This is “Capabilities: Activities You Are Good At”, section 8.5 from the book Business Strategy (v. 1.0).
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Capabilities are especially powerful drivers of performance for businesses and many other kinds of organization (Hamel & Heene,1994; Schoemaker, 1992; Stalk, Evans, & Schulman, 1992). They are the factors that determine how well groups achieve tasks that are critical. For our strategic architecture of resources, the most critical tasks include building and retaining resources. First, let us remind ourselves how capabilities differ from resources:
Capabilities are important because they determine how effectively your organization builds, develops, and retains resources. A more capable organization will be able to build resources faster and hold resource losses to a slower rate than a less capable organization. Capabilities, like intangible resources, are abstract and ambiguous items that are difficult to measure and manage. Nevertheless, they are important drivers of performance through time, so some attempt must be made to understand and manage them.
There are three useful reference points to bear in mind when you assess the strength of your capabilities for building resources:
A team’s capability is the ratio between the rate at which it is actually achieving tasks and the best rate that we can imagine, given one of the benchmarks above.
Do not confuse team capabilities with individual skills. If you wanted to evaluate the total skills of a group and assess its overall average skill at individual tasks, then you would use the idea of attributes from Chapter 6 "You Need Quality Resources as Well as Quantity". Clever organizations manage to take relatively unskilled people and generate outstanding performance. Consulting firms take newly trained professionals and enable them to deliver sophisticated business solutions; fast-food firms take unskilled staff and produce highly consistent products and service; call centers take people with little understanding of an organization’s products and clients and produce excellent customer support; and so on.
Clearly such organizations achieve much of this performance by training people: in other words, by adding to their individual skills. But they do more: They develop, test, and operate proven procedures. Team capability, then, reflects the combination of individual skills and these effective procedures.
Such procedures add up to a library of instructions for completing specific activities quickly and reliably. This library is effectively a resource, something useful that you own, and like any resource it is built up over time. It is also kept up to date by the removal of obsolete or ineffective procedures and the addition of new ones. One of the clearest examples you are likely to find concerns the franchise manuals used by firms like McDonald’s to both train their staff and control their franchisees. Such manuals cover everything from cleaning the fryers, to checking the inventory, to sorting the garbage.
As I have stressed before, if capabilities are to influence performance then it can only be by improving the organization’s success at developing resources, whether it be winning them in the first place, promoting them from state to state, or retaining them. For example,
There is a limit to what capable teams can accomplish though if they do not have the resources to do their job. Even the best customer support group will struggle to keep customers if the products they are supporting are inadequate.
The last mystery we need to resolve about capabilities is where they come from. Team capabilities are built up by being used, much as individual skills are. Procedures and methods for getting things done are available to be recorded whenever they take place. So techniques have been developed in many sectors for achieving a sale to a new customer, for example. Indeed, many of these techniques are common to multiple markets and embedded in sales force training systems. The procedures for managing products through a research and development (R&D) process similarly arise from companies’ experience of actually carrying out that activity.
Clearly the more chances the team has to practice its winning, developing, and retention of resources, the more opportunities arise to test, improve, and record the procedures that work best. The bottom line is that the rate of resource flows determines the rate at which capabilities can be improved. If we add the earlier observation that capability levels drive resource flows, we have a simple and direct mutual reinforcement between each capability and the resource to which it relates. There are some cases where capability does not relate directly to a specific resource flow, but they tend to be less influential on long-term strategic performance than are these tightly coupled pairings of resource and capability.
This chapter has explained the importance of intangible factors, given examples of simple measures for them, and shown you how they operate. Here are some techniques to ensure your intangibles are healthy and working well with the rest of your business system: