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What does ‘Capability’ Mean? Nothing!!

“Capability” is a term that is used all over the place in business and on the web, where people (including me!) write and expound on it at length.

So what?  Well, it actually means that people are talking and writing an awful lot about a term that has no meaning!

Whenever you hear people discussing “Capability”, before you join in, always ask, “What do you mean by ‘Capability’?”

After you get past the condescending look (that suggests that you are an idiot or from another planet – or both!), simply repeat the question.

This is a vital question to ask, because “Capability” on its own is quite meaningless!

Context Counts

I’ll explain.  When we hear the term “Capability”, we assume that the person using the term is talking about something that an enterprise is capable of doing, some service it is capable of delivering, some standard that it is capable of achieving or something else of which it is, or should be, capable.  But which one?

The truth is that until they qualify “Cabability” we, and anybody else listening to them, would have absolutely no idea what they meant!  We might, to save face or appear clever, assume or pretend that we did, but we would not!

So, we ask the simple, yet profound question, “What do do you mean by ‘Capability’?”

Many times they will actually be unable to answer as, amazingly, it is a term that is used far too often without the user themselves knowing exactly what they mean.

To help them out you could ask questions like, “Do you mean current actual capability or current required capability?”

But even that is not enough.  Would you be referring to current actual or required capability to produce a service, a product or a range of products? Or would you be referring to the capability to penetrate a market, achieve a quality standard or to earn revenue?

Or maybe we are talking about the capability to use the term “capability” in a manner that gives it meaning and removes all ambiguity!

What do you think?  Leave a comment below.  I would love to hear from you.

3 Responses to “What does ‘Capability’ Mean? Nothing!!”

  1. Richard Ordowich January 10, 2011 3:13 pm #

    I’m not sure why someone would write a blog on the definition of one word without specifying a context. But since I assume the context is IT and data then I have seen the term used as follows:

    Capability maturity model (CMM)
    Data governance maturity
    Data management maturity
    Project management maturity

    Some in the industry have defined specific skills that are required to reach a measured level of capability maturity.

    Maturity implies the process can get better with age. So whenever someone uses the term capability just ask them about the domain (IT, business process, data governance) and maturity. Then concatenate the words and you now have a context and meaning.

    This is also a great technique to use when defining data elements using semantics. So perhaps the question should be “what is your semantic capability maturity”?

    • imm January 24, 2011 9:26 am #

      Nicely put, Richard.

  2. Pal Gombos January 10, 2011 8:24 am #

    Dear John! Capability is measure of a particular Function. I think people used to mix these two things using capability term as a function.
    However they belong strongly to each other expressing, to what extent the company can reach a particular business objective.

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