Technology and Its Impact On Competency Management in the Future September 2016

RailSmart EDS

James Fox, Commercial Director at 3Squared, discusses how the rail industry is refocusing on competency management and taking advantage of technology to create a safer railway for the future.

“The Office of Rail Regulation’s (ORR’s) Railway Safety Publication RSP1 describes competency as ‘‘...practical and thinking skills, experience and knowledge...’ It breaks down competency into the following areas: 1) Technical skills and underpinning knowledge 2) Non-technical skills and 3) Functional skills.

The RSSB’s RS/100 guidance recognises the importance of having a rigorous evidence-base to establish what competencies are needed and how they will be measured, rather than relying on instinct. It covers how the development of a competency scale, encompassing a series of levels from beginner to expert is a more valuable approach than simple ‘tick box’ compliance. Also highlighted is the need for richer competency profiles to incorporate large amounts of data, and the limitations of the recording and analysis of such using traditional paper-based systems. Within this, the guidance recommends introducing technology as the most effective solution for the monitoring of individuals’ progress.

In RSP1, the ORR states that ‘’the purpose of a Competency Management System is to control in a logical and integrated way activities within a company or organisation that further develop competent performance at work.’ It goes on to outline how the aim is to ensure that individuals are clear about the performance that is expected of them, that appropriate training has been received, assessments have been completed and that skills are maintained or improved over time. This cyclical process is designed to continually improve competency.

To put this into context, it has been revealed in post-incident evaluation and analysis that non-technical skills (NTS) are key contributors to these events. In the ORR definition, these are defined as ‘a particular set of skills and knowledge relating to how risks can be managed at the front line’.

Studies have shown that the absence of NTS can play a key role in incidents and accidents. It has therefore been recommended that staff learn how to deal with a range of situations, including those which are ‘out of the ordinary’, helping them to manage threats, such as freak weather conditions and human errors, when they occur. Building up a complete picture and profile of an individual can require regular monitoring, assessment and analysis and it is here that technology can help to ensure assessors receive an accurate picture of an individual’s competency levels.

In line with the RSSB’s indication that technology needs to be employed to monitor and assess competency management in the future, 3squared was approached two years ago by East Midlands Trains to develop web-based mobile App technology to enable the company to better manage employee competency. Previously, the company had used paper-based systems or legacy Lotus Notes to record and monitor vital safety assessment processes. This was inefficient, both in terms of time and the fact that systems could not easily alert the operator to assessment deadlines, therefore running the risk of an employee not being assessed when required.

Working with East Midlands Trains, 3squared developed RailSmart EDS (Employee Development System) as a competency management tool to address all these issues. Benchmarked against best practice guidance, it provides rail companies with the tools to proactively manage and improve the capabilities of staff, with the aim of improving safety on the railways.

RailSmart works via an iPad app, which allows for complete assessments to be carried out on the move, whilst monitoring train crews at work. The web component simultanesously gives verifiers the ability to check the quality of the assessments being conducted against criteria set out in ORR and RSSB standards. This is now being used as a competency management tool by a number of rail operators.

In order to gain feedback from the industry and gain a further insight into competency management across all rail operators, over the past 12 months we have carried out a major in-depth survey. This has involved posing a series of questions to TOCs and FOCs that focus on many different factors that affect competency management. The ultimate goal is to enable our team to gather information, so they can make RailSmart the industry standard technology for assessing and monitoring competency management.

The findings so far have been interesting and far reaching. This includes recognising that safety depends on the co-ordination of key people in the business and not just on the actions of the Drivers or Assessors.

Our research has identified that to be successful, a competency management strategy must relate to the organisation’s vision and strategic objectives, be implemented in daily processes throughout the organisation and – most importantly – take into account human factors, for all operations-based personnel.

Our research reinforces the need for NTS, and 3Squared recognise a golden opportunity for TOCs to share knowledge and best practice with Network Rail, who are now forging closer business relationships and alliances with train operators. Human factors (NTS) is widely used in other industries, including; Aviation, Nuclear and Oil & Gas.

Safety is a subject that 3Squared are passionate about. The RailSmart Survey will help to communicate knowledge gaps and facilitate a ‘learning revolution’ in competency management – usitiling both hard and soft skills, then we are making the rail industry a safer place to work.

Human Factors is used to understand why people make mistakes, why things go wrong and which factors can contribute to incidents in the rail industry.

Teaching non-technical skills includes raising awareness of potential issues in order to better manage risk. Human Factors training, threat, and error management are what we have found to be at the core of competency management.

RSSB’s guidance on human factors highlights how employees of rail companies are valuable assets that require continued investment, alongside the use of systems which support the safe and effective operation of the company. When human factors are taken into account, it supports a railway system that optimises performance. 

The guidance highlights how integrating activities to assess human factors at the start of a project can reduce the need for re-design once systems have entered service. This also decreases the potential for staff turnover, whilst increasing productivity for the whole organisation.


The overall model for train driver training across Great Britain’s railways has remained largely unchanged since the introduction of the first standardised training programme in the 1970s. The predominant structure of this training has centred on the use of a comprehensive block of theoretical learning, structured around the Rule Book and Traction Manual, prior to extensive on-the-job practical training (RSSB, 2009a: T718).

Although this model has been successful to a certain extent, it has focused predominantly on the development of technical skills and underpinning knowledge and has not formally included functional and non-technical skills (NTS). New technology, like RailSmart, now offers a real possibility that competency management can be taken to a much more advanced level, with the opportunity to better monitor and assess these essential non-technical skills.

By doing this, the ultimate beneficiaries are customers and rail employees in ensuring a safer, more productive railway that meets the challenges and demands of staff in the future.”

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