Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Skills vs. Capabilities

"We need people with more skills!" cried the HR Manager and her cadre of business representatives. Without the right skills, they said, "we can't deliver our products and services!"

Yes, of course. But maybe those that are looking for "skills" are pursuing the wrong goal.

I think there's a monumental difference between skills and capabilities. Skills are something that you get better at practicing over and over. It's a finite ability that can be used under a fixed set of constraints in a narrow set of environments. A skill is something you learn to do and go do it. You repeat it over and over and get better at it and do it the same way every time.

A capability is different, I'd say. A capability isn't a specific skill that fits in a given situation. It's an deep-rooted ability which can be applied in many contexts. It's something you train and have to learn to do in context. It's not an isolated skill, it's an ability that flows in and out as the environment demands it.

Take tennis for example. An open-stanced forehand groundstroke is a skill. It is only usable when the ball is on a specific side of your body and works better on certain court types and when a certain type of ball is hit to you. You practice it and you get better at it. As a result, you try to control the environment so that you can use that your skill is in a relevant context. Either that or you learn more skills so that  you have more options to choose from as you control your environment.

Moving your feet to position correctly to the ball applies to any shot you take in a tennis match: a serve, a volley, a groundstroke, an approach shot, and overhead smash...anything. Moreover, it's an ability that applies to many different sports like basketball, football, soccer, or volleyball to name a few. It's something you train and focus on as part of other actions and motions. You learn the fundamentals and you get better at applying a capability in various circumstances. It's something you use differently as the environment changes. In fact, you use capabilities to adapt to a changing environment.

I'd venture to say that the organizational world is one we have less control over than previous generations and we'll probably continue to lose control of the environment around us. As this happens, capabilities will become more relevant than skills, because skills will become obselete. Some days your business will require an open-stanced forehand ground strokes and other days you won't even be competing on a tennis court, figuratively.

So that raises a question. Is your organization's HR department (or schools, or business leaders, more importantly) cultivating skills or cultivating capabilities? Do they even understand the difference?