Posted On September 5, 2019

Capability frameworks are all the rage in today’s L&D world, and for good reason. When prepared correctly, they describe in very easy-to-understand terms the behaviours, skills, knowledge, abilities and attributes that contribute individually to collective success.

In the same way that a blueprint helps builders translate the architect’s dream into functional space for living or working, a capability framework enables HR leaders to turn management vision into business success – from hiring people with the right stuff to managing them, promoting them and having those all-important performance conversations with them that keep everyone’s growth on an upward trajectory.

This may sound straight-forward enough, but it’s anything but – and the expertise needed to design capability frameworks has never been in higher demand.

That’s because as organisations become more diverse, face more competition and strive to achieve more with less, a failure in capability at any level of the workforce or  key business area can severely impact organisational performance. And not a day goes by that MCI Solutions isn’t asked by large and small clients to help with capability frameworks.

So, here’s some of what we’ve learned about capability frameworks over the past two decades that might help you.

Capabilities are not competencies

It’s amazing how often these two terms are used interchangeably, yet they are two very different qualities.

In contemporary HR-speak capabilities are qualities and abilities that can be used or developed. Think in terms of potential, as in “the capability of the new recruit to become a team leader.” Using this same analogy, competencies are observable evidence of an ability, skill or qualification, such as “she was hired because of her competence as an accountant.”

At first glance the two terms seem alike, and a great many business, management and HR authors have used them interchangeably, but there are subtle differences in their literary meanings. Whereas capabilities implies “there’s some space still left” that can be utilised to achieve a goal, competencies gives the feeling that something is “full of the capacity” to achieve that goal.

These shades of differences lie in the realm of the abstract, but in the real world an employee may be capable, but not yet competent.

If you’d like a great example of how competencies roll up to capability, check out this great scholarly article from Rand Afrikaans University’s Department of Human Resource Management about what makes a Human Resource call centre tick.

Don't over complicate it

I recently heard about a large player in Australia’s financial sector that commissioned a leading management consultancy to prepare a capability framework for one of its divisions.

Now, that in itself is not unusual. Even the largest of corporations can lack the skills in their L&D teams, or the manpower, to map out the many interconnected behaviours needed in their business.


What is unusual is that a lot of money was paid for a framework that was, in a word, unusable. It contained too many capabilities and too many behaviours under each, instead of a few capabilities supported by even fewer competencies under each.

It was so unwieldy that the organisation needed to bring in a second consultancy, and spend yet more time and money, to render the framework in simple, plain-English terms that could be understood and applied by every team member.

As in many business endeavours, simple is best.

That said, we find best practice in designing capability frameworks involves these basic steps…

Step 1: identify your core capability areas

Starting with a clear understanding of your organisation’s business strategy, consider the core capability areas required to be successful in a particular function, say for example, sales.

You could begin by asking why and how your top sellers achieve success, and what they do consistently that makes them successful. Answers to those questions will produce a range of 3-7 capabilities – qualities and abilities – such as:

  • Motivation – Top performers maintain a positive approach, demonstrate a desire to excel, and project confidence
  • Process – They understand and apply effective sales processes and techniques to achieve results
  • Responsive – They respond appropriately to different customer personalities and traits.

Step 2: Break each into competency requirements

Each core capability can then be broken down further into specific competency requirements, and written in a way that are observable behaviours.

Using the previous Process capability, for example, you could include core competencies, illustrated with behavioural indicators, such as:

  • Market awareness – Identifies and evaluates competitive advantages and risks
  • Team working – Leverages skills and inputs from team members
  • Structure and systems – Applies creative contractual terms and conditions.

Step 3: Determine the number of levels

The next stage is to consider how many levels of differentiation you would expect to find in your organisation’s selling activity.

With MCI Solutions clients we usually see a minimum of three levels of differentiation ranging from foundational/beginner to intermediate and then highly advanced/expert, but we also see capability frameworks with four, five or more levels of differentiation.

Step 4: Describe what’s needed at each level

The final step in building our sample sales capability framework, and easily the most time-consuming part, is to develop one- to three succinct sentences for each level that describe the skills and experience you would expect from a salesperson at the foundation level, the intermediate level and at the expert level.

From here you can now assess the selling capability you already have across the organisation – considering, if you can, your salesforce’s structure, methodologies and management – identify any gaps, and move on to the next stage.

The Development Framework

man typing emails on laptop

Every capability framework should be supported by a framework, or pathway, aimed at developing the growth of the role and the employee, now and into the future.

At MCI Solutions we build development frameworks using Education, Experience and Exposure opportunities. For example, a competency might be to “influence key stakeholders” so to build this competency, team members might undertake an influencing skills course (education), receive coaching from a peer or manager (exposure), or undertake engagement strategies for stakeholders on a project (experience).

In each case, we use common language to describe competencies in terms of observable behaviours and actions, both formal and informal, and where possible reflect the client organisation’s unique culture, values and mission.

Employee’s capabilities are only the beginning

Organisational Development, or OD, is focused on combining the people skills we’ve been talking about with the organisation’s systems, processes, structures and culture.

In the best of all OD worlds, these are interlinked, aligned to corporate priorities and outcomes, and are supported by unambiguous lines of accountability for both individual and collective performance.

DIY - or what?

Of course, there’s much more capability frameworks. We’ve not yet mentioned the need to develop competencies by either job role, which is fairly clear-cut if your organisation has only a few generic job roles, or by level which allows an organisation to choose capabilities and related competencies based on the needs of many different roles.

The latter suits organisations that have many different roles and/or different levels of competency requirements for similar roles. For example, a sales associate in a small office might need more high-level skills than, say, a sales associate in a larger office where duties can be doled out to more senior sales team members.

Then there’s the need train your managers on the capability framework and how to use it since they “own” it in a day-to-day operational sense.

Also, the never-ending process of communication, feedback and improvement, embedding the competencies and capabilities into the corporate culture, the growing popularity of competency frameworks and leadership competencies, and, well, you catch my drift.

And that is why, going back to our financial institution example, it’s easy to see that if a blue-chip organisation doesn’t have the internal resources required to design, communicate and implement capability frameworks, what hope is there for smaller L&D teams with fewer resources but with the same business imperatives? And why the need for qualified MCI Solutions professionals who live and breathe capability frameworks has never been greater.

So if you need help with the critical area of a capability framework for any or all areas of your organisation, call us on 1300 768 550, email us at - or send us a message:

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