About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Expertise, competency, and content

Three terms, expertise, competency, and content, are used interchangeably with knowledge, especially in the context of workplace learning and training. However, they may have multiple meanings depending on the theoretical constructs of the research. Therefore, it is important to discuss and define each of these terms as they relate to knowledge.

Content Knowledge

The traditional form of knowledge often is referred to as content knowledge. This is knowledge that can be possessed (Nonaka, 1994), as “what is known, or the corpus of knowledge that does not belong to any particular individual or context (Yakhlef, 2010, p.39).” Knowledge of content can be measured, identified (especially lack of content knowledge), and/or recorded and stored for use by those who would not ordinarily have access to the knowledge. As a result, content knowledge can also be abstracted for use by those that have never required a particular content knowledge, nor have had access to an environment or situation that required that content (Yakhlef, 2010). For example, a teacher in a rural area without access to internet service may not have access or use of learning management system (LMS) software. He or she may learn about the software, how to use it by using reading a textbook, or even receive some hands on training away from his or her classroom. However, he or she would be prepared on how to use the software should his or her school install the software, and be able to formulate ways in which to use the software in his or her teaching should the opportunity arise, without ever having to use the LMS.

Because of the ease in measuring content knowledge, most training and professional education focus on transferring content knowledge at the individual, group, and organizational level (Cook & Yanow, 1995; Yakhlef, 2002; Yakhlef, 2010). However, with the advent of the internet, for an individual to possess content knowledge is not as important as for an individual to be able to access and know how to use content knowledge. In other words, individuals need to have skills and experience to use content knowledge efficiently and effectively. This is then known as competence (Herling, 2000; Yaklief, 2010). Content knowledge without competency means an individual may have difficulty performing his or her work or changing his or her behavior as the situation requires (Herling, 2000; Laufer & Glick, 1998).


Herling (2000) defines competence as “an ability to do something satisfactory-not necessarily outstandingly or even well, but rather to a minimum level of acceptable performance (p.9).” At the organizational level, the competency model of management is based on the identifiable skill sets needed to efficiently perform required work and the overall capacity among workers. Organizations need to identify skill sets, gaps in the skill sets, potential problems due to the gaps, and ways to manage/train so that the organization can perform efficiently (Herling, 2000; Sanghi, 2007). Training to develop competency may include interdepartamental cross-training, interaction with experts to develop performance expectations, guided practice, and the opportunity to engage in dialectic reflection (i.e. negotiating meaning with others) (Goodwin, 1994; Herling, 2000; Laufer & Glick, 1998; Sanghi, 2007;Yaklief, 2010). Content knowledge plays a part in competency training in that trainees must first either have the content knowledge or access to content knowledge in order to develop the skills that lead to perforance which demonstrates competency.


Much has been written about organizational expertise, especially in the context of differences between the expert and novice. One common theme is that expertise requires a depth of understanding based on experience. An expert not only knows what (content knowledge) and how (competency), but also why and when to use knowledge (Allee, 1997). This requires a certain level of tacit knowledge about the domain and/or environment in which the application of knowledge is required (Sternberg & Horvath, 1999). Expertise requires the translation of content knowledge into practice, applying knowledge to the environment, problem, and/or situation, modifying content through discursive processes (Laufer & Glick, 1998;Yahlief, 2010).

Although researchers may not agree upon the order, many differentiate generalized expertise and specialized expertise. Specialized expertise is knowledge that comes from experience and learning within a specific domain, such as aerospace or endocrinology within the engineering and medical professions. Through focused interaction with the environment, professional artifacts, and other professionals within a community of practice, in-depth specialized understanding is created (Herling, 2000; Sternberg & Horvath, 1999; Yaklief, 2010). This specialized understanding often is then converted into content that can be disseminated back into the community of practice or to outsiders (who may then be interested in joining the specialized community of practice). While an individual may have a specialization, expertise requires knowledge within the domain that the community recognizes as important. Without the social acceptance of the specialization, there is no expertise.

Disseminating Content, Competency, and Expertise in the Workplace

Generalized expertise can either be developed through application of a specialized expertise across domains (Herling, 2000) or through a deep understanding of the domain as a whole, within multiple specializations within that domain linked together to create general expertise (Allee, 1997; Herling, 2000). Herling defines expertise as “displayed behavior within a specialized domain and/or related domain in the form of consistently demonstrated actions of an individual that are both optimally efficient in their execution and effective in their results (p.20).” He bases this definition on three componants required for expertise: knowledge, experience, and problem solving. In this case, knowledge is equivilent to content knowledge.

For this paper, we will differentiate expertise from competence and content knowledge through the depth of knowledge and understanding. Content knowledge can be defined as the information and explicit knowledge that can be stored, accessed, possessed and translated/abstracted outside of the situation/environment in which it was created. Content knowledge is static and is minimally impacted through social interaction except through the social valuation of the content knowledge. In other words, if the content knowledge is not identified as being valuable it may be lost, and if it has perceived exceptional value, it may be controled. Competency can be defined as the minimum skills and understanding of processes needed to effiently perform tasks within a given environment or situation. This requires tacit knowledge to conform to the situational and environmental requirements that impact performance. Expertise can be defined as a depth of understanding through experience, content knowledge, skills, and discoursive interaction with multiple settings, artifacts, and others. Expertise is dynamic in that knowledge and understanding is constantly changing as deeper meaning is developed through interaction.

A person who is perceived as having expertise and the ability to apply that expertise to varying, yet specific situations is an expert. Herling contends that an individual first specializes, using specialized content knowledge. Eventually, the competency in the specialized field will be added to an individual’s overall general knowledge moving an individual from competent to an expert in a specialized area to a generalized expert. However, as discussed above, some individuals may first have competency in a domain, then develop a general knowledge about that domain learning about different componants of the domain, then develop various specialties within the domain to understand the socio-cognitive aspects of the domain. As a result, new content knowledge is developed to give a deeper understanding of the domain.

Knowledge can then be desiminated through a group, department, or organization. Content knowledge is accessed by an individual, group, department, or even organization (in the form of training materials). Through interaction (both social and cognitive) with the environment and the content competency is developed. The longer that one performs competently in a dynamic environment (such as the workplace) the more expertise is developed. This expertise is then captured through artifacts such as finished products, reports, discussion, curriculum, and training which then can be desiminated to novices, in which the process begins again. Knowledge creation, therefore, is a dynamic process, rather than the static form that content knowledge represents (Allee, 1999; Cook & Yanow, 1995; Herling, 2000; Sanghi, 2007; Yaklief, 2010)


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