This post is about competence, capability, and behaviour. Three words that many people are comfortable using but ones for which, when asked for an explanation of meaning, I have uncovered hundreds of different underlying concepts.
I’ve found that words really matter because they shape the way people think and behave. I’ve found that people can use the same words but mean different things. This gets in the way of organising group activity.
I pay more attention than many people I know to this. I take time to clarify and develop shared understanding. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in many countries and cultures. Maybe it’s because I was trained in solution selling early in my career. Maybe I’m a pedant. I don’t know.
My roles in sales, marketing and as a consultant have presented me with opportunities to interact with hundreds of different companies across different continents and to observe their approaches to structuring work. I find it fascinating to uncover why things are the way they are, and how to make progress in different settings.
I find that people are often unaware of their own assumptions – what they believe to be objective truth is probably only so within an accepted framework, and that framework can sometimes be just an opinion. Maybe it isn’t accepted by others.
I have found that with careful choice of words it’s possible to influence individual performance and create improved group outcomes.
So here is my simple definition of competence, capability, and behaviour.
This is something that an individual person can do. They have a level of competency ranging from “incompetence” to “mastery”. An example might be “carpentry” – and may consist of sub-competencies such as “joint making”, “cutting to size”, and “veneering”. Competence is a combination of knowing what to do, the skill to do it, the number of times you’ve done it before (accumulated practice), and how recent the last time you did it was.
This is something that an organisation can do. In a one-person company it’s essentially the same as competence. It is strongly correlated with competency in a lone-wolf role such as rain-making sales. In other areas, capability relies on the successful organisation of different competencies brought by more than one person. In these circumstances an organisation can create capabilities that no single person is competent to perform on their own.
This is the “manner” in which work is performed. Are people polite to each other? Does a person have “presence” and “gravitas”? An organisation can exhibit collective behaviour – which is related to but not the same as culture, another word often understood differently. An individual can exhibit behaviour – which is related to but not the same as personality.
In both the case of capability and of competence it is possible for organisations and individuals to exhibit different behaviours but still be equally capable and competent. In this case they may well achieve different outcomes, especially if they must influence others.
What do you think?
What do you think of these definitions? How can you help improve them? Please comment here or email me directly.