Don’t throw away competency models yet
Competency is out and capability is in, apparently. It’s a shift in client language that we at the Skills Consulting Group have noticed over the last five years, reflecting a sustained interest in capability-building. While it’s tempting to apply this capability-based mindset across the board, it’s more productive to remember that what you need depends on the nature of your organisation and what it wants to achieve.
The bottom line: if competency still works for you, there’s no reason to abandon it.
Applying competence or capability
When a person demonstrates mastery of related individual competencies, it’s appropriate to apply the term ‘competence’ to their work. For example, a person who has demonstrated competencies such as calculating loads, designing circuit boards and testing circuits has obtained a level of competence in electrical engineering. Competency is about your skills and knowledge in the here and now, some would say.
Capability, by contrast, is about what you can adapt your existing skills and knowledge to achieve in the future. Capabilities merge technical skills with human traits such as integrity, empathy, and creativity. These traits are often associated with soft skills. An example of a capability could be ‘managing risk’. This capability uses pre-existing skills and knowledge and combines them with soft skills such as integrity and critical thinking.
The marriage of technical skills and knowledge with soft skills allows the holder to consider ongoing implications and make accurate and nuanced decisions. This implies a large degree of user agency in decision making.
Competencies are sometimes criticised for being too passive in comparison to capabilities. We would argue, however, that competency can be explicitly future-focused by emphasising problem solving and continual improvement. Competencies do not have to be a static endpoint.
The increased use of the term ‘capability’ reflects societal change in many countries where people change roles more often while using increasingly ubiquitous technology. Many job roles are no longer as constrained as they once were. The current crop of buzzwords like ‘agile’, ‘flex’, and ‘pivot’ all imply extension of current skills, knowledge, and abilities. These mirror the demands placed on the workforce, who are now as a matter of course expected to extend themselves.
A workplace that embraces capability is seen by some as being more appealing to an increasingly Millennial-populated workforce. The thinking behind this is that because Millennials are more likely to have different roles and careers than previous generations, a capability approach with room for flex may be more supportive of their aspirations.
Whether you go down a capability or competency path will depend on the nature of your workforce. In some industries, such as information technology, technical skills and knowledge change rapidly. This makes defining competence tenuous if it is based around the technological products and systems that quickly change and become outdated. In a case such as this, capability building could be one option. Equally in this situation, you could use a competence model by basing the competencies on the learning and thinking required by the worker (not on the technology products and systems).
Whichever path you go down, there will always need to be development and pathways for your staff to increase their skills, knowledge, and abilities. Fortunately, both competency and capability frameworks can identify areas where support and development can be provided.
At Skills Consulting Group, we always works with organisations to determine the best way forward and the type of framework that would best suit the situation.
With over 15 years’ experience in education and project management roles in New Zealand, Japan and Australia, Wyn is a specialist in learning and assessment design, policy development, and research and analysis. Since joining Skills Consulting Group, he has successfully implemented a wide range of education projects designed to increase knowledge, performance, and retention and to provide individuals and organisations confidence in the recognition of skills.