As of 22 April 2009 this website is 'frozen' in time — see the current IFLA websites

This old website and all of its content will stay on as archive – http://archive.ifla.org

IFLANET home - International Federation of Library Associations and InstitutionsAnnual ConferenceSearchContacts

62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

The library as a key to exploiting economic resources - Global competence in the library oils the lock.

Hazel Dakers
Hazel Dakers and Associates,
Training Strategy Consultancy
London, UK


The UK National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) system is the most comprehensive exponent of competence based qualifications. It has been developed to increase the skills of the UK work force and so improve the country's economy. NVQs are competence based qualifications which reflect the needs of the workplace and are best assessed there. They measure whether a person can carry out his/her work to the defined national standards of best current practice. Occupational standards of competence and NVQs have now been launched for the information and library services sector.The gains to be made by using these standards globally as Human Resource Management (HRM) tools are indicated. Their development and use is described. The author draws upon research she carried out in South Africa to indicate the types of challenges which may need tackling if the UK standards or qualifications are applied elsewhere in other cultures. Overall she advocates considering their use in other countries within the professional culture of librarianship.



Governments the world over are seeking economic salvation. In this forum I do not feel the need to make the case for the contribution the library is able to make towards its country's growth. A recent UK Minister for the National Heritage, Stephen Dorrell said in 1995, at the Library Association's biennial conference Umbrella 3, that "libraries are a key element in enhancing this country's (the UK's) competitiveness". It seems that one government recognises the library as a key to exploiting economic resources - in word if not always in deed! The theme for this paper is to make available globally the competence work developed in one country's libraries to improve the skills of its staff. This in turn should contribute towards the improvement of the economy.

The UK government has developed the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) System as a means of effectively increasing the skills of the major part of the work force. The UK government saw a correlation between poor economic performance and a poorly qualified work force when compared with its main economic competitors. For enthusiastic supporters it is easy to forget that training and qualifications in themselves do not create more jobs. However, lack of training and qualifications can accelerate job losses. By introducing NVQs as a method of assessment, the UK government is encouraging effective training - often where there was little or none before - and at the very least arresting a downward slide.NVQs are competence based qualifications which reflect the needs of the work place and are best assessed there. They measure whether a person can carry out his/her work to the defined national standards of current best practice.

It is said that to be prepared for the next millenium we need a flexible workforce armed with transferable skills. Traditionally the UK education system has reflected the social divisions of the nineteenth century. Vocational education and training was always the poor relation of academia. With NVQs the UK is expected to leap forward into the twenty-first century, able to apply its skills and knowledge towards the improvement of the economy.

I am presenting you with the tool that one country sees as a major part of the solution to increasing the skills of its workforce. If it is expected to work within one country it seems to me that it may offer advantages elsewhere. With the assistance of South African colleagues, I organised the field testing of the occupational standards developed for Information and Library Services NVQs in some libraries in the Gauteng, South Africa during 1994 and 1995. It is the results of this experience, in particular, that I have to share with you.In order to do this I will

NVQs and occupational standards as HRM tools

A whole range of HRM activities will be streamlined and carried out with far less resources when occupational standards are used as their basis. The organisation which adopts a set of occupational standards as its own can use them as a focus for its HRM functions.Job specifications and descriptions based upon ready made standards will make recruitment processes more efficient. The standards may be used for both organisational and individual training needs analysis.

Personally, I have written and piloted materials for one of the largest public library services in the UK - Essex County Library Service which has approximately 1000 staff of whom 600 are paraprofessional - to use for training needs analysis. These materials are based entirely upon the standards developed for Information and Library Services NVQs. Logically the next step would be to plan a staff training programme based upon the most common gaps identified. For the individual who uses these materials there is an immediate confirmation of the appropriate level of NVQ for which to aim and also of individual training needs to supplement the skills already possessed. Staff appraisal may be based on objective criteria which have been agreed nationally within the sector. Some organisations are deciding not only to use the standards but also to offer assessment to their staff by introducing NVQs. These organisations want to motivate their staff by offering the opportunity to gain a national qualification whilst at work. As more junior levels of staff increase their skills, so the professional staff are able to delegate more and turn their own attention towards creating new and better services.This combination is expected to result in higher quality and increased output. In our sector that may be translated into more and better information and library services. I will demonstrate later why it is that I believe transfer of occupational standards to other countries and cultures may be easier than transfer of the NVQ assessment method.

