueux, Philippe Petitqueux, Gerard Pruim and Don Presant.

  1. I group under formal what in the field of education the OECD distinguishes between formal and non-formal (both planned), as opposed to informal (not planned): link
  2. Qualified assessor, author of several competency frameworks and “Valider les Competence avec les NVQs” a book explaining how one could get a qualification through the creation of a portfolio of evidence, I also keep a blog, learningfutures.eu, where I muse on learning and technologies.
  3. “Some aperitif liqueur was served. The thirsty people that we were all as much as we were (did I say that we were the good dozen by the way?) rushed there like poverty on the world and like smallpox on the Breton low clergy. “- (Georges Perec,What little chrome handlebar bike at the back of the courtyard?,Denoël, 2000)
  4. For a useful study to address the issue of the competency-practice relationship: “Teaching-learning processes between informality and formalization,” Reinhard Zürcher (link) and  (in French) “L’analyse des pratiques professionnelles comme moyen de développement des compétences: ancrage théorique, processus à l’œuvre et limites de ces dispositifs” Anne Marie Lagadec (link)
  5. Geoff Carroll and Trevor Boutall: Guide to Developing National Occupational Standards
  6. Anerkennen geht dem Erkennen voraus
  7. “Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong – In the early grades, US schools value reading-comprehension skills over knowledge. The results are devastating, especially for poor kids.” (link)
  8. A definition of competency includes knowledge, skills, attitudes and values (KSAV) this last component being more than often ignored in competency frameworks—notwithstanding that some are limited to the mere description of skills, or a list of tasks….
  9. Des badges au Dôme : saison 2 (link)
  10. Quelle prise en compte du « changement » in les référentiels de diplôme de l’enseignement technique agricole ? François-Xavier Jacquin et Gilles Tatin. Source: CAIRN
  11. Henry Mintzberg, author of “Managers Not MBAs,” -quoted in “Say Goodbye to Competency Frameworks,” Phi Lenir: link
  12. Three battles were fought along the Chemin des Dames (literally, the “ladies’ path”) during the First World War. Source Wikipedia.
  13. How Google Builds Its Maps—and What It Means for the Future of Everything – The Atlantic (link)
  14. c.f. WeLearn
  15. “Nous voulons créer des diplômes blancs, comme il peut y avoir des projets blancs de recherche” (link)
  16. Descriptors of the eight levels of the European Qualifications Framework (link)
  17. Dan Hickey’s original definition for “Carpet Badging” was : Mass awarding of badges with little or no assessment of work (link)
  18. Il est temps de remettre l’informel et l’interdisciplinaire au centre de nos dispositifs stérilisé par les formes d’enseignement et de reconnaissance disciplinaires, que la formalisation ne soit plus synonyme de formolisation

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