Recently, I was invited to participate in a task force reexamining how the federal government evaluates training. During our discussion of the best ways to evaluate training, we tackled the critical issue of the business need for training. Everyone agreed that training was vital to achieving the strategic needs of the agencies’ respective missions and that tying training to the organization’s goals makes it more relevant and valuable.

Some participants started talking about reskilling the federal workforce, while others spoke about their agencies’ competency models. It struck me that I often hear the words “skill” and “competency” used interchangeably. Still, I wondered if there was a difference and, if there was, if the difference was enough to affect our evaluation of skills versus our evaluation of competencies.

During a break in the conversation, I checked out the American Heritage Dictionary’s definitions of the two words. This dictionary defines skill as “proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience” and a competency as “a skill or ability.” I also looked up the word “capability,” because I had read a recent blog post by Josh Bersin on capability academies. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a capability is “a talent or ability that has potential for development or use.”

These definitions seem to be interchangeable, and we, a group of federal training experts, used the terms interchangeably. However, I thought further on how Bersin defined capability: “a combination of skills, knowledge, and experiences employees need to succeed. And these capabilities are often unique, exclusive, and proprietary to your company.” What I like about this definition is the distinction between technical and the “broad social and behavioral skills [that are] far more complex, soft, and experiential.” These skills include emotional intelligence, coaching and mentoring.

Soft skills are popular training topics in many organizations. My agency has gathered these soft skills into a collection of leadership competencies that we align our training programs around, and many other federal agencies have also developed competency models for leadership skills. From our discussion of the evaluation the leadership skills and competencies, I gathered that they can be applied without respect to the particular agency’s culture. An emotional intelligence competency is the same whether you are in a Department of Defense agency, a large Cabinet agency or a much smaller agency.

Skills and competencies may be the same across organizations, but how we assemble them into capabilities makes a profound difference. The set of capabilities needed for an information technology (IT) department varies from the collection of capabilities that would make a human resources (HR) department successful. Capabilities are how the workforce accomplishes the tasks that advance the organization’s strategic mission.

Soft skills have a longer shelf-life than technical skills. In my work as an IT project manager, I learned how to use over 30 programming languages and how to work with at least 10 development environments. That comes to more than one new programming language a year and a new development platform every three years.

Contrast that to my work as a communication trainer; I am still using much of what I learned as studying speech communication as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s. While soft skills do change over time, due to evolving technology and changes in the workplace, it generally takes more time and effort to master them, and technical skills and competencies change more rapidly.

The key is the right blending of technical skills and competencies with soft skills and competencies into capabilities that meet the current and evolving needs of the organization. As I listened to the discussion on creating competency models, I argued that the focus should shift from employees’ skills to an active demonstration of what the employee can accomplish (capability models).

The value of focusing on capabilities is that training fulfills organizational strategic goals by emphasizing taking action rather than the passive acquisition of skills and competencies. Building skills and competencies is essential, but the key is helping employees become more capable in their work. Competencies and skills are necessary for employee training, but the real impact and value of training is what the employee does with them.

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