Skills vs Competencies

Skills vs. Competencies

Sure, you can dip a brush in some paint and smear that paint on a canvas; but the question is – are you competent or merely skilled (or perhaps even neither) as a painter? Notwithstanding recent events demonstrating the value of splashing rudimentary (if strategically-placed) crosses on paintings, it is important that the meanings of these various skills are appropriately understood in the context of skills development in South Africa.

What is the difference?

In their everyday usage, the words “competent” and “skilled” (of “skilful”) can be and often are used interchangeably. It is generally understood, however, that the former is used to indicate merely satisfactory ability, whereas the latter refers to advanced ability.

In the context of the skills development sector, the converse is true and this is possibly where much of the confusion originates. In the aforementioned case, for example, we can all recognise that the skill involved is the ability to paint. Competence, however, involves being able to paint well enough so as to earn a living using this skill. Skills are created through the transfer of knowledge and exposure to new areas of thinking, whilst competencies are gained over time and supported by various competency-building elements.

What is the situation is SA?

In South Africa, the skills development sector is at a crossroads. As a result of a vast portion of the population having thus far been completely unskilled, the focus has been almost exclusively on skills generation. The reality, however, is that this sector needs to shift its emphasis to competency building. There is a fine balance that must be struck between transferring knowledge and enabling people to be more than just skilled – to be competent. This is, however, not a simple procedure, since competence is closely influenced by the fabric of the organisation and includes various organisational elements such as systems and processes, as we will see shortly.

Increasingly, industry, training providers and SETAs each seem to be pulling in a different direction with regard to skills development and the question of skills vs. competencies is at the heart of the debate.

It has become patently obvious that no academic qualification can ever declare you competent. A person ‘s competence is demonstrated by their ability to perform the required function repeatedly with the same, successful outcome. Creativity, however, is the ability to perform the same function repeatedly and get a different, successful outcome every time.

What needs to be done?

Each of these abilities is of indispensable value and we will need both if we are to achieve the socio-economic objectives of our country.

We furthermore have to evaluate the ability of the academic sector and training organisations to create an able-bodied workforce to address the country ‘s need to be competitive in Africa and the rest of the world.

Regenesys has, through its work in skills auditing, found that skills audits are increasingly focusing on competency evaluation rather than the traditional tracking of staff members  ยด qualifications. Competence itself has finally come to be more valued than the alleged certification thereof. Certification is useful only in as much as it accurately indicates the level at which a person can be expected to perform.

What we often take for granted is that a perfectly competent person can still be ineffective in an inappropriate environment. An inappropriate environment is one in which an individual ‘s capabilities do not support the business or organisational objectives.

A useful checklist for organisational analysis is found in the Burke Litwin Model of organisational development (pioneered by Warner Burke and George Litwin), which looks holistically at organisational capability.

One of the tools for making the most of organisational capability has been adapted as indicated in the list below. It defines what is required in order to get the best from competent staff by implementing a set of six practical and reflective priorities to drive a programme of organisational development. These can be used as a checklist and a tool for evaluating your organisation ‘s capability:

Capability Indicators

1. Organisational Foundations

  • Organisation vision, mission and strategy are clearly defined, consistent and shared among staff.
  • Strategy links core programmes with organisational capacities and environmental realities, to promote sustainable change. Key programmes include:
    • strategy and programmes that address fundamental societal values and issues; and
    • legal forms and organisational policies (e.g. governance, personnel, financial) that make the organisation accountable to and legitimate within society at large.

2. Organisational Resources

  • Physical and Information Resources
    • Physical space/ facilities are adequate to tasks.
    • Needed equipment and materials are available.
    • Information (technical, social, political) for programme performance is available.
  • Financial Resources
    • Funds are available for planned activities.
    • Financial data are up-to-date and accurate.
    • Effective financial management and accounting systems are in place.
    • Financial systems are transparent to key constituents.
  • Human Resources
    • Staff skills and numbers are adequate to do work.
    • Compensation is adequate and equitable.
    • Staff have relevant development plans and opportunities.
    • Recruitment, reward and promotion systems encourage good performance and staff morale.

3. Organisational Capacities

  • Leadership
    • Leaders articulate and communicate core values and visions.
    • External constituents respect organisational leadership.
    • Leaders involve staff in organisational planning and decision-making.
    • Leaders set a good example for staff.
  • Organisation and Management
    • Organisational structures and systems divide and co-ordinate work effectively.
    • Vertical and horizontal communications are clear and understood.
    • Delegation of authority enables responsible staff participation.
    • Organisation uses staff differences in skills and perspectives constructively.
  • Learning
    • Organisation fosters individual and team problem-solving.
    • Organisation makes a systematic effort to learn from its experiences and problems.
    • Organisation translates learning into innovative action.

4. Core Task Implementation

  • Core tasks are clearly understood and accepted.
  • Staff and staff teams work and learn well together.
  • Staff are held accountable to clear performance standards.
  • Monitoring and evaluation provides feedback used for performance improvement and organisational learning.

5. Benefits and Impacts

  • Programmes reach planned and measurable performance objectives/ targets.
  • Intended beneficiaries perceive and value benefits.
  • Programmes build sustainable local capacities and resources rather than fostering dependency.
  • Programmes validate or elaborate organisation’s strategy and theory of development.
  • Unintended consequences are recognised and dealt with effectively.

6. External Relations

  • Organisation creates and maintains stable relationships with external parties to the organisation.
  • Government agencies respect and are influenced by organisation’s work.
  • Organisation builds alliances with and learns from other organisations.
  • Larger public perceives organisation’s work as valuable.
  • Organisation can construct alliances across sectors to solve problems.

What this, and other, models highlights is that we cannot rely on skills alone to capacitate organisations. Skills development forms a small but crucial part of an organisational architecture that leads to growth and performance. Increasingly, research is showing that organisations that have a strong social purpose, central belief systems and values-based purposes achieve higher profits and have more sustainable results than those which do not. Training and development, if structured into a well-developed, customised skills development curriculum, strengthen the values of the organisation.


South African companies and organisations have a unique opportunity to redefine their relationship with the skills sector to move beyond compliance to using custom skills programmes to increase return on investment. The unlocking of performance frameworks is contingent upon three factors:

  1. Measuring and investing in the extent to which the organisational architecture will promote and support a performance culture;
  2. Developing effective strategies to use in skills audits and training curricula to support the embedding of these skills in the organisation;
  3. Enhancing the relevance of business by the organisation looking externally to build strong partnerships and alliances.

Organisations must do this work to continue to remain relevant, grow effectively and to have the right skills and competencies to support their long-term objectives.