How occupational standards and NVQs were developed and are being used

The concept of competence first evolved - but was never fully exploited - in the United States and Canada from where it was imported into Scotland. From Scotland it spread to the rest of the UK which has become its most comprehensive exponent. Australia and New Zealand have emulated the UK with local variations. The UK civil service department, the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) has been responsible for funding the development. The National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) is responsible for the regulations governing the development and operation of NVQs. Between 160 and 170 occupational sectors have been identified within the UK work force of which Information and Library Services is one. Each is represented by a Lead Body (in the case of our sector a very representative national committee). One qualifications framework for the first time will encompass all qualifications. This should make it easier to move from one occupation to another.

There are five possible levels of qualification and where necessary individual ones for sub-sectors such as Archives, Records and Tourist Information Centre Services - as well as mainstream Information and Library Services. The sector is largely agreed that the functions we carry out are the same even though the context varies. Each sector starts its functional analysis by establishing a key purpose or mission statement for its entirety: "To anticipate, determine, stimulate and satisfy the needs of existing and potential users for access to information in an ethical manner". Occupational standards development consultants were employed by the Lead Body . Groups of practitioners from all subsectors and levels of information and library staff were drawn into workshops and were asked to break down the key purpose statement into very large functions. Then they split the large functions into smaller and smaller ones until they reach the unit, such as, Identify and provide information/material required by user and finally the element or standard - the smallest meaningful activity - for example, Identify user's needs.

Generic units from Information Technology, Adminstration, Customer Service and Management were adopted from the work of other Lead Bodies. The units are re- grouped to reflect different job roles. Each of these groups forms a qualification and these groups of units are designated levels equating with those in other occupational sectors.Some hundreds of practitioners were involved in the standards development over a period of three years and many more were formally consulted. The amendments were made and the revised draft standards were field tested in UK libraries and information departments.

Following the field test the standards were revised once more before submission to the National Council for Vocational Qualifications some four years after the project was commenced. It was at the penultimate stage that I tested their potential for global transferability.On the Information and Library Services National Vocational Qualifications alone the UK government has directly spent during the first five years of the project more than £500,000 sterling. This has been more than matched in kind by practitioners' time given to the project.

The project continues with the development of the most demanding (level 5) qualifications and implementation of levels 2 - 4. It is felt that no unique information and library services functions are carried out at level 1. The accredited qualifications are operated on behalf of the Information and Library Services Lead Body by the RSA Examinations Board. Assessment and quality assurance procedures follow regulations laid down by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. The candidate is assessed upon evidence as in a court of law. The type of evidence is prescribed and the amount quantified. The knowledge necessary to undertake the activity is assessed as a part of this evidence.

An almost parallel system of Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs) is operated in Scotland by Scotvec.A candidate for NVQ assessment is registered with an assessment centre. The centre, ideally, will be the candidate's own library or alternatively another within the locality. Some education and training providers offer assessment facilities. The candidate will gather evidence from work which matches the criteria in the standards and this evidence is assessed by an assessor. The assessor is overseen by the internal verifier who, in turn, is overseen by the external verifier on behalf of the awarding body, RSA. Each of these is trained and qualified to carry out her/his particular function and must also be occupationally competent.

Global application of competence in different cultures

The very fact that we are meeting together here is recognition of the fact that we carry out the same functions the world over. It will therefore not surprise you to know that in South Africa, whether in a township school library in Soweto or at the library of UNISA the massive distance learning university , the occupational standards developed in the UK were largely relevant. The occupational standards were carried out in a variety of contexts in the assessment of the competent practitioner. Sometimes some of those contexts, for example processing CD roms, were difficult to evidence. However there are more serious hurdles to jump when applying the UK National Vocational Qualifications system elsewhere.When considering the application of NVQs or UK occupational standards in the information and library services of another country, my research has shown that there are four distinct areas which provide challenges. These are language, style of education, style of management and social factors.

1. Language

. English is the working language of much of the world. The very fact that NVQs are written in English makes transfer much easier in many respects. For some English is an attraction but for others it is a very definite deterrant. However, English is used in many different ways in different parts of the world. In the UK we use the expression protective casing to mean a cover on, for example, a book or a video. In South Africa the same expression was assumed to mean a security device. In the UK we use the word transferability which is substituted in South Africa with the Australian term, portability.Occupational standards and NVQs use a combination of sectoral jargon - in our case Information and Library Services - and NVQ jargon. It is expecting a great deal of a translator to contend with the two, particularly in view of the fact that to understand NVQ jargon it will first be necessary to fully understand the concepts behind the competence movement. The very curious syntax in which the standards are written was laid down by the founders of the system who maintain that it is essential to the precision of the standards. Each language has its own syntax. If its importance is not overestimated how should it be reproduced in other languages? The particular style is at the same time both concise and generic. It is difficult for native English speakers, let alone for those for whom English is not the first language. In this sphere there is hope. The influential Beaumont Report (1996) calls for simplification of the language of NVQs which will inevitably make translation easier.

2. Style of education.

In the UK, education has been pupil centred for the last 25 years. School projects are a way of life. The portfolio into which the NVQ candidate stores his/her evidence may be described as the adult version of the school project. The demands upon the candidate are similar to those of the school pupil in terms of taking initiative to research, gather and organise material with guiding and cross-referencing. If there are middle aged people in the UK who find this approach strange - those who have not worked with children and do not have children of their own - then it will seem even stranger to people in a country where there has been no experience of pupil centred education.This is the case in South Africa. Education is teacher centred, relying largely upon the teacher's ideas and initiative. There are many cultures in which this would be the position - particularly the Confucian cultures which respect the authority of teachers far more than we do in the UK. However, this different educational tradition does not make transfer unsuitable or impossible. It simply requires a little more effort. I found that my South African colleagues very quickly understood the concepts of competence and learned the techniques of portfolio assessment.

3. Management styles.

Another important facet of culture in the workplace is style of management. In the UK during the last twenty years, relations between management and staff have become fairly informal and relaxed. Assessment by line managers is largely acceptable. Elsewhere assessment by line managers could be quite an uncomfortable experience. In the UK management hierarchies are gradually being reduced and staff are being called upon to be more flexible and multi-skilled. In South Africa, one organisation which had recently changed from a traditional structure to one of small flexible teams found that NVQs fitted its work pattern well. On the other hand, one which had not yet (but has since) changed from a tightly structured hierarchy found the demands of an NVQ too broadly based to use easily by its narrowly specialist staff. It is therefore necessary to consider the coming trends in management style in your own country before judging whether NVQs - as opposed to the standards for which many of the same potential difficulties do not exist - might be suitable for your organisation. South Africa is clearly moving in the same sort of management direction as the UK. It is likely that a similar style of qualification would prove suitable. The development of a system sharing many of the same concepts is part of the policy of the government of the new South Africa and is, in fact, in its very early stages.

4. Social factors

Competence is dominating training in the UK at the moment. In the UK there is an assured minimum standard of education, an ethos of encouraging lifelong learning, quality assurance, value for money and consumer charters. The competence movement and NVQs in particular are very much the articulation in the field of training of the right to proven, measured, quality. Transfer is clearly easier to countries where the ethos is similar.The UK is a well established democracy. The process of functional analysis, through which occupational standards are developed, requires practitioners to gather together and to speak freely about their work. They need to be relaxed about asserting their opinions. Some UK organisations have been assisting corresponding organisations in other countries to develop similar occupational standards of their own. This must be difficult in situations in which people do not feel able to speak freely.

Another social factor to consider is that censorship laws, for instance, create the need for people to perform additional functions for which additional standards would need to be written. In South Africa violence in the township of Soweto proved disruptive to assessment. A teacher librarian due to be assessed was nervous to stay in her school after it closed which was the only time available for assessment to take place. The poor transport system made it difficult for the assessor, another teacher librarian to travel across the township and carry out the assessment. In rural areas the large distances would create additional problems. Conversely it may be argued that locally based assessment, no reliance on attendance at courses and the opportunity for training and qualifying in the workplace make such a system far more suitable to implement in places of social need than traditional systems of education and training.


To summarise, I have described the benefits to be gained from a competence based system of qualifications and the standards upon which it is based. I have outlined the development of the UK NVQ system , how it operates and I have pointed the way to some of the difficulties which might need to be overcome in using the occupational standards globally. Whilst none of these challenges is insurmountable, I believe that for successful global transfer it will be necessary to take account of them.In the same way as common culture and practice is found to bind the global corporation, within our profession we have our own professional global culture. The very existence of IFLA is witness to our common functions.

