What is competence?

A few years ago, Guy Le Boterf[1] defined competence as “the recognized ability to achieve results by mobilizing and combining, in a given situation, two sets of resources:

–      Resources specific to the individual (knowledge, know-how, aptitudes and personal qualities);

–      Resources linked to the environment (relational networks, professional environment, .. )

This definition was very interesting because it allowed to bring to light the main components of the competence:

–      Competence is finalized : it targets action, results, performance;

–      Competence is contextualized : it depends on the situation, is linked to the specificities of this situation and the environment in which the person evolves;

–      Competence is combinatorial : not an addition, but an adapted combination of elements (knowledge, know-how and interpersonal skills);

–      Competence is constructed : it is both acquired or learned by the person and recognized by others (during evaluation in particular).

Distinguish between “having skills” and “being competent”

The definition of a competent person cannot be reduced to an accumulation and assembly of skills, to an addition of knowledge, know-how and interpersonal skills.

For Guy Le Boterf, “to  be competent is to be able to know how to act in situation, that is to say to build and implement a relevant “professional (or in daily life) practice ”.

It is not enough to carry out an activity but to know how to go about achieving it in order to achieve the targeted objectives.

–      by mobilizing in this practice a “combination of resources” personal (knowledge, various know-how, etc.) and external to itself (database, resource persons, digital tools, etc.);

–      and by drawing lessons from the practice implemented.

This ability to act (and therefore to be competent) refers to 3 types of conditions  :

–      Knowing how to act : acquiring personal resources;

–      To be able to act : context and means specific to the person’s environment and which will allow him/her to implement a relevant professional practice;

–      Wanting to act : motivation to implement practices and to acquire and mobilize the necessary resources. This motivation largely depends on the type of one’s complex condition.

Taking into account all the factors of the competence

It will also be up to the educator/evaluator to distinguish between what falls under the individual competence and what falls under other factors relating to the external resources (the components of the “To be able to act”).

This approach seems particularly useful when we talk about the validation of skills acquired in the informal environment and in adult education and when we refer to people with fewer opportunities or in a condition of vulnerability.

[1] Guy Le Boterf is director of Le Boterf Conseil ( ) and associate professor at the University of Sherbrooke (Canada).


Social vulnerability concerns those who live in a situation of social and economic uncertainty

That is: the scarcity of means to defend oneself from a situation of sudden difficulty, both on the economic and on the existential side. Situation of sectors of the population that under normal conditions are able to meet their life needs, but which in the presence of any even small negative event are no longer able to. Situations characterized by “fragile horizons” in which there is uncertainty and a feeling of loss of control, even if there is no overt discomfort.

The concept of vulnerability offers a multidimensional interpretation of the phenomenon of inequality and the possibility of better understanding the difficult conditions experienced by citizens, who see some points of reference on which they orientated and / or founded their life decisions crumbling.

The Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach

when assessing adult education, provides a broader, multi-criteria framework that answers the need for a normative ideal.

The approach, therefore, relies on the assumption that education needs to address not only the human capital needs of society, but also the development needs and aspirations of individuals.

The Capability Approach integrates social justice in the list of priorities and raises additional questions that go beyond the mainstream neoclassical boundary: how can education contribute towards building a more just society, taking into account human dignity and wellbeing for all.

The Capability Approach

The capability approach is a theoretical framework that entails two normative claims:

first, the claim that the freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance and,

second, that well-being should be understood in terms of people’s capabilities and functionings.

Capabilities are the doings and beings that people can achieve if they so choose, such as being well-nourished, getting married, being educated, and travelling;

functionings are capabilities that have been realized.

Whether someone can convert a set of means – resources and public goods – into a functioning (i.e., whether she has a particular capability) crucially depends on certain personal, sociopolitical, and environmental conditions, which, in the capability literature, are called “conversion factors”.

Capabilities have also been referred to as real or substantive freedoms as they denote the freedoms that have been cleared of any potential obstacles, in contrast to mere formal rights and freedoms.