Roles and Competencies

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Enabling individuals to perform systems engineering (SE) requires an understanding of SE competencies, roles, and tasks; plus knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitudes (KSAA). Within a business or enterprise, SE responsibilities are allocated to individuals through the definition of SE roles associated with a set of task. For an individual, a set of KSAAs enables the fulfillment of the competencies needed to perform the tasks associated with the assigned SE role. SE competencies reflect the individual’s KSAAs, which are developed through education, training, and on-the-job experience. Traditionally, SE competencies build on innate personal qualities and have been developed primarily through experience. Recently, education and training have taken on a greater role in the development of SE competencies.

Relationship of SE Competencies and KSAAs

There are many ways to define competency. It can be thought of as a measure of the ability to use the appropriate KSAAs to successfully complete specific job-related tasks (Whitcomb, Khan, White 2014). Competencies align with the tasks that are expected to be accomplished for the job position (Holt and Perry 2011). KSAAs belong to the individual. In the process of filling a position, organizations have a specific set of competencies associated with tasks that are directly related to the job. A person possesses the KSAAs that enable them to perform the desired tasks at an acceptable level of competency.

The KSAAs are obtained and developed from a combination of several sources of learning including education, training, and on-the-job experience. By defining the KSAAs in terms of a standard taxonomy, they can be used as learning objectives for competency development (Whitcomb, Khan, White 2014). Bloom’s Taxonomy for the cognitive and affective domains provides this structure (Bloom 1956, Krathwohl 2002). The cognitive domain includes knowledge, critical thinking, and the development of intellectual skills, while the affective domain describes growth in awareness, attitude, emotion, changes in interest, judgment, and the development of appreciation (Bloom 1956). The affective does not refer to additional topics which a person learns about, but rather to a transformation of the person in relation to the original set of topics learned. Cognitive and affective processes within Bloom’s taxonomic classification schema refer to levels of observable actions, which indicate learning is occurring. Bloom’s Taxonomy for the cognitive and affective domains define terms as categories of levels that can be used for consistently defining KSAA statements (Krathwohl 2002):

Cognitive Domain

  • Remember
  • Understand
  • Apply
  • Analyze
  • Evaluate
  • Create

Affective Domain

  • Receive
  • Respond
  • Value
  • Organize
  • Characterize

Both cognitive and affective domains should be included in the development of systems engineering competency models, because the cognitive domain learning concerns the consciously developed knowledge about the various subjects and the ability to perform tasks, whilst the affective learning concerns the interest in or willingness to use particular parts of the knowledge learned and the extent to which the systems engineer is characterized by taking approaches which are inherently systemic. Using the affective domain in the specification of KSAAs, is also important as every piece of information we process in our brains goes through our affective (emotional) processors before it is integrated by our cognitive processors (Whitcomb and Whitcomb 2013).

SE Competency Models

Contexts in which individual competency models are typically used include

  • Recruitment and Selection: Competencies define categories for behavioral event interviewing (BEI), increasing the validity and reliability of selection and promotion decisions.
  • Human Resources Planning and Placements: Competencies are used to identify individuals to fill specific positions and/or identify gaps in key competency areas.
  • Education, Training, and Development: Explicit competency models let employees know which competencies are valued within their organization. Curriculum and interventions can be designed around desired competencies.

Commonality and Domain Expertise

No single individual is expected to be proficient in all the competencies found in any model. The organization, overall, must satisfy the required proficiency in sufficient quantity to support business needs. Organizational capability is not a direct summation of the competency of the individuals in the organization, since organizational dynamics play an important role that can either raise or lower overall proficiency and performance. The articles Enabling Teams and Enabling Businesses and Enterprises explore this further.

SE competency models generally agree that systems thinking, taking a holistic view of the system that includes the full life cycle, and specific knowledge of both technical and managerial SE methods are required to be a fully capable systems engineer. It is also generally accepted that an accomplished systems engineer will have expertise in at least one domain of practice. General models, while recognizing the need for domain knowledge, typically do not define the competencies or skills related to a specific domain. Most organizations tailor such models to include specific domain KSAAs and other peculiarities of their organization.

INCOSE Certification

Certification is a formal process whereby a community of knowledgeable, experienced, and skilled representatives of an organization, such as the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), provides formal recognition that a person has achieved competency in specific areas (demonstrated by education, experience, and knowledge). (INCOSE nd). The most popular credential in SE is offered by INCOSE, which requires an individual to pass a test to confirm knowledge of the field, requires experience in SE, and recommendations from those who have knowledge about the individual's capabilities and experience. Like all such credentials, the INCOSE certificate does not guarantee competence or suitability of an individual for a particular role, but is a positive indicator of an individual's ability to perform. Individual workforce needs often require additional KSAAs for any given systems engineer, but certification provides an acknowledged common baseline.

Domain- and Industry-specific Models

No community consensus exists on a specific competency model or small set of related competency models. Many SE competency models have been developed for specific contexts or for specific organizations, and these models are useful within these contexts.

Among the domain- and industry-specific models is the Aerospace Industry Competency Model (ETA 2010), developed by the Employment and Training Administration (ETA) in collaboration with the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), and available online. This model is designed to evolve along with changing skill requirements in the aerospace industry. The ETA makes numerous competency models for other industries available online (ETA 2010). The NASA Competency Management System (CMS) Dictionary is predominately a dictionary of domain-specific expertise required by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to accomplish their space exploration mission (NASA 2009).

Users of models should be aware of the development method and context for the competency model they plan to use, since the primary competencies for one organization might differ from those for another organization. These models often are tailored to the specific business characteristics, including the specific product and service domain in which the organization operates. Each model typically includes a set of applicable competencies along with a scale for assessing the level of proficiency.

SE Competency Models — Examples

Though many organizations have proprietary SE competency models, published SE competency models can be used for reference. Table 1 lists information about several published SE competency models, and links to these sources are shown below in the references section. Each model was developed for a unique purpose within a specific context and validated in a particular way. It is important to understand the unique environment surrounding each competency model to determine its applicability in any new setting.

Table 1. Summary of Competency Models. (SEBoK Original)
Competency Model Date Author Purpose Development Method Competency Model
INCOSE UK WG 2010 INCOSE Identify the competencies required to conduct good systems engineering INCOSE Working Group (INCOSE 2010), (INCOSE UK 2010)
ENG Competency Model 2013 DAU Identify competencies required for the DoD acquisition engineering professional. DoD and DAU internal development (DAU 2013)
NASA APPEL Competency Model 2009 NASA To improve project management and systems engineering at NASA NASA internal development - UPDATE IN WORK (NASA 2009)
MITRE Competency Model 2007 MITRE To define new curricula systems engineering and to assess personnel and organizational capabilities Focus groups as described in (Trudeau 2005) (Trudeau 2005), (MITRE 2007)
CMMI for Development 2007 SEI Process improvement maturity model for the development of products and services SEI Internal Development (SEI 2007), (SEI 2004)

Other models and lists of traits include: Hall (1962), Frank (2000; 2002; 2006), Kasser et al. (2009), Squires et al. (2011), and Armstrong et al. (2011). Ferris (2010) provides a summary and evaluation of the existing frameworks for personnel evaluation and for defining SE education. Squires et al. (2010) provide a competency-based approach that can be used by universities or companies to compare their current state of SE capability development against a government-industry defined set of needs. SE competencies can also be inferred from standards such as ISO-15288 (ISO/IEC/IEEE 15288 2015) and from sources such as the INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook (INCOSE 2012), the INCOSE Systems Engineering Certification Program, and CMMI criteria (SEI 2007). Whitcomb, Khan, and White describe the development of a systems engineering competency model for the United States Department of Defense based on a series of existing competency models (Whitcomb, Khan, and White 2013; 2014).

To provide specific examples for illustration, more details about three SE competency model examples follow. These include:

  • The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) UK Advisory Board model (INCOSE 2010), (INCOSE UK 2009);
  • The DAU ENG model (DAU 2013); and
  • The NASA Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership (APPEL) model (NASA 2009)

INCOSE SE Competency Model

The INCOSE model was developed by a working group in the United Kingdom (Cowper et al. 2005). As Table 2 shows, the INCOSE framework is divided into three theme areas - systems thinking, holistic life cycle view, and systems management - with a number of competencies in each. The INCOSE UK model was later adopted by the broader INCOSE organization (INCOSE 2010).

Table 2. INCOSE UK Working Group Competency (INCOSE UK 2010). This information has been published with the kind permission of INCOSE UK Ltd and remains the copyright of INCOSE UK Ltd - ©INCOSE UK LTD 2010. All rights reserved.

Systems Thinking

System Concepts

Super-System Capability Issues

Enterprise and Technology Environment

Hollistic Lifecycle View

Determining and Managing Stakeholder Requirements

Systems Design

Architectural Design

Concept Generation

Design For...

