Capability: Giving L&D The Kiss Of Life
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Keeping Capability Simple

To quote Einstein, “Genius is making complex ideas simple, not making simple ideas complex.”

A key capability of expert L&D professionals is that of finding simple means and examples that resonate with their audiences to explain complex concepts in an uncomplicated way.

Capability is a valuable concept that is often misunderstood by managers. Therefore, in this article, the KISS principle will be used to demonstrate how to explain the concept of capability to managers in a way that they can easily understand and apply it.

Capability Is Essential For Managers

An acute understanding of the concept of capability is essential for all managers.

Given the World Wide Web (WWW) and the prevalence of open-source knowledge, the latest thinking on most capabilities is ubiquitous and no longer necessarily leverages “competitive opportunity.” Organizations that are continuously adapting and evolving to remain relevant and successful are those whose managers have a clear understanding of the nature and architecture of capability. These managers are then able to lead their teams into staying abreast of best practices by continually researching and quickly assimilating new thinking and then codifying, systemizing and institutionalizing it in a way that reinforces and extends their team and organizational capacity.

Capability Explained In Simple, Easy-To-Understand Terms

The capabilities required to complete complex tasks in organizations can be broken down into their lowest common denominators of basic capabilities. Each capability is made up of knowledge, ability and skill components. The capability to complete complex tasks can then be developed and constructed sequentially by building and combining basic capabilities into more and more complex capabilities.

Even a relatively simple capability, such as catching a ball, is a function of knowledge, ability, and skill. For example, to be able to catch a ball in the conventional sense, you need to have knowledge (to keep your eyes on the ball), ability (to be able to see and eye-track the ball), and technique (how to use your hands to catch the ball), and then to practice doing it again and again, under different circumstances, using different techniques until you have the level of ball catching skill required.

Watch the following short video clip which demonstrates teaching the capability of catching a softball. This is a great example of how we should approach teaching a capability.

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In instructing how to catch a softball, the video builds on existing general knowledge to reinforce learning, for example, hands in a W position, elbows at right angles, and the clock drill. This enables learners to assimilate new knowledge by building on and combining concepts that they already know (in this instance, the alphabet, angles, and the analog clock). Although, a very simple example, it makes the concept of constructing and developing capability concrete and easy to remember.

The Development Of Capability

The above simple example can be leveraged to give managers deeper insights into the development of capability, by developing the discussion further.

To become a competent softball player, one needs to learn many new capabilities, such as throwing, batting and running between bases, as well as understanding and interpreting the rules of the game and various strategies. These capabilities can be learned separately and then integrated. Over time, with a commitment to the game, the knowledge and skills required to be a competent softball player can be developed.

The same basic capabilities (for example, keeping an eye on the ball) may be used again and again in different activities (in our softball example, both catching and batting), which reinforces and extends them to be mutually beneficial to both disciplines as well as other tasks or assignments that require eye-tracking capability. In our softball example, many of the drills that are practiced in batting to enhance ball tracking skills will transfer to improve catching skills and vice versa. This is the basis of the transfer of learning and the efficient development of capability. It is important to understand this as it is the role of managers and coaches to help learners to make the connection in transferring a capability that they are well versed at in one situation, to a situation or task that is new to them. The transfer of learning makes developing new capabilities less threatening and easier.

Also, it is important to understand the architecture of any capability to be able to diagnose and correct performance issues. In the softball example, someone may develop a catching problem. If the diagnosis reveals that it is a capability problem, one can then work through the capability issue systematically. They can be observed to see if their feet are properly positioned, if their hands are in the W position, or if they are able to do the clock drill. It may be necessary to rule out a sight deterioration problem if their eyes do not seem to be tracking the ball. Or, if they do not seem to be moving to get behind the ball, it may be a conditioning issue. It is the knowledge of the architecture of the capability that enables a systematic approach to the problem in order to take the relevant corrective action.

A sequential, informed and constructive approach to building capability simplifies the teaching of complex tasks. Basic capabilities can be taught separately and then used over and over as building blocks in developing different, more complex capabilities. In the softball example, basic building blocks that have been taught and mastered in learning to catch, such as keeping an eye on the ball and the importance of how feet are positioned, can be reinforced and re-used in teaching batting. This approach is efficient and fundamental to creating a platform and framework for iterative learning.

Knowledge enhances one's ability to think and reason through actions as opposed to performing tasks rote. Institutional capacity is then developed through the discipline of codifying (systemizing/documenting) human learning and capability into effective methods, systems, processes and practices for the benefit of colleagues, present and future. The video clip on how to catch a softball is an excellent example of documenting a methodology. Continuous improvement is then the discipline of always looking for and experimenting with better ways of doing things and documenting such.

In the example of catching a softball, someone worked out the optimal way to catch the softball in different positions and then codified it into the clock drill as a methodology to improve catching ability. The recording of this enables the entire community of softball players to benefit. It also enables competent, experienced players to apply their minds to the methodology and possibly improve it. This is a practice that all organizations could benefit from.

In Summary

Our interest is in seeing people demonstrate observable, competent behavior and performance. Capability is a simple, concrete concept, which is unambiguous. It is leveraged by a commitment to producing consistent, competent performance and effective behavior.

One can codify and document capabilities in a way that is observable, measurable, repeatable and teachable (as in the earlier example of catching a softball). Sub-capabilities (for example, keeping one’s eyes on the ball) are transferable in order to be able to complete different tasks or assignments of differing levels of complexity, in different situations, competently (in the softball example, from catching difficult catches to batting difficult balls).

If managers understand capability and the architecture thereof required to build competent performance and behavior, they are in a better position to lead the iteration and innovation of the capabilities that will continually build the team and organization capacity required for sustainable success.

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