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The slippery concept of capability

by Paul Matthews, Founder of People Alchemy

and your house is cold. Boiler repairs are usually expensive so with a sense of foreboding, you call the boiler repairman. Much to your relief he arrives later that afternoon, and the news gets even better. He says he knows exactly what is wrong with the controller unit. He can fit the spare part required in a few minutes, and all will be well. You breathe a sigh of relief and ask him to go ahead with the repair.

Y He checks his laptop for the spare part, then

turns to you with a forlorn look on his face and the words ‘computer says no’. The spare part required is not in his van, it is not in the local depot and not in their main warehouse. It will take several days to order it in from the manufacturer. He promises to come back and fit it as soon as he has one in his hands, and walks out leaving you in your cold house. Here is my question to you. Was the repairman capable of fixing the boiler?

our house is cold. After a warmer than usual British summer the first tendrils of autumn cold arrive, and your heating does not turn on. Your boiler has failed,

Remember, you are sitting in a cold house with a boiler that is still broken. The only answer you can give to that question is ‘no, he was not capable of fixing my boiler’. What would the rest of your family say when they learn that they cannot have a shower and have to boil the kettle to have a wash in the basin? They too would say that the repairman was not capable of fixing the boiler. You phone the repair company because you

are now an unhappy customer. The company has to acknowledge that the repairman was not capable of fixing the boiler when he visited. However, if you ask the L&D Department of that company whether the repairman is capable of fixing that fault in that boiler, they would say ‘yes’. He has had the training and passed the tests.

Customers, the business, and other stakeholders have a different definition of capability than that commonly used by L&D, and this causes mismatches in expectation and confusions in communication. In order for you, as an L&D professional, to have a meaningful conversation around capability with the business, you need to be using the word in the same way the business

uses it, and they have a much wider, although very simple, definition. It goes like this... Can the worker do the task at the point of work... Yes or No?

If the worker can do the task, all is well and good. If not, or they cannot do it to the required standard, why not?

Asking this question when there is a performance issue because people are not capable of doing the task in front of them will bring up a wide range of reasons. These reasons will group into five areas, which could be considered as components of capability. Each of these components must be at or over a threshold level in order for that worker to do that specific task at that specific time. These components act as a system and do not exist independent of each other, however it can be useful to separate them out as a way to determine the root cause of the performance problem.

1. Knowledge

This consists of facts, information and data that the worker needs to have available for recall from memory in order to do the task. For example knowing what the different road signs

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