Functional Analysis

Interface Management

Maintain Design Integrity

Modeling and Simulation

Select Preferred Solution

System Robustness

Systems Intergration & Verification


Transition to Operation

Systems Engineering Management

Concurrent Engineering

Enterprise Integration

Integration of Specialties

Lifecycle Process Definition

Planning, Monitoring, and Controlling

United States DoD Engineering Competency Model

The model for US Department of Defense (DoD) acquisition engineering professionals (ENG) includes 41 competency areas, as shown in Table 3 (DAU 2013). Each is grouped according to a “Unit of Competence” as listed in the left-hand column. For this model, the four top-level groupings are analytical, technical management, professional, and business acumen. The life cycle view used in the INCOSE model is evident in the ENG analytical grouping, but is not cited explicitly. Technical management is the equivalent of the INCOSE SE management, but additional competencies are added, including software engineering competencies and acquisition. Selected general professional skills have been added to meet the needs for strong leadership required of the acquisition engineering professionals. The business acumen competencies were added to meet the needs of these professionals to be able to support contract development and oversight activities and to engage with the defense industry.

Table 3. DoD Competency Model (DAU 2013) Defense Acquisition University (DAU)/U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).
Analytical (11) 1. Mission-Level Assessment
2. Stakeholder Requirements Definition
3. Requirements Analysis
4. Architecture Design
5. Implementation
6. Intergration
7. Verification
8. Validation
9. Transition
10. Design Considerations
11. Tools and Techniques
Technical Management (10) 12. Decision Analysis
13. Technical Planning
14. Technical Assessment
15. Configuration Management
16. Requirements Management
17. Risk Management
18. Data Management
19. Interface Management
20. Software Engineering
21. Acquisition
Professional (10) 22. Problem Solving
23. Strategic Thinking
24. Professional Ethics
25. Leading High-Performance Teams
26. Communication
27. Coaching and Mentoring
28. Managing Stakeholders
29. Mission and Results Focus
30. Personal Effectiveness/Peer Interaction
31. Sound Judgment
Business Acumen (10) 32. Industry Landscape
33. Organization
34. Cost, Pricing, and Rates
35. Cost Estimating
36. Financial Reporting and Metrics
37. Business Strategy
38. Capture Planning and Proposal Process
39. Supplier Management
40. Industry Motivation, Incentives, Rewards
41. Negotiations

NASA SE Competency Model

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) APPEL website provides a competency model that covers both project engineering and systems engineering (APPEL 2009). There are three parts to the model, one that is unique to project engineering, one that is unique to systems engineering, and a third that is common to both disciplines. Table 4 below shows the SE aspects of the model. The project management items include project conceptualization, resource management, project implementation, project closeout, and program control and evaluation. The common competency areas are NASA internal and external environments, human capital and management, security, safety and mission assurance, professional and leadership development, and knowledge management. This 2010 model is adapted from earlier versions. (Squires at al. 2010, 246-260) offer a method that can be used to analyze the degree to which an organization’s SE capabilities meet government-industry defined SE needs.

Table 4. SE Portion of the APPEL Competency Model (APPEL 2009). Released by NASA APPEL.
System Design SE 1.1 - Stakeholder Expectation Definition & Management
SE 1.2 - Technical Requirements Definition
SE 1.3 - Logical Decomposition
SE 1.4 - Design Solution Definition
Product Realization SE 2.1 - Product Implementation
SE 2.2 - Product Integration
SE 2.3 - Product Verification
SE 2.4 - Product Validation
SE 2.5 - Product Transition
Technical Management SE 3.1 - Technical Planning
SE 3.2 - Requirements Management
SE 3.3 - Interface Management
SE 3.4 - Technical Risk Management
SE 3.5 - Configuration Management
SE 3.6 - Technical Data Management
SE 3.7 - Technical Assessment
SE 3.8 - Technical Decision Analysis

Relationship of SE Competencies to Other Competencies

SE is one of many engineering disciplines. A competent SE must possess KSAAs that are unique to SE, as well as many other KSAAs that are shared with other engineering and non-engineering disciplines.

One approach for a complete engineering competency model framework has multiple dimensions where each of the dimensions has unique KSAAs that are independent of the other dimensions (Wells 2008). The number of dimensions depends on the engineering organization and the range of work performed within the organization. The concept of creating independent axes for the competencies was presented in Jansma and Derro (2007), using technical knowledge (domain/discipline specific), personal behaviors, and process as the three axes. An approach that uses process as a dimension is presented in Widmann et al. (2000), where the competencies are mapped to process and process maturity models. For a large engineering organization that creates complex systems solutions, there are typically four dimensions:

  1. Discipline (e.g., electrical, mechanical, chemical, systems, optical);
  2. Life Cycle (e.g., requirements, design, testing);
  3. Domain (e.g., aerospace, ships, health, transportation); and
  4. Mission (e.g., air defense, naval warfare, rail transportation, border control, environmental protection).

These four dimensions are built on the concept defined in Jansma and Derro (2007) and Widmann et al. (2000) by separating discipline from domain and by adding mission and life cycle dimensions. Within many organizations, the mission may be consistent across the organization and this dimension would be unnecessary. A three-dimensional example is shown in Figure 1, where the organization works on only one mission area so that dimension has been eliminated from the framework.

Figure 1. Layered and Multi-dimensional in the Engineering Layer (IEEE 2008). Reprinted with permission of © Copyright IEEE – All rights reserved. All other rights are reserved by the copyright owner.

The discipline, domain, and life cycle dimensions are included in this example, and some of the first-level areas in each of these dimensions are shown. At this level, an organization or an individual can indicate which areas are included in their existing or desired competencies. The sub-cubes are filled in by indicating the level of proficiency that exists or is required. For this example, blank indicates that the area is not applicable, and colors (shades of gray) are used to indicate the levels of expertise. The example shows a radar electrical designer that is an expert at hardware verification, is skilled at writing radar electrical requirements, and has some knowledge of electrical hardware concepts and detailed design. The radar electrical designer would also assess his or her proficiency in the other areas, the foundation layer, and the leadership layer to provide a complete assessment.


Works Cited

Armstrong, J.R., D. Henry, K. Kepcher, and A. Pyster. 2011. "Competencies Required for Successful Acquisition of Large, Highly Complex Systems of Systems." Paper presented at 21st Annual International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) International Symposium (IS), 20-23 June 2011, Denver, CO, USA.

Bloom, Benjamin S., Max D. Engelhart, Edward J. Furst, Walker H. Hill, and David R. Krathwohl. 1956. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: David McKay.

Cowper, D., S. Bennison, R. Allen-Shalless, K. Barnwell, S. Brown, A. El Fatatry, J. Hooper, S. Hudson, L. Oliver, and A. Smith. 2005. Systems Engineering Core Competencies Framework. Folkestone, UK: International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) UK Advisory Board (UKAB).

DAU. 2013. ENG Competency Model, 12 June 2013 version. in Defense Acquisition University (DAU)/U.S. Department of Defense Database Online. Accessed on June 3, 2015. Available at

ETA. 2010. Career One Stop: Competency Model Clearing House: Aerospace Competency Model. in Employment and Training Administration (ETA)/U.S. Department of Labor. Washington, DC. Accessed on September 15, 2011. Available at

Ferris, T.L.J. 2010. "Comparison of Systems Engineering Competency Frameworks." Paper presented at the 4th Asia-Pacific Conference on Systems Engineering (APCOSE), Systems Engineering: Collaboration for Intelligent Systems, 3-6 October 2010, Keelung, Taiwan.

Frank, M. 2000. "Engineering Systems Thinking and Systems Thinking." Systems Engineering. 3(3): 163-168.

Frank, M. 2002. "Characteristics of Engineering Systems Thinking – A 3-D Approach for Curriculum Content." IEEE Transaction on System, Man, and Cybernetics. 32(3) Part C: 203-214.

Frank, M. 2006. "Knowledge, Abilities, Cognitive Characteristics and Behavioral Competences of Engineers with High Capacity for Engineering Systems Thinking (CEST)." Systems Engineering. 9(2): 91-103. (Republished in IEEE Engineering Management Review. 34(3)(2006):48-61).

Hall, A.D. 1962. A Methodology for Systems Engineering. Princeton, NJ, USA: D. Van Nostrand Company Inc.

Holt, Jon, and Perry, Simon,A Pragmatic Guide to Competency, Tools, Frameworks, and Assessment.BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, Swindon, UK, 2011.

INCOSE. 2011. "History of INCOSE Certification Program." Accessed April 13, 2015 at

INCOSE. 2012. Systems Engineering Handbook: A Guide for System Life Cycle Processes and Activities, version 3.2.2. San Diego, CA, USA: International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), INCOSE-TP-2003-002-03.2.2.

INCOSE. 2010. Systems Engineering Competencies Framework 2010-0205. San Diego, CA, USA: International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), INCOSE-TP-2010-003.

INCOSE UK. 2010. "Systems Engineering Competency Framework," Accessed on June 3, 2015. Available at, <>>.

Jansma, P.A. and M.E. Derro. 2007. "If You Want Good Systems Engineers, Sometimes You Have to Grow Your Own!." Paper presented at IEEE Aerospace Conference. 3-10 March, 2007. Big Sky, MT, USA.

Kasser, J.E., D. Hitchins, and T.V. Huynh. 2009. "Reengineering Systems Engineering." Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Asia-Pacific Conference on Systems Engineering (APCOSE), 2009, Singapore.

Krathwohl, David. A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview. 2002.

Menrad, R. and H. Lawson. 2008. "Development of a NASA Integrated Technical Workforce Career Development Model Entitled: Requisite Occupation Competencies and Knowledge – The ROCK." Paper presented at the 59th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), 29 September-3 October, 2008, Glasgow, Scotland.

MITRE. 2007. "MITRE Systems Engineering (SE) Competency Model." Version 1.13E. September 2007. Accessed on June 3, 2015. Available at,

NASA. 2009. NASA Competency Management Systems (CMS): Workforce Competency Dictionary, revision 7a. U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Washington, D.C.

NASA. 2009. Project Management and Systems Engineering Competency Model. Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership (APPEL). Washington, DC, USA: US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Accessed on June 3, 2015. Available at

SEI. 2007. Capability Maturity Model Integrated (CMMI) for Development, version 1.2, Measurement and Analysis Process Area. Pittsburg, PA, USA: Software Engineering Institute (SEI)/Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

SEI. 2004. CMMI-Based Professional Certifications: The Competency Lifecycle Framework, Software Engineering Institute, CMU/SEI-2004-SR-013. Accessed on June 3, 2015. Available at

Squires, A., W. Larson, and B. Sauser. 2010. "Mapping space-based systems engineering curriculum to government-industry vetted competencies for improved organizational performance." Systems Engineering. 13 (3): 246-260. Available at,

Squires, A., J. Wade, P. Dominick, and D. Gelosh. 2011. "Building a Competency Taxonomy to Guide Experience Acceleration of Lead Program Systems Engineers." Paper presented at the Conference on Systems Engineering Research (CSER), 15-16 April 2011, Los Angeles, CA.

Wells, B.H. 2008. "A Multi-Dimensional Hierarchical Engineering Competency Model Framework." Paper presented at IEEE International Systems Conference, March 2008, Montreal, Canada. Whitcomb, Clifford, Rabia Khan, and Corina White. 2014. "Systems Engineering Competency FY14 Technical Report." Naval Postgraduate School Technical Report, Monterey, CA.

Whitcomb, Clifford, Leslie Whitcomb. 2013. Effective Interpersonal and Team Communication Skills for Engineers. IEEE Press, John Wiley and Sons.

Whitcomb, Clifford, Rabia Khan, and Corina White. 2013. "Systems Engineering Competency FY13 Technical Report." Naval Postgraduate School Technical Report, Monterey, CA. Accessed on June 4, 2015. Available at,

Whitcomb, Clifford, Rabia Khan, and Corina White. 2014. "Systems Engineering Competency FY14 Technical Report." Naval Postgraduate School Technical Report, Monterey, CA. Accessed on June 4, 2015. Available at,

Widmann, E.R., G.E. Anderson, G.J. Hudak, and T.A. Hudak. 2000. "The Taxonomy of Systems Engineering Competency for The New Millennium." Presented at 10th Annual INCOSE Internal Symposium, 16-20 July 2000, Minneapolis, MN, USA.

Primary References

DAU. 2013. ENG Competency Model, 12 June 2013 version. in Defense Acquisition University (DAU)/U.S. Department of Defense Database Online. Accessed on June 3, 2015. Available at

INCOSE. 2010. Systems Engineering Competencies Framework 2010-0205. San Diego, CA, USA: International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), INCOSE-TP-2010-003.

Additional References

Whitcomb, Clifford, Jessica Delgado, Rabia Khan, Juli Alexander, Corina White, Dana Grambow, Paul Walter. 2015. "The Department of the Navy Systems Engineering Career Competency Model." Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Acquisition Research Symposium. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA..

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