Developing proficient performance at work: Qualifying the definition of proficiency

Most business researchers have a consensus that organisations do not need to develop all of their employees to expert level. Rather, they need employees to deliver performance that exhibits ‘proficiency’, with a small percentage of them being at an expert level.

In today’s fast-paced world, with a high degree of skill obsolescence, massive technological innovations, and rapid changes, it is important that global leaders develop their employees’ performance at the speed of businesses. In this context, organisations cannot wait long for their employees to become proficient in the critical skills required to support their businesses and customers.

Developing workforce performance

While there are several models to qualify the performance of employees in the jobs, despite four decades of studies, there is a general lack of a compelling framework that could ensure speeding up employee performance.

Renowned researchers, Hoffman, Feltovich, et al (2010, p180) appealed in their studies to address research questions such as ‘How to quicken the training process while maintaining its effectiveness (Rapidised Training), … How to train and train quickly to higher levels of proficiency (Accelerated Proficiency)’. Organisations need methods and frameworks to ‘Facilitating the achievement of high proficiency, especially accelerating across the apprentice to senior journeyman levels’ (Hoffman et al, 2014, p173).

In an attempt to identify the methods to develop employee performance at speed, Dr Raman K Attri conducted a large-scale study with 85 project leaders from 50 large organisations in seven countries (Attri, 2018, 2020, 2023).

Surprisingly, the study found that organisations struggle to accelerate employee proficiency mainly because many of them struggle to define what proficient performance even looks like.

Qualifying proficient performance

Recent research by Dr Raman presented a clear but largely different view about what we call proficiency. Research clarified that job-role proficiency is a state of performance at which an employee consistently produces business outcomes or deliverables to  set performance thresholds. Merely achieving the required performance once is not deemed as proficiency. Consistency and repeatability of performance are the necessary components of proficiency, ie, meeting pre-defined standards of the job role consistently and maintaining it.

It also means that proficiency in a job role is defined and measured at the job role level for the entire set of employees serving that job role.

Most organisations measure job role proficiency in terms of business outcomes or the observable actions that closely represented or led to business outcomes in a given job role. Irrespective of the measurement metrics, a hallmark of the state of proficiency is conveyed through employees’ ability to produce business outcomes consistently.

While literature presents ‘phases of proficiency’ acquisition, Attri noted that proficiency is a ‘non-negotiable state’ – the performer is either above the set level or s/he is not. The job-role proficiency does not imply progression through different stages or levels of performance; rather, it is referred to achieving one pre-established performance level. The label or demarcation assigned to any other in-between stage to signify any sort of progression (such as being a beginner, advanced beginner, journeyman, competent, specialist, experienced, and so on) is not important enough for a business to track.

The state of proficiency is differentiated from a state in which someone is described as good at a skill, having knowledge or ability to perform an activity, or tasks. Contrary to the popular approach, job role proficiency is not defined or viewed in terms of doing any specific tasks or activities.

An important point to note is that job role proficiency does not convey an individual’s performance demonstrated on a task or skill. The state of proficiency is not just about learning any isolated skill, task, or activity in a job, nor does it signify when a person can be considered proficient in the tasks or activities that constitute the job role.

Final thoughts

With these qualifications, one of the most important guidance derived from this research is that proficiency can be accelerated in the workplace only when managers and leaders have crystal clear clarity about the definition and measures of proficiency.

Attri, RK (2023), Modelling accelerated proficiency in organizations: practices and strategies to shorten time-to-proficiency of the workforce, Speed To Proficiency Research, Singapore.

Attri, RK (2020) Accelerated Proficiency for Accelerated Times: A Review of Key Concepts and Methods to Speed up Performance, Speed To Proficiency Research, Singapore.

Attri, RK (2018) Modelling accelerated proficiency in organizations: practices and strategies to shorten time-to-proficiency of the workforce, PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia.

Hoffman, RR, Feltovich, PJ, Fiore, SM, Klein, G (2010) Accelerated Proficiency and Facilitated Retention: Recommendations Based on an Integration of Research and Findings from a Working Meeting, Report No. AFRL-RH-AZ-TR-2011-0001, Air Force Research Laboratory, Mesa.

Hoffman, RR, Ward, P, Feltovich, PJ, DiBello, L, Fiore, SM, Andrews, DH (2014) Accelerated Expertise: Training for high proficiency in a complex world, Expertise: Research and Applications Series,Psychology Press, New York.

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