Capability: too narrow a definition?

Capability is often discussed by HR and learning and development (L&D) professionals, but surprisingly it is a word that is often used with quite a narrow definition. Paul Matthews, founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, looks at the issue of capability in business.

I have discovered that “capability” is a slippery concept. When I talk about capability with people in HR, people in L&D, and people with chief executive responsibilities in both the public and private sectors, I have found a remarkable lack of consistency in how people use the word.

Given that every organisation has a purpose, and achieving that purpose is dependent on the people in the organisation being capable of doing all the tasks that need doing, I would have thought that capability was so fundamental to success that people would have a handle on it.

In fact, I have been surprised at how little focus there is on capability in most organisations. What is even more interesting is how surprised they are when this is pointed out to them.

I often do a little thought experiment with them, and it goes like this: imagine you are the chief executive of a new business, and I am supplying a team of people to you to work there. I give you an option of two different teams. Team one is well-educated. They have been on lots of training courses and they know lots of stuff. Team two is capable of doing the work that needs to be done in your new business. Which team would you choose for your business? Most people choose team two, the capable team. We seem to know that in the moment when the job needs to be done, capability to do the task counts far more for business success.

Defining and measuring capability

If capability is so important, what is it? How can we define it? How can we measure it? And how do we need to understand it so that we can improve it?

First, let us look at capability in a very simplistic way. Can the employee with a task in front of them do the task? If they can, they are capable. If they cannot, they are incapable. If they are capable, the task gets done and the desired results are achieved.

The simple question to ask is: “Can the worker do the task at the point of work?” Many people would say they already do this, but what I have found is that the question they are actually asking is: “Could the worker do the task?” This is a very different question, because it does not include the context within which the task needs to be done.

Consider this example: you take your car into the garage and the mechanic tells you he knows exactly what is wrong with the car and he can fix it in 10 minutes. You breathe a sigh of relief, and ask him to go ahead and fix the car. He looks on his computer and realises that the spare part required needs to come from the factory overseas and will take a week to arrive. You decide to go to a different garage where they have the spare part in stock.

As far as you are concerned as a customer, the first garage is not capable of fixing your car when you want it fixed. However, if you asked the mechanic if they are capable of fixing the car, they would say “yes”. Give the mechanic a test on fixing that fault in that car and he could pass with flying colours.

Ask some of the other stakeholders the capability question. What would the garage owner say? What would the garage shareholders say? And what would your kids say now that they cannot get a ride to football practice?

How is capability perceived?

Notice that people on the HR or L&D side of the fence would tend to say the mechanic is capable. And yet people on the business side of the fence such as customers and shareholders would say that the mechanic is not capable, or certainly that the garage is not capable.

I think this difference in how capability as a concept is perceived and used by different parts of an organisation causes some of the dissatisfaction that shows up when business managers are surveyed about the effectiveness of training and development functions. HR and L&D need to expand their idea of capability so that it matches how the business thinks. When you look at capability from the wider business perspective, you can start looking at it in terms of components.

For an employee to be capable of doing the task in front of them, the different components of capability must be at or over a threshold in order for that employee to do that specific task at that specific time. Those components consist of things that HR knows well such as knowledge and skills, and also engagement. But as we can see from the car mechanic example, capability at the point of work is also dependent on factors in the worker’s environment, including availability of spare parts, access to the right software, access to just-in-time information and other performance-support tools. The capability agenda is far bigger than HR thinks it is, and HR needs to step up to this and think of capability in the way that the business does.

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and an expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, as well as management development and employee performance support. He is the author of Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times.

Read his blog here

XpertHR resources

Capability: Line manager briefing on capability

Should an employer deal with an employee’s poor performance through its disciplinary or capability procedure?

Does your organisation have a dedicated training budget?

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