Skills or Capabilities

A recent posting on my friend Jon Low’s blog The Low-Down triggered something in my thinking about the skills gap. The posting (“The Skills Gap Is Not a Supply Problem, It’s a Management Challenge”) talked about the question of acquiring skills from outside the company versus developing within. At the same time, I read an article in the Washington Post Capital Business arguing that high-tech companies acquisitions are motivated by gaining people not necessarily new products (“Yahoo’s acquisition strategy is actually a talent strategy”).
The question that these two articles prompted is simple: what are companies actually after? Is it skills or capabilities? Too often we confuse and conflate the two. But they are not the same. Skills implies an already mastered set of knowledge and abilities. Capabilities seems to me to be broader to encompass the ability to acquire new skills. The difference is key.
A quick look at any job posting website will confirm that these posting are for specific sets of skills. In fact, many automated job application sites contain very specific question about very specific skills. There are very few questions about the ability to learn new (and most likely firm-specific) skills.
Yet, we hear over and over that companies really hire on behavioral aspects. As one article (“Moneyball at Work: They’ve Discovered What Really Makes A Great Employee”) put it “Using new tracking and analytic tools, researchers have learned to value things like adaptability, social and emotional intelligence, resilience, and friendliness, as well as raw intelligence.”
So what is it that companies really want? As noted in an earlier posting, companies seem to be chasing the purple squirrel – the unique, unusual, and perfect candidate. Unfortunately for both the hiring companies and the applicants, unique means unique and perfect means perfect. And, I am afraid, too often that definition of perfect means exact skills rather than capabilities. So positions go unfilled waiting for the perfect skill set rather than hire the close-but-can-learn-quickly candidate.
But for those brought in during an acquisition (or “acqui-hires” as they are sometimes called), it seems that specific skills are only a part of the equation. Integrating the larger set of employee capabilities into to the new organization is the key to success.
Maybe we need to re-think the skills gap as a capabilities challenge.

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