From skills to capabilities: Changing the language


Are skills dead?

It is awkward to ask just when everyone is talking about skills. In our post-GPT age, the consensus is that while ‘higher education’ may be over, we are entering the age of ‘skills’. Governments worldwide are pouring money into skills education, multinational agencies and think tanks are publishing reports on which skills are needed, and even university leaders are straying into the skills language.

Yet, the same reports, employers, and experts are talking about the ‘half-life of skills’. That skills get outdated was known, but we are now talking about them getting outdated faster than it takes to master them. For example, a programming language becoming outdated in 2.5 years would mean that it would not be required by the time one gets to a level of professional maturity in programming with that language.

One can argue that skills may have a long afterlife and programming languages do not disappear overnight, but it becomes progressively more difficult to secure one’s next job based on a skill past its peak. It is also right to argue that while a particular skill may get outdated, the underlying capabilities that underpin the acquisition and performance of it live on. A programmer develops the mindset of breaking down the problem into modules and thinking logically, which does not depend on any specific programming language.

Therefore, we argue that we stop speaking about skills, and start talking about capabilities.

Speaking of capabilities

It is not just a sleight of hand regarding the labels, but a fundamental mind shift. Skills are focused on what and how, whereas capabilities add the why to the equation. Skills are specific to the context, whereas capabilities involve interrogating the context itself and knowing what fits where.

This is the key reason for switching to capabilities language. When one can foresee what is needed, skills are all that some of us may need. However, as workplaces are in the middle of a great change, one needs an understanding of what will happen next and how to reposition oneself not just for today but also for the emergent requirements.

Using skills language creates an unnecessary barrier. It is the difference between thinking about oneself as a great Python programmer and as a technical problem solver with the ability to write appropriate code. The mental emphasis shifts from righting the syntax to creating the right synchronisation between the requirements and the solution.

The stickiness of capabilities

The other way to differentiate the skills and capabilities is to think about dimensions. Skills emphasise performance – doing – and rightly so. Advocates of skills focus on exactly this aspect: demonstrated outcomes, tangibility, and usefulness are the words they use. Capabilities infuse thinking, acting, relating and living around the performativity of tasks. To some, those two may appear like chalk and cheese in opposition to one another.

But this is based on a false dichotomy between the ‘vita contemplativa’ and ‘vita activa’, lives of thinking and doing. No one wants thoughtless performance of tasks. There may be some people who may argue for freedom of think without having to bow down to the demands of practical life (and many great leaps of human civilisation were achieved by such thought), but such tendencies need to be considered within their proper context. Modern classrooms are not designed for such thought, though some research libraries and laboratories may be. For most of us, learning is a practical art, and its significance comes from practical ends.

Once we discard this dichotomy, as ‘thinking’ machines may force us to do, we will see that developing capabilities is what we should all be focusing on. In summary, capabilities stick even when everything around us changes. Though we all know that life is unpredictable, we live in search of stability, at least predictability. Thinking in terms of capabilities allows us to infuse a certain dynamism that our environment demands of us now.


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