Capability – the unloved cousin of transformation

By: Andrew Darwin

During large scale organisational change and training programs, a lot of time and money is invested in the who, what and how. Who does what in the new organisation design and processes? What do our employees need to learn to be able to operate new systems? Does everyone know their upstream and downstream dependencies? We even go to great lengths through change and communication initiatives to ensure everybody understands why. One core area is often missed – are our employees able?

Capability is an often underestimated area when organisations undergo large transformation change and training initiatives. When organisations approach transformation, the focus tends to be on the organisation itself – processes, systems, roles and responsibilities. Holistic transformation considers the employee and the power their skills and abilities have to contribute to driving operational and organisational success. Understanding how capability affects employee adoption of changes during transformation is key to ensuring a smoother, successful transition.

Oxford Dictionaries defines capability as “the power or ability to do something,” for example, “she is capable of bringing the best out of people”. Employee capability can be broadly summarised into two core categories:

  • Knowledge – having the subject matter expertise, knowing how to operate systems and processes to be able to perform their role
  • Skills – having the necessary skills and abilities to use their knowledge to be able to perform their role.

Transformation programs typically address the former and not the latter. Change impact assessments identify how a person’s role is changing with follow on change activities ensuring everyone is aware of how and why their roles are changing, with training bridging the knowledge gap. However, the skill requirements of the employee’s new role are often missed.

As an employee going through disruptive changes to their role, not having the necessary skills to perform in their new role can be very unsettling. It can be likened to being asked to assemble some furniture with the full set of instructions but not all the tools to complete the job. Ultimately this can lead to a greater resistance to change by the employees, decreasing engagement between the employee and employer and a loss of credibility for the program amongst the employee community.

HR often has an existing set of core competencies that each employee requires or needs to develop to perform their role. Once the new organisation design is complete, and roles have been defined, new competencies and capabilities can be mapped for each role. A capability gap analysis can then be conducted to identify the employees who require new skills to perform their changed or new role. Interventions can then be designed to upskill any employees as required. This ensures that once a program is ready to launch, the employees who operate within the newly defined organisation are ­able and skilled to do so.

As the change management strategy kicks into action and training development is underway, developing an employee’s skills enhances their feeling of readiness to adopt the changes ahead. Empowering your employee community with the capability to perform their role is a powerful vehicle for the successful adoption of any transformational change.


  • Ensure that your processes have the right metrics in place to measure the skills and capabilities of your employees.
  • Transition to BAU for capability is often a natural process where the attained and developing skills become part of an individual’s continuous professional development plan.

Case study – New skills in a conservative corporate environment

A utility organisation underwent a top-to-bottom transformation that impacted all employees, and changed almost every process. Many roles and responsibilities were affected, along with some core policies. The only real change that had happened previously within this utility company was privatisation around 20 years earlier, and the average length of service was very high with many employees in the same role for over 20-30 years. Change was going to be a struggle for many and a significant roadblock to a successful transformation of the organisation. Before any changes were introduced, it was identified that to be able to move forward with the organisation, all employees needed to first understand change, what it meant to them, how they reacted to change and learn some strategies for managing themselves through change. A fun and engaging training course was developed that incorporated all the required learning, intertwining the strategies for managing yourself through change with learning how to juggle 3 balls over the course of the day. The result was an employee community that was provided with the necessary skills and tools to adapt and cope with change, with an unintended benefit of providing a fun and exciting method of experiencing the learning which put the program in a positive light from the very beginning.

Case study – Adopting technology in a technophobic workplace

A manufacturing organisation underwent a global transformation program which touched all areas of the business. The workforce was split into two; half could be considered office professionals with a high incidence of tertiary education and the other half were highly skilled technicians whose education and development centred around trades. The initial phase of the program set out to introduce electronic timekeeping and recording into the technician’s day. This involved using terminals across the shop floor and recording time against various different projects they worked on. The existing core competencies identified that no computing skills were currently required, and through discussions with the technicians in one specific location it was identified that the majority of employees had little or no experience of using any type of computer, including at home, nor did they have a smart phone. The capability of the technician role had changed. The program provided general computer skills courses prior to any transformation specific training to ensure that all technicians had the necessary skills to adopt the changes that were coming and perform in their roles as the new organisation design required. This helped a sceptical and nervous group of employees adopt the new ways of working quickly and provided employees with additional skills that not only benefited the organisation by achieving the program objectives, but also had the secondary benefit of providing them with key skills that could be used outside of the workplace too.


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