In the learning and development (L&D) world, we’re always on a mission to boost the skills of our employees and colleagues. This helps our companies acquire, maintain and even increase their competitive advantage. If we’re taking an employee’s existing skills to a new level, we call this process upskilling. If we’re preparing them for a new role that requires a new (but adjacent) skill set, we’re talking about reskilling.

Upskilling and reskilling your workforce can bring huge benefits to your company, including greater resiliency, better internal communication, and a boost to your L&D culture. But exactly how do you train a workforce to gain better and new skill sets? To do it effectively, training professionals must focus on, and understand the difference between, two aspects of employee proficiency: competency and capability.

  • Competencies are skills — or to be more specific, an employee’s competencies are the set of skills they need to fulfill their job requirements and expectations. Competencies also encompass the building blocks of those skills, like knowledge, talent and work ethic. A competent employee can do anything their job requires, and they can do it well. And a competent workforce will operate more efficiently and help boost the company’s reputation among its peers.
  • Capabilities go beyond competencies. Essentially, an employee’s capability is a measure of their potential. It covers all dimensions of their fitness for their role, including: their current skill set; their ability to develop and apply other, related skills; their experience; their professional networks; their confidence in doing their job well; and any other personal attributes that relate to their role.

Training for Competency

When you’re designing a training program to build competency, start by looking at the skills required for the work that your learner does. Then, ask: What are the expectations for the role? What behaviors will help the learner meet those expectations? And what gaps exist between the learner’s current behaviors and the ones you’ve identified as necessary?

Once these gaps are identified, training can be designed to boost the learner’s knowledge, let them practice skills and help them master the tasks that support their role. Competency training is ideal for workers who need to develop specific skills, and often takes the form of microlearning modules.

Training for Capability

Training for capability is a more holistic or comprehensive effort — but it’s ultimately more rewarding for employees or managers whose roles cover a broad range of responsibilities. According to this study from McKinsey, capability building is consistently a top strategic priority for executives worldwide.

Capability training has several end goals: Its aim is not just to develop employee skills, but also to boost confidence, reduce turnover, increase job security, and stimulate employees to think beyond their role so they can meet future challenges in a way that adds value to the company.

  • Building capability starts by showing learners what capabilities they need, and how these capabilities fit in with the context of their role. This gives them a big-picture view and identifies the potential for expanding skillsets to meet novel challenges.
  • Once the training has established context, it should take the learner out of their comfort zone; expose them to challenges they might not have expected; and allow them to fail, so they have a chance to deconstruct their own approach to development and build it back stronger. This will give the learner greater confidence and help them adapt better to unexpected challenges.
  • As the learner gains capability, context and confidence, their working environment must support their growth. That means creating a community that includes strong mentors, formal and informal learning and development networks, and all the resources they may need to continue expanding their capabilities.

Ultimately, when you develop an employee’s capability and set them up in a supportive environment, you’re enabling them to develop a strong career path. That generates dividends for the company, like meeting unexpected future demands, discovering hidden skills that might benefit the company, and ensuring the company culture is oriented toward long-term operational excellence.