More than skills

By Marc Zao-Sanders

3 minute read


It's never just one thing. It's always more complicated than that. Productivity’s too low, especially in the UK. Skills levels could be much higher, again especially in the UK - this World Economic Forum report from this month says the UK now ranks 23rd in the world. So it's important to get a much better handle on skills if we want to get our learning strategies right and improve the productivity of our firm, industry, nation.

What if you fully understood the link between the job roles in your company and the skills required to excel in them? Imagine that you fully understood the link between those skills and the training your company provides. It would then be relatively straightforward to upskill your workforce with some precision. The right learning for the right learner. And having the right skills is a major driver of productivity. Being able to tune organisational capability in this way optimises productivity: directly through improving the value added by your team. Or indirectly by improving decision-making on the other drivers of productivity (capital allocation, use of tech, etc.)  We’re really interested in this problem.

As you can see, skills are literally central to the diagram above. But what about knowledge, behaviours, hard skills, soft skills, competencies, values, company values, personal values, etc? Some of these words seem to overlap and mean different things to different people. Let’s see if we can tidy this up a bit.

Why do we care?

Our mission is to unravel the connections between roles and skills, and skills and learning, in order to make intelligent learning recommendations and drive productivity.

So we needed a standard set of skills (I'm just going to go with that word for now and justify it later) that cover most of what the modern knowledge worker does, and that makes sense for most industries, functions and levels of seniority. There are also some algorithm-related reasons that we needed the skills layer, between people and learning assets - one of our team will write about this another time.
Eventually we got to 40 skills. If you are forming or reviewing your own values/behaviours/competencies, or if you’re trying to link learning to skills in some way, our journey may help you.

Building up the space

We started with skills. There's a debate about the difference between competencies and skills. I think they're splitting hairs. So we just say they’re essentially the same and that skills is a nicer, shorter, less corporatese word. So we leave the word competencies out of our active vocabulary.

Skills come in two varieties: hard and soft. They’re not especially well-defined terms but there are some well-understood characteristics of each which give rise to a spectrum from the:

easier to acquire, external, easier to test for, tangible, closer to the head
to the:

harder to acquire, internal, harder to test for, intangible, closer to the heart

Hard skills are more of the former sort, soft skills more of the latter.

But what about behaviour? The actions of colleagues that we all see and experience. We don’t just want a skilful workforce, we want a workforce that behaves in a certain way eg listening actively, speaking up, being proactive. So we added behaviours.

We also want a clued up workforce. So knowledge has got to be in the space too. Skills are more about understanding and application, even hard skills such as Excel. There’s a spectrum but knowledge is flatter and more about facts and information.

Note that knowledge and behaviour are both towards the top of the above spectrum. And that the next level above knowledge and behaviour in terms of tangible business outcome is performance.

Then there are values. Lots of companies go for the same values (55% of Fortune 500s have integrity as a value!) and there’s a tension and confusion between personal vs company values. We added it because we decided they work for our purposes. When looking at either a person’s job role or a learning asset, certain values will be relevant (excellence vs speed) and these are not naturally picked up by skills, behaviours or knowledge. Values are pretty fundamental. You can’t just adopt excellence, integrity, elegance, etc as a value overnight.

The final 40

We wanted ours to be highly practical and accessible. That’s why it has email and Excel on it. So it won’t be for the purists. And indeed no list will be perfect.

We thought plenty, consulted experts and looked at lots of frameworks, defined, redefined, de-duped, debated and iterated our way to these 40, populating our skills space:

We think that 80% of what we need from the modern knowledge worker gets picked up from this. So it serves our purposes well.

What might this mean for you?

The main advice here is to think about the broader space here. In our experience, most companies think about skills (usually preferring the term competencies), behaviours, values and knowledge separately, if at all. Bringing them all together is holistic, comprehensive and more likely to be useful to and resonate with more stakeholders at your firm. You’ll have a solid core from which to make to develop the right learning strategy for your firm. For us it’s the base on which we can layer the algorithms that produce intelligent learning recommendations. Crudely, it’s this again:

Our list of 40 skills may be perfect for you. Perhaps you have no list or are thinking of adopting a new one. You’re very welcome to use ours, wholesale or in part. Or maybe you'll need to work with a different list that really serves your company’s specific needs. Once you have that list, our system can quickly learn to work with that list through machine learning. Get training set of data, teach the algorithm to start tagging/clustering/prioritising, test it, handover to machine.

I hope you got something from this.  If you ever want to talk about knowledge, behaviours, skills, competencies, values - yours or ours - feel free to drop me a line:


Free learning content library benchmark
Filtered logo rotating

Get the best return on your L&D spend.