From this point of view it seems likely that information and library services organisations beyond the UK may find value in the occupational standards which were developed there. It will not be possible everywhere to provide the financial resources to carry out full and thorough in-country functional analysis. Where the UK work needs adaptation it is important to remember that the unlevelled standards may be adapted and regrouped to form different qualifications. However, an NVQ cannot be adapted and remain an NVQ.

What would be the benefits of using the UK work elsewhere? Global occupational standards of competence in Information and Library Services would enhance cooperation and increase the international mobility of staff within our sector. The standards when used as qualifications provide a practical alternative to the traditional type of academic qualification experienced by most of us. The fact that the components of the qualification have come from within the workplace indicates that they reflect its needs. The qualifications allow a progression path from the level of junior library or information assistant through to senior librarian or information officer. People are assessed for their ability to carry out their work activities to the criteria laid down in the standards. They are assessed on the results of their work or outcomes. How they attain these standards does not matter. A course might contribute towards their preparation but merely attending a course does not entitle a candidate to an NVQ. Many people will simply be trained on the job. In the UK it is expected that many candidates will be paraprofessional library staff with years of experience who have not previously had the opportunity to qualify. At the other end of the spectrum many expect that level 5 will provide a framework for Continuing Professional Development for the experienced senior librarian.

The standards provide, in documented form, precisely what makes a competent library worker. Never before has this been available as such an easily exportable package.In 1992, during the early days of the development of the UK occupational standards, David Whitaker then Chairman of the Information and Library Services Lead Body, said :

"We must treat this as an opportunity to professionalise information and library services at all levels by the 21st century. It is in the interests of those working in the sector for their own survival and, more importantly, for those for whom they provide services and the country at large. This is the way in which the information and library services sector can contribute towards making Great Britain plc more competitive and successful in the future"
I put it to you that we have an opportunity to increase the bonds of our profession internationally. We have a new tool which may be used to increase the effectiveness of library staff at all levels. By so doing we may better the service offered to our users and so provide them with the additional support that they need to more fully exploit the world's economic resources so increasing the standard of living for people throughout the world. If we accept that the library is a key to exploiting economic resources then I believe we must consider global competence in the library as a method of oiling the lock.


  1. Association of Accounting Technicians. The Education and training scheme: overseas approved assessment centres, 1995/6. London: AAT, 1995.

  2. Beaumont, Gordon. Review of 100 NVQs and SVQs. Chesterfield,1996.

  3. Cappelli, Peter and McElrath, Roger. The transfer of employment practices through multinationals,1992.

  4. Dakers, Hazel. NVQs and how to get them. London: Kogan Page, 1996.

  5. Hofstede,G. Culture and organizations. International Studies of Management and Organization X (4), Sharpe, 1991.

  6. Information and Library Services Lead Body. Revised standards with assessment guidance levels 1-4: submisssion version. London, March 1995.

  7. Irving, Ann. report on a visit to Australia. CERLIM: UCL,1995.

  8. Jessup, Gilbert. Outcomes: NVQs an emerging model of education and training. London: Falmer, 1991.

  9. Kirkbride, Paul S, Tang Sara FY and Shae Wan Chaw. The Transferability of management training and development: the case of Hong Kong. Asia Pacific Human Resource Management (2) 1989.

  10. National Training Board. Executive summary: a discusssion document on a national training strategy initiative: a preliminary report. Pretoria: NTB, 1994.

  11. National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ). NVQ criteria and guidance. London:NCVQ, 1995.

  12. RSA Examinations Board. The International Unit: a brief history. Coventry: RSA, 1995.

  13. RSA Examinations Board. Information and Library Services Scheme Book. Coventry, 1995.(Currently there are three of these at levels 2, 3 and 4).

  14. Thurstans, Margaret. Library competency standards . Public libraries: trading in futures, Australia, 1994.

  15. Underhill, William. The Vision of a global NVQ. The Daily Telegraph, 10/11/95, p 37.


Three summaries from Hazel Dakers' NVQs and how to get them. (London: Kogan Page, 1996.)

The NVQ system:
The NVQ Framework covers approximately 160 occupational areas

Differences between NVQs and academic qualifications: