5 Must-Haves for Viable Capability Frameworks

If you’re an HR professional working in government, chances are that you’ve encountered a capability framework. Capability frameworks are prevalent in government HRM (human resource management) owing to their value in hiring, managing performance and planning for organisation-wide evolution. This paper looks at their origins, value and the features shared by the best capability frameworks with the aim of providing you with a definitive list of the 5 must-haves that a capability framework needs to be viable.

There are numerous capability frameworks on the market, used in government and business senior leadership recruitment and other areas. Some are “tick the box” configured more around risk aversion than seeking the most suitable candidates or unlocking human performance.

A well-designed capability framework should (1) be scalable, applicable to all or most roles within an organisation. It should (2) encompass knowledge, personality traits and jobs needed in the future, projecting for necessary and transferable skills that benefit at the personal level as well as industries and economies.  A capability framework should (3) be easy to interpret, not requiring a behavioural psychologist’s interpretation. It should (4) be user-friendly and (5) cost-effective. 

Software companies have devised bespoke frameworks offering capabilities more granular in gauging people’s skill levels, experience and – importantly – potential. Provided that these capability frameworks specify the most appropriate elements and sets of skills for their context, they are closing the gap towards unlocking Thomas Edison’s “if we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves”.

Capability Frameworks: Origin & Purpose

What’s the most reliable job-fit tool when recruiting? The golden gut? Psychometric tests? Diverse interview panels? CV-scanning software? Capability frameworks? 

As distinct from the capabilities sought by engineering metrics, software architecture or military resource deployment, capability in HR is generally defined as an attribute, skill, knowledge, power or ability that contributes to a person’s effectiveness. Some organisations divide capabilities into “I know” (cognitive), “I am” (behavioural) and “I do” (skills required by a role). Capabilities were first referenced in 1979 by Nobel prizewinning economist Amartya Sen.

In 1990, Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad came up with core competencies; these are narrower than capabilities, specifying degrees of skill required for tasks. Competencies form the base of any professional role but are suited to stable work environments where circumstances are familiar. Along with capabilities, competencies began filling management and HR lexicons for the next decade.

Capability reviews were utilised in the UK’s whole-of-government reforms in 2005 as part of the Blair Government’s bid for re-election. Capability frameworks were adopted by the Australian public service in 2011 following a wide-ranging review by Terry Moran, then Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. 

Capability frameworks purportedly give “clarity about how to do your work”. Capabilities are predicated around organisational expertise (based on the sum of its parts) combined with the organisation’s systems, tools, processes and frameworks used to achieve results. HR managers use them to inform learning and development strategies, or to observe workforce. 

A criticism of capability frameworks was that they did not necessarily gauge the extent of people’s aptitude, other than matching ostensible skillsets to the template skills required for the roles they were filling. Consequently, when organisations were restructuring, existing workforce could be overlooked for new functions.

In 1997, organisational economist David Teece with his colleagues Gary Pisano and Amy Shuen coined dynamic capabilities, evolving them from static categories into a “firm’s ability to integrate, build and reconfigure internal and external resources (people, strategies) to address and shape rapidly changing business environments”.

Subsequent debate did not resolve whether dynamic capabilities were concerned with fuelling businesses’ competitive advantage or shifting goalposts on recruitment best practice. Teece attempted to address these questions in 2007 by disaggregating dynamic capabilities into components, but the ways they effect change can remain latent (although often brought to the fore by external imperatives).

With widespread career and industry disruption an undeniable result of the increasing automation of jobs and society’s digital literacy needs, capability is now viewed as the combination of skills, knowledge, values and self-esteem which enables individuals to manage change, be flexible and move beyond competency. It’s a definition with strong implications for organisations’ longevity as they adapt to complex economic and global volatility in the 2020s.

The need to quantify performance

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”. If so, this adage has not deterred management theorists eager for buzzy ways to enable improved workforce planning and the quantifying of higher performance. 

In any case, pesky intangibles such as employee job-fit, engagement, aptitude and motivation require heuristics that go beyond pay grades, impressive job titles and… existing capability frameworks.

Capability frameworks provide a consistent structure against which an organisation can assess and rank additions to their workforce and internal human resources on the basis of knowledge, skills and abilities needed to perform specific roles across all levels of an organisation, in order to achieve its goals. Internally, a capability framework clarifies how roles relate to each other in team hierarchies, and helps establish necessary objectivity of why and how each person is contributing to an organisation’s goals and outcomes. Multiplied across workforce and properly harnessed, these skillsets and knowledge become organisational capabilities that “emerge when a company delivers on the combined competencies and abilities of its individuals”. 

“Quantitative measures of performance are tools, and are undoubtedly useful. But research indicates that indiscriminate use and undue confidence and reliance in them result from insufficient knowledge of the full effects and consequences.” 

V. F. Ridgway was cautioning against the overuse of measurement in people’s work performance, but nearly 70 years later, rankings and measurables remain continuing predictors of individual and organisational success. What does a capability framework offer that other corporate divination methods cannot? They are essentially a matrix which, based on a person’s measurable responses and examples, allows decision-makers to place that person within an organisational context. Seen in aggregate, capability frameworks “put(s) (an organisation) in a stronger position to anticipate needs and ignite every position’s purpose. They also boost your (organisation’s) ability to attract, develop and retain great talent”. 

The drawback is that some frameworks are designed more around compliance than unearthing suitable candidates. This can be attributed to government organisations’ endemic risk aversion. Even if a qualified candidate makes it to the shortlist, there’s seldom any guarantee that interviewers’ affinity bias won’t kick in, once the requisite boxes are ticked. 

Typical capability frameworks

Anyone who has applied for a role in government departments is familiar with addressing multiple capabilities selected from the full list of their capability framework (frequently containing upwards of 20 capabilities). These are sorted into several broad capability groups, such as this one used by the NSW Public Sector, which (excluding capabilities for managers, has 16 core capabilities organised into four groups: 

  1. Personal Attributes
  2. Relationships
  3. Results
  4. Business Enablers

Each capability has up to 5 levels of work complexity: 

  1. Foundational 
  2. Intermediate 
  3. Adept 
  4. Advanced 
  5. Highly Advanced

Assessors usually require role applicants to list pertinent recent examples where they demonstrated a particular quality or skill. Some capabilities are occupation-specific (specialised capabilities for professional, technical or trade-type roles). 

There are variations on the above, but these capabilities form the frameworks’ “common language” and measurables, particularly among governments and non-government organisations. 

Whether capability frameworks sufficiently measure a person’s aptitude (let alone accurately forecasting their potential) remains debatable. Certainly by 2030, more jobs will require transferable technological, emotional and social skills and fluency, which means that capability frameworks need to offer more.

The 5 must-haves in capability frameworks

There is always talk about skills gaps and problems with retention; yet insufficient attention paid to purposeful up-skilling (beyond training compliance) and equipping workers with attributes that enhance their potential. AI is increasingly stepping into