understanding capability

Understanding Capability

For a long time, the HR community has talked about knowledge, skills and experience as the facets of the worker. Thinking about it now, it seems like an odd collection as skills and knowledge could only ever come from experience. Later, the terms were replaced by competency to almost act as a catch-all that encompassed knowledge, skills and experience. More recently, capability is the word used interchangeably with all these terms. So, what do all these terms mean?

Capability is the extent of an ability to achieve a particular outcome and is a combination of six components. Let’s first look at four of these

  • Knowledge is the internally memorised information required to complete a task; the things we ‘know’. We know things because we’ve actively engaged in learning or we’ve picked things up over time. We are all aware from our own experiences that there are things we’ve learnt but have now forgotten. That’s why it’s important to recognise knowledge rather than learning, the former is the outcome whereas the latter is the input.
  • Skills are practised techniques that enable the achievement of an outcome. First there are technical skills, how to do things; this is the more traditional understanding of skill. Be it playing a sport or operating machinery, proficiency necessitates practice. Next, there are cognitive skills, which is how we consider ideas. Those who regularly practice sudoku tend to be better at it than those who do it rarely, because the regular practitioner has built the mind muscles of how to do it, not because they have any greater knowledge of numbers. Finally, there are interpersonal skills; how we interact with people. One of the reasons we socialise our children is because we recognise that interpersonal skills require exposure and practice.
  • Accreditation. Accreditation is the procedural license to utilise skills and knowledge. Most workers have some form of accreditation, be it a background check by an employer or something more substantial, like a pilot’s license. The award of accreditation is based on testing against a standard, a minimum requirement. Have you ever taken mandatory training, passed the test and have then been unable to recall the content weeks later? That is because many organisations choose to use accreditation as a proxy for knowledge.
  • Physiology are those characteristics required to translate knowledge and skills into action. Physiology includes the mental aspect, such as intelligence, and physical aspects, such as appearance and strength. Where this dovetails is, for example, when we consider a premiership footballer. They have the required skills and knowledge, but they also need to be physically able to play.

These components of capability roughly equate to the view of competency. Competency is like an ‘on paper’ view of the individual, it is a theoretical view of immediate potential. Why is it theoretical? Because it doesn’t acknowledge the realities of life. It is these final two elements that translates competency into capability.

  • Mindset is the mental aspect that enables skills and knowledge to become action. It is made up of three parts: emotional, how we feel about something; cognitive, how we think about something; and behavioural, how we react to something. We can all think of times where something from our personal lives creeps into our work and impacts how we react. Whether it is being tired due to a bad night’s sleep or more emotional due to a family bereavement, not everything from our personal lives can be compartmentalised.
  • Environment relates to the factors independent of a worker that promote, enable, restrict or prevent a competency from translating into the desired outcome. This can include hygiene factors such as noise, temperature and comfort; hard factors such as technology, processes and resources and soft factors such as culture and leadership. To bring capability to bear, we need the right tools to do the job.

Environment is too often forgotten as a major component of capability and not enough is done to recognise the symbiotic relationship between environment and mindset. Consider your own experience. Can you recall a bad boss or co-worker who made things more difficult than it needed to be? How did that make you feel? On the other hand, what about a great boss or co-worker? How did they make you feel? What difference did it make to what you could do? A poor environment can derail outcomes whilst a great environment can result in outcomes far beyond what a person’s CV indicated was possible.

The past interchange of capability and competency has meant that we have always thought about the achievement of outcomes as the exclusive domain of the individual. Without the workplace, an individual of the potential of work outcomes. It is the environment of the workplace that will see that worker limit, meet or exceed that potential.

Written by Adam Gibson

Chartered FCIPD FCMI, Strategic Workforce Planning Leader

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