What is the difference between a competency and a capability?

November 1st, 2011 by Amanda Potter Leave a reply »

Updated: November 12th, 2015

Over the past few years our clients have increasingly asked us to design Capability models rather than Competency models. So what is the difference?

Current research is rather contradictory: while some authors use the two terms interchangeably, others believe there is a real difference.

To help put an end to the confusion, we have created a definition from our research and experience of working with clients in this area to help clarify the difference.

  • Competency: A competency model describes the behaviours required to excel and succeed – in other words how an organisation desires their people to interact and behave. They enable mutual understanding of what good looks like in order to help people understand their strengths and development gaps.

In theory, both competency and capability models describe the factors that differentiate the best from the rest.

However, the argument is that the capability model goes one step further and describes the behaviour required beyond competence, and is therefore a more stretching and aspirational model than a competency model.

They both assess how competent the individual is, but the capability model also assesses how capable they are in the role both now and for the future.

In practice, the two models are being used, defined and created by today’s employers in the same way. This is because the difference between the two is still blurred.

The question should not be whether to create a competency or a capability model but, rather, is the model linked to the strategic goals of the organisation and is it future focused?

To be successful, both models need to focus on the future requirements of the business, on change and how employees need to deal with these unfamiliar circumstances.

To overcome these problems, we have redefined competencies and capabilities down to their most basic form and look at behaviours and expertise (which includes knowledge, skills and experience).

At Zircon we make sure that both our models can measure future behaviour by conducting strategic visioning interviews with the business leaders at the start of the project.

These interviews are designed to understand the strategy, goals, objectives and future requirements of the business, combined with the way people need to behave, the skills they need to demonstrate and the knowledge they need to display to succeed and exceed in the future.

If you would to talk to our consultants about how to design either a behavioural, competency or capability model, please contact me by clicking here.

  • Dr Amanda Potter is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist, and the CEO of Zircon Management Consulting and Talent Gene.


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  1. Amanda Potter says:

    Thank you James Allerdice from HSBC for his comment to this blog – in his view…

    Capability – Someone is capable of performing this task/activity/function either now or at a point in the future
    Competency – Someone has a demonstrable level of competence to perform a task/activity/function at a benchmark level

  2. Amanda Potter says:

    Thank you James Bywater for his comment:

    My take on this is that they are synonyms but capability has some advantages:

    1. More positive at the low end
    2. Avoids the debate in the strategy literature about business rather than individual core competencies
    3. Avoids the old competence vs competency divide
    4. The MCI (Management Capability Index) is newer and shinier!

  3. Amanda Potter says:

    Thank you Damon Herft for your comment via linked in:

    I Just wanted to feedback that this article was really helpful to me. I have sat through numerous presentations on this before and never really, truly, understood the difference.

    Your team’s clear concise explanation nailed it!

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