Competence-based Competence Management: a Pragmatic and Interpretive Approach. The Case of a Telecommunications Company
In this research we explore the issue of “competence management”, as usually defined in the corporate vocabulary, mostly in the human resource (HR) function, and more particularly of “strategic competence management” (long run management of competences which are critical to achieve strategic goals). We try to show that competence management is a dynamic organizational competence. We analyze it in the case of a large European telecommunications company, France Télécom, in the years 2001-2003. The telecommunications sector is characterized by quick changes in technology, markets and industrial structures, and therefore a high level of uncertainty. It is also a high tech activity, based upon continuously evolving personal skills which require long education and training times. There is an apparent contradiction between uncertainty, which makes planning difficult, and the necessity to plan new competence development with long response times. This contradiction cannot be solved if competences are defined in a static way, as structural attributes of actual or potential employees or groups of employees. The strategic competence management issue must be considered rather in the frame of a dynamic, process-based view, which involves an on-going collective and reflexive activity of actors themselves to define and manage their competences. We tested process-based competence management in the case of two telecommunication domains: high bit-rate ADSL telecommunications and Internet services to small and medium businesses. The reflexive and collective competence management process had to be instrumented with instruments which did not aim at an accurate representation of competences as objects, but rather tried to offer a meaningful support for actors’ continuous (re)interpretation of present and future work situations in terms of critical competences. As a conclusion we extend the example of competence management instruments to the general issue of management instruments, in the context of uncertain and dynamic environments. Information-based theories of instruments view instruments as specular representations of situations, which allow optimal or satisficing problem-solving procedures. But when business environments continuously evolve and resist prediction, we must move towards an interpretive view of management instruments as meaningful signs, which help actors to make sense of the situations in which they are involved. Their relevance is not an absolute ontological truth but the practical effectiveness of their context-situated utilization and interpretation. A semiotic and pragmatist theory of activity and instruments can then be proposed.
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