Keywords for the Age of Austerity is a series on the vocabulary of inequality. Certain words, as Raymond Williams wrote in his 1976 classic Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, bind together ways of seeing culture and society, shaping and reflecting the world in which they are made. Some of the words I consider here are old terms that have developed a new meaning in recent years; others are recent coinages. All of them relate to affinity for hierarchy and a celebration of the virtues of competition, “the marketplace,” and the virtual technologies of our time. This series explores the historical meanings embedded in these words as well as the new meanings that our age has given them.
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The Keywords mailbag is heavy with “competencies,” a word many people seem to dislike for at least a couple of reasons. First is its buzzwordy pretension and the clumsy pluralization of what has most often been a mass noun (competence or, in some cases, “competency.”) “Competencies” is a cumbersome substitute for “skills,” just as “curator” is a needlessly grand way to say “guy who owns a store.” Second is the association with “deliverables,” “outcomes,” and “accountabilities,” words that reduce professional activity to a set of repeatable, quantifiable tasks. Unlike these, “competencies” seems to come with its own critique built in. One reader writes: “When did “competent” go from a synonym for mediocrity to a term of praise?”
This reader, however, clearly does not read the Harvard Business Review. So where did “competencies” come from? And what did it do with “skills”?
Older , now obsolete meanings of the count-noun “competencies” referred to what the OED calls “a sufficiency, without superfluity, of the means of life; a competent estate or income.” In July 1933, Harpers reported on the Depression, observing that “friends and clients of years’ standing have lost inherited competencies which had been increased by their own conservative management.”
The present-day plural, however, doesn’t have the modesty of “sufficiency without superfluity,” and it’s a trait that resides in the person, not their family or finances. It’s a quality, moreover, applied to labor. One history of “competencies” can be seen in its educational uses, one of the most common today. In schools, they were initially benchmarks that students had to pass to move on to the next grade. These were not “skills,” a set of distinctions that belong to the world or work. They were the things you must pass just to graduate, the “the competencies required for mastery of each phase of each subject,” the New York Times reported in October 1963. As BYU’s Corpus of Historical American English shows, “competencies” gets used increasingly for teachers, rather than students, as it becomes a quality of labor, rather than education. By the 1980s, education researchers wrote about the “new technologies” in the classroom that required teachers “to develop new competencies, to adapt established teaching routines, and to modify the teaching and learning environment.”
On the surface, the divide between “skills” and “competencies” looks to be a simple class and professional distinction. The “skilled trades” exist in manufacturing and blue-collar labor, while “competencies” are a feature of office and managerial work. Yet the words are often used interchangeably, as many consultancy sites and this electrical engineering training curriculum show. Given this overlap, there is no shortage of articles devoted to parsing the distinctions. One effort, from Sarah Beckett at a consultancy called HRSG, begins: “As a competency specialist, we’re often asked whether there is any difference between skills and competencies” [sic]. (She’s a “competency specialist,” so if you guessed “yes, I bet there is a difference,” then you are right.)
Beckett’s explanation is that skills are discrete, while competencies are holistic, a broad knowledge that is inclusive of, but not limited to, skills. In Beckett’s terms, “skills” tell you “what” an employee does. “Competencies” assess something more elusive:
But skills don’t give us the “how.” How does an individual perform a job successfully? How do they behave in the workplace environment to achieve the desired result? Competencies provide that missing piece of the puzzle by translating skills into on-the-job behaviors that demonstrate the ability to perform the job requirements competently.
The word was popularized in business literature by C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel’s 1990 Harvard Business Review article, “The Core Competence of the Corporation.” There, they defined “competencies” as “the collective learning of the organization.” (While the title uses the word in the singular, but the concept is mostly pluralized in the article itself). Written in 1990, the specter of Japanese ascendancy in manufacturing looms large in the article, which suggests that “Western companies” remain bound by “a concept of the corporation that unnecessarily limits the ability of individual businesses to fully exploit the deep reservoir of technological capability,” a seeming reference to hierarchy and complacency in American companies (this sounds like many potted histories of the auto industry in the 1980s: GM, Ford and Chrysler, complacent and hamstrung by old organizational structures, were outmaneuvered by “nimbler” Japanese firms).
Prahalad and Hamel lean heavily on aesthetic and psychological language to describe their concept: competencies “harmonize” a firm’s know-how and technological capacity; an emphasis on “competencies” rather than products helps “build a strong feeling of community” among employees; the objective “is communication, involvement, and a deep commitment to working across organizational boundaries.” Their key metaphor, though, is arboreal:
The diversified corporation is a large tree. The trunk and major limbs are core products, the smaller branches are business units; the leaves, flowers, and fruit are end products. The root system that provides nourishment, sustenance, and stability is the core competence.”
The Economist, in a short article on the idea’s influence, notes that “competencies” reflected the growing popularity of organizational psychology theories that foregrounded employee “wellness” and creativity, rather than discipline and regimentation, as virtues in the workplace. (If your office looks anything like this, or if you’ve ever played ping-pong at work, you get the idea.)
As The Economist also notes, however, the “drive to identify core competencies moved in line with the growing popularity of outsourcing”–a fact hinted at in Hamel and Prahalad’s article. Nurturing employee loyalty to a “competence,” rather than an organization, they write, should do two things: encourage collaboration within the workplace, and “wean key employees off the idea that they belong in perpetuity to any particular business.” A focus on “competencies” made outsourcing easier; on the other hand, a 1994 Fortune article on the “tough new downsized world” also described developing “competencies” as an outsourced employee’s only mode of survival. “Very soon, half the work force of the developed world will be outside the organization,” Carla Rapaport wrote. “The future prosperity of all of us will depend on their competencies and their education, yet no one seems to be noticing or caring. If workers don’t continually develop and update their skills, not only will they be of no use to the organization but, worse, they will be a growing burden to the rest of us.” (Here, Rapaport uses “skills” as well, but her emphasis is on competencies.)
“Skills,” then, seems clearly preferable to “competencies,” especially since the value that the latter term supposedly adds–social, intellectual, and emotional traits, especially of “leadership,” creativity, or collaboration–are clearly also skills. “Skills,” moreover, may be required for a job, but carpentry, cooking, arithmetic, or writing are portable–you get to take them home. “Competencies,” however, belong to your boss.