It seems like overnight the L&D profession has started to struggle with the definition of terms such as “capability”, “competency” and “skill”.
Some of our peers consider them synonyms – and hence interchangeable – but I do not.
Indeed I recognise subtle but powerful distinctions among them, so here’s my 2-cents’ worth to try to cut through the confusion.
From the get-go, the difference between the terms may be most clearly distinguished when we consider a competency a task. It is something that is performed.
Our friends in vocational education have already this figured out. For example, if we refer to the Tap furnaces unit of competency documented by the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment, we see elements such as Plan and prepare for furnace tapping and Tap molten metal from furnace.
Importantly, we also see performance criteria, evidence and assessment conditions. Meeting a competency therefore is binary: either you can perform the task successfully (you are “competent”) or you can not (in the positive parlance of educationalists, you are “not yet competent”).
Given a competency is a task, a capability is a personal attribute you draw upon to perform it.
An attribute may be knowledge (something you know, eg tax law), a skill (something you can do, eg speak Japanese), or a mindset (a state of being, eg agile).
I consider capability an umbrella term for all these attributes; they combine with one another to enable the behaviour that meets the competency.
According to the definitions I’ve outlined above, we frequently see in the workplace that “capability frameworks” are mislabelled “competency frameworks” and vice versa.
Terms such as Decision Making and Data Analysis are capabilities – not competencies – and moreover they are skills. Hence, not only would I prefer they be referred to as such, but also that they adopt an active voice (Make Decisions, Analyse Data).
I also suggest they be complemented by knowledge and mindsets, otherwise the collection isn’t so much a capability framework as a “skills framework”; which is fine, but self-limiting.
I have previously argued in favour of the L&D team deploying a capability framework as a strategic imperative, but now the question that begs to be asked is: should we deploy a capability framework or a competency framework?
My typical answer to a false dichotomy like this is both.
Since capabilities represent a higher level of abstraction, they are scalable across the whole organisation and are transferable from role to role and gig to gig. They also tend to be generic, which means they can be procured in bulk from a third party, and their low volatility makes them sustainable. The value they offer is a no-brainer.
In contrast, competencies are granular. They’re bespoke creations specific to particular roles, which makes them laborious to build and demanding to maintain. Having said that, their level of personalised value is sky high, so I advise they be deployed where they are warranted – targeting popular roles and pivotal roles, for example.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Yet a rose is not a violet.
In a similar manner I maintain that capabilities and competencies are, by definition, different.
In any case, if we neglect them, the next term we’ll struggle to define is “service offering”.