Determining the Necessary Capabilities

There are really three keys to designing and developing performance and training solutions that improve capability

  1. Understand the work
  2. Understand the knowledge, skills, information, and traits needed to perform the work
  3. Design effective strategies for enabling performers — in this case, effective means taking the shortest path to performance

Several months ago, we published an article about “Understanding the Work,” which addressed analyzing the requirements for the work that is to be performed. This is the critical first step for any human performance project — if you don’t know what people are supposed to be doing, how can you manage, improve, or teach it?

But the second step is important as well, that is, determining the required knowledge, skills, information, and tools needed to perform the work. We refer to these as “supporting capabilities” because they support the performance. You only need them if the performance requires it. For example, cashiers used to have to be able to count out change based on the money the customer gave them. Now, they just read the total change needed from the cash register and assemble the change and hand it all over. Small difference but a change in the performance requirements. The tool, the cash register, changed the supporting capabilities required.

So, to determine supporting capabilities basically requires plowing through all the tasks and situations and determining what is needed to get them done. It can be tedious but it is important. The reason that it is important is that, in many cases, these requirements are not well understood (or are not agreed upon). Often people assume certain skills are needed that are really only optional (or even unnecessary) while others are overlooked entirely. And individuals often have very different ways of labeling skills. But, if HR, management, training, and even engineering were to work from the same view of the performance and supporting capabilities, there would be opportunities to make the work efficient, reduce the learning curve cycle time, and even develop new tools (like references, databases, apps, forms, etc.) that reduce the level of capabilities required. Reducing knowledge/skill requirements reduces costs and errors but, more importantly, also makes it easier to recruit and allocate employees to tasks as the workforce or workload changes.

Without going into too much detail, below are some principles for figuring out the supporting capabilities needed to perform a specific task or process. We have used all of the following four methods (in different situations and in differing degrees) and found that each has specific strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Start from the tasks and identify the knowledge, skills, info needed to perform each task. This can be done starting from a specific scenario and then generalized or it can be done thinking about all situations at once.
  2. Start from categories of supporting capabilities and identify which are applicable to which process or task. (You can use a simple, targeted, or detailed set of categories.)
  3. Brainstorm. This is not recommended because it results in a list of things that is simply not useful.
  4. Pick from an existing “shopping list.” Also not recommended because it is too easy to generate too many items to realistically address — people can make a case for almost any skill being needed for any task.

Before we go into additional detail on each of the following, we will assume our intent is to a) identify the needed capabilities, b) decide where performers will get them (e.g., will we hire for them or teach people), and c) decide how we will convey and verify them, that is, the training and testing that are needed.

Starting from the Tasks

This is the most rigorous and effective method. You can see exactly what is needed and why. For example, instead of a general capability (like “classifying product defects”) you see that the performer is using a template and recording the results onto a standard quality control form.

In addition, you can make smart choices about how to train for this capability.

And you avoid just throwing things in because they are someone’s favorite topic or because it sounds like a good thing for people to know.


Starting from a List of Categories

Categories can help to structure the analysis and, depending on how the categories are organized, can even help with design decisions. Categories may align with a specific subject area (like computer systems, tools, interpersonal skills) which may have a collection of training offerings that can be used “as is” (or at least used as a source for content).

Categories may speed up the analysis process because they give the analysts a narrower range of options to consider at once. And sometimes, categories may be ruled “out of scope” which further accelerates the process.


Brainstorming and Picking from a List

These two approaches are not recommended because the results are not very useful. Open brainstorming results in a list of not only apples and oranges but sushi and roller rinks and everything in-between. If you aren’t careful, you can end up restating all the tasks as well — a task like “negotiate contract terms” can end up generating skills like “contract negotiation” which is just redundant and confusing.

Picking from a list (e.g., a “skills dictionary”) seems like a good idea but it can be limiting as the options are pre-defined.  Usually, they are too general. In fact, they often intentionally contain only the general items and ignore items specific to a single role, process, or task. But those unique, “performance-driven” items are often the most important in determining actual capability to perform the job task. (The general items are better for overall selection and development because they enable people to perform in different situations.)

Another problem is that, it is just too easy to think of a scenario where everything applies eventually. And, these types of documents are usually complex and will bog down the process. In a larger-scale analysis, such as for an overall curriculum, you need to cover more ground more quickly. And for a smaller-focus effort, you need to be specific but still fairly succinct so that, in development, the details can be fleshed out when there is more time.


Example 1: Overall Role Summary

One method we have used is to condense the capabilities (both performance and supporting) onto a one-page (granted, it is a large page) form to depict what people need to do and what they need to know. The bottom portion of the chart shows the supporting capabilities. These are often grouped by whether these are things you could expect to find in a person you bring in from within the company but outside this area of work, from outside the company but within this industry, etc. Someone totally new would only be expected to bring in general skills (e.g., MS Office proficiency).  Individuals vary but this would give you some direction on what to train for and what to recruit for.

Here is a simplified sample (used for a case study presentation in 2008).












Example 2: Close-up of a Process or Task-Based Analysis

Shown below is a closer view of how supporting capabilities can be aligned to the performance(s) they support. 












How This Information Helps

When designing work processes, task assignments, or training it can be helpful to know where specific supporting capabilities are needed.

  • If a given supporting capability is used across multiple tasks or even processes it may make sense to put the training for it earlier in the training path. If it seems appropriate, it may be contained in a separate course or courses. On the other hand, if it is only used for one or two specific tasks, it may make sense to embed that training with the training on that task.
  • If a given supporting capability is a key factor in making specific tasks difficult (hard to learn, causing errors during the learning curve, etc.) it may be a candidate for development of a tool to help standardize the performance — in other words, offload the hard stuff to the tool so it requires less skill to perform.


In all these situations, there is still a need to think about the development path, target audience, availability of existing training or resources, learning sequence, and many other factors. We advocate a thorough analysis but documenting the information in a format that makes it easy to assimilate. This allows the design team to come up with solutions that make sense at the big picture level. Having the information available to make intelligent decisions goes a long way to maximizing the effectiveness of the any learning or performance support deliverables and, ultimately, the competitiveness of the business.




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