Capability is More Than the Sum of Paper Credentials

posted in: Business, Musing | 0

Since our report was published, I have repeatedly been asked to explain what we mean when we say standard credentials don’t tell us what a person is capable of doing. That question deserves an answer.

I’m using software for an example because so many people are familiar with it now and a software related item happens to be in the news, but I could just as easily use my business consulting for examples.

One of the headlines in the UK this week is that until recently Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service, part of the Ministry of Justice, had a very significant error in its online services used to calculate the financial net worth of people who are divorcing. The results of the calculations are used to determine divorce settlements.

From April 2014 to December 2015, the error escaped notice by all the solicitors, barristers or judges who deal with divorces in the UK. It was also used by paralegals, university law departments and the Law Society for training purposes.

People old fashioned enough to print out the form and fill it in by hand were unaffected because they did the mathematics themselves. But people who filled it in online had their financial worth calculated as being the sum of their assets instead of having the sum of their liabilities subtracted from it. This often threw the results off by large amounts.

Even the most basic of tests should have detected such a fundamental flaw.

The Most Disturbing Aspects of This Example

The most disturbing feature of this news story is not that testing was so poor… or that professionals failed to detect it… or that noticing it was left to Nicola Matheson-Durrant of the Family Law Clinic in Ascot, Berkshire, who is a McKenzie Friend, a lay expert who is not a legally qualified barrister or solicitor… or that one of the two legal organisations to which she reported it brushed her off.

The most disturbing feature is that it is such a commonplace type of problem.

Repeatedly, I find myself in meetings with teams that develop software for a living, which I don’t actually do much myself any more… yet I have to teach them concepts essential for producing reliable software that actually does what is needed.

Yesterday the concept I brought up was a requirements matrix, to the standard needed by the pharmaceutical industry. Some others that come up over and over include what cyclomatic complexity is and why it should be kept low in each software module, or what essential complexity means, or how to devise truly thorough testing for a system, or how to achieve much higher throughput with a database that seems to be choking.

When software is doing something relatively unimportant, errors are acceptable. But when errors could cause real harm, the people in the most critical roles to produce and validate the software should be highly capable of making sure the work is done well. Large software systems always have some bugs, but in crucial situations we all want those bugs to be as few and as small as possible.

What Makes a Person Right For Pivotal Roles?

The people I coach about technical matters in IT often have university degrees that appear to be more pertinent than mine, industry-standard certifications I don’t have, and fluency in programming languages I don’t know. Recruiting agencies and human resources departments would prefer them instead of me. They have more of the currently desired, widely recognized credentials than I do.

Why, then, is there a wide swathe of issues that I can resolve better? And more importantly if you are in charge of running a business, what does that imply about how to get the most out of your workforce?

The answer is simple. Capability is more than the sum of a person’s education, training, test results and certifications. Capability is rounded out by additional factors which include experience, behavior and character traits.

Real life isn’t much like a textbook. I have worked in multiple world class teams—for engineering and for IT. Experience in those teams with some of the best mentors in the world taught me a lot about the way things work. This intrinsic knowledge is not easy to convey even through mentoring, let alone through textbooks and lectures. It is what makes the difference between a lower level programmer and a technical guru.

I’m limiting this example to technical skills to keep it simple, but we could move this discussion higher up where behavioral competence matters more, or even to the top levels where contextual competence is extremely important. Having an MBA does not necessarily signify the behavior or character to lead a business.

How Can We Identify the Gurus?

HR systems typically can find keywords in CVs and match them up with keywords in job requirements. That will find people who have appropriate credentials, but it overlooks people with deep experiential knowledge—it is okay for filling the lower levels of a team, but not the middle and upper leadership levels. From our research, we know those leadership levels are where competence and capability tend to fall shorter of the optimum. That is also where making a better match of person to role makes a bigger impact on performance of the organization.

We can identify gurus by hooking HR systems into leading edge Competency and Capability Management (CCM) systems. That is not purely a software exercise, although software facilitates it. CCM integrates formal education, training, certifications and so on with the other factors to paint a more complete picture of each person’s capability. When we need a guru to solve a problem or shepherd a high risk project, good CCM can find the right one. Merely sifting CVs for credentials does not.

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