Competency-Based Training: Why Does It Matter?

Naila Ganatra

Naila Ganatra, MEd, General Manager, Barnett International


What are competencies?

While the concept of competency development has been around for quite some time (R.H. White, 1959), it has increasingly come into focus in clinical research as clinical trials continue to become more complex. Competencies can be defined as a set of related skills, knowledge, and abilities that enable individuals to act in accordance with the prescribed performance requirements for their roles. Ultimately, these skills enable us to respond effectively to different situational inputs and issues encountered in our jobs.

By focusing on employee competencies, organizations can better align business goals and objectives and ensure that the appropriate employees are recruited and selected. Effectively, a focus on competencies (vs. only experience) provides employers with the opportunity to distinguish potential for superior job performance vs. average or below average results, and ultimately to better define and control performance in clinical research organizations.

Why are competencies especially important in clinical research?

Given the high stakes involved in clinical research, it has never been more important that the professional competency of all members of the research team is ensured. As an industry “we suffer from variances in how we identify, train, develop, and assess professional competency.”{1} Several initiatives, including the Joint Task Force for Clinical Trial Competency,{2} ACRP’s Core Competency Framework,{3} the work of the Multi-Regional Clinical Trials Center (MRCT),{4} as well as the work done by Furtado, Boggs, et al.,{5} have pointed to a lack of established standards in our industry, coupled with a critical shortage of qualified candidates for essential clinical research job roles. When we as an industry join together to focus on competency alignment with key clinical research role requirements, and when we further support competency development for these roles and align them with harmonized standards, we will only benefit as a whole from these efforts, particularly given the regular movement of personnel within the industry.

How can competency development be best addressed in training programs?

The good news is that competency-based training can save valuable employee time and scarce training dollars. The fundamental change in thinking that needs to occur when moving from content-based training to competency-based training is how we think about time. Too often, companies view employee development as time spent in training, as opposed to an emphasis on the learning that occurred. With a focus on what is learned and how it is applied, managers can get more value from training budgets. Critical factors to bear in mind are:

  • Recognizing that employees learn and develop at different paces and time spent is only one component – by holding the learning outcome constant and letting time spent in training vary by learner, better results are achieved.
  • Understanding that not one training course or platform is always the best fit for a given situation: consider course content and platform versatility to meet learners where they are (i.e., mentoring vs. webinars, vs. self-paced courses, vs. publications – you get the idea!). Provide flexibility in training options and encourage participation in course selection based on learners’ identified needs and areas of interest.
  • Remembering that the classroom is only one part of the equation when it comes to competency development – it takes more involvement, feedback, and goal setting.
  • Measuring learning by developing clear and fair assessment metrics (and use them!). All too often, assessment results are not followed-up on, despite the wealth of information (and opportunity for development) they contain.
  • Understanding that line manager involvement is essential: set clear objectives and stick to them. Establish goals and hold employees accountable to their personal development.
  • Rewarding personnel for being committed to their personal development, which is often taken on without a release from job responsibilities. Praise, promote, and reward as they achieve their goals.
  • Providing opportunities for high achievers to lead; this helps others to model exemplary behavior and performance.

Other critical factors to consider in a competency-based training approach include:

  • The need for clearly defined employee training procedures and objectives
  • Availability of robust job descriptions (including experience, knowledge, skills, and abilities)
  • Clear identification of job duties, functions, topics for “on-the-job” training
  • Comprehensive training plans/options for learning and professional development (including on-the-job training)
  • Selection of qualified trainers who are aligned with the defined requirements (competencies, work performance review)
  • Ongoing maintenance of employee training files

And importantly, strategic training program design including the clear definition of learning outcomes, training platform considerations that are in alignment with the learning outcomes, and identification of “what’s next” after training completion.

How Can Barnett International Help?

Barnett offers a number of role-based training programs designed for core competency development. Starting with learning outcomes in mind, the “Barnett difference” includes an emphasis on flexibility in training resources through the use of multiple platforms and learning technologies, coupled with deep subject matter experience and hands-on expertise in the roles for which we train. Our approach enables us to meet learners where they are, particularly in terms of their content requirements, availability, and desired learning outcomes. Barnett’s training consulting experience further provides clients with training strategy development, focused specifically on performance development outcomes.

For more information about Barnett, contact us at + 1 781 972 5400, +1 800 856 2556 or

1. Kremidas J. Do We Need Competency Standards for Clinical Researchers? Clinical Leader December 2017.
2. Joint Task Force for Clinical Trial Competency
3. Association of Clinical Research Professionals: Competency Domains for Clinical Research Professionals
4. Multi-Regional Clinical Trial Center: Clinical Research Professional Competency
5. Julé A, Furtado T, Boggs L, et al. Developing a globally applicable evidence informed competency framework to support capacity strengthening in clinical research. BMJ Global Health 2017;2.