Article • October 25, 2021

Why Capabilities Matter and How Training Your Teams on Them Drives Results

By Karen Foster and Irene Boland

A man working at a computer

Not long ago, success in the life science industry could be attributed to how well one mastered and executed skills:  skills in selling, account planning, customer engagement and more. Someone who perfected a skill could apply it repeatedly across similar situations without breaking a sweat.

Unfortunately, in today’s world it’s rare that the same situation happens twice, and skills are no longer enough. The products are more complex, the marketplace is more complex, the ways of working are more complex. And everything is constantly changing. As the industry evolves, so must you. Success in the life science industry today will be powered not only by narrower skills like selling and planning, but also by broader proficiencies that are called capabilities.

What Is a Capability?

A capability is a set of behaviors and characteristics applied fluidly and flexibility across conditions, situations and contexts. Critical thinking is a capability. It consists of behaviors like asking questions, thinking slowly and assessing one’s thinking. It entails certain personality characteristics, such as being skeptical and comfortable with ambiguity. One could think critically about scientific data or when dialoging with a colleague or when deciding where to go for dinner.

Capabilities come in handy across situations. They are foundational and allow you to adapt to changing circumstances and a continuous flow of information. They enhance information gathering, decision-making, and problem-solving. They’re a kind of all-purpose superpower. 

What Is a Skill?

On the other hand, a skill is a set of actions executed sequentially to achieve a defined outcome in a narrow set of conditions. Cutting vegetables with a knife is a skill. To execute this skill, you would: hold the knife safely, stabilize the item on a surface, and slice the item with the knife. You would carry out these steps in order, to make a whole into parts, and could apply this to tomatoes, carrots, basil or any vegetable of your choice.

Skills come in handy when the conditions don’t change much.

But if too many changes occur, the skill loses its value. Imagine for a second that “vegetable” is replaced with “tree,” and “knife” is replaced with “chainsaw.” Are the sets of actions for cutting a tree with a chainsaw the same as cutting vegetables with knife?

Most of would say no, unless you don’t mind losing some fingers.

Why Do Capabilities Matter Now?

This is exactly why capabilities matter in a constantly changing, complex world with endless amounts of information. Skills typically apply to a narrow set of conditions, but once the conditions change enough: poof, the skill no longer “transfers,” to use the learning science term. Could someone who cuts vegetables with a knife also cut fruit or meat? Sure. What about paper or rope? Hmmm, maybe. But expand to a tree trunk and a chainsaw and you have crossed a line. A new skill is needed. More training to be conducted. More time out of the field.

A capability, on the other hand—such as using a cutting implement safely—can come in handy whether it’s a tomato, rope or a tree. Capabilities flex further. They go farther.

How do Capabilities Impact the Business?

Professionals in the life science industry need to evolve, and capabilities provide that power.

New therapeutic areas and business models—not to mention the pandemic—have created tumult in the industry. New innovations, new types of work and new ways of engaging with customers require new ways of thinking.

Learning capabilities may not seem as urgent as learning skills, but it’s a forward-looking exercise that in the long run pays off. Capabilities future-proofs a business. Oh, and they supercharge skills, too.

Where Do I Start?

The World Economic Forum recently found that “critical thinking and analysis” was one of the most in-demand emerging capabilities across countries and industries. Critical thinking—the ability to test the validity of conclusions—is a broad capability.

It consists of five key behaviors: thinking slowly, asking questions, gathering evidence, checking assumptions, and assessing the thinking process itself. You can see how critical thinking would come in handy no matter the specific task or ability. It can even help you identify what task to undertake and what specific skill to deploy.

The business world will continue to change—likely at an ever-increasing rate. So, focus on improving both the narrow skills that solve the problem in front of you and also the capabilities that will carry over to the next one.

Learn about Salience Learning’s Critical Thinking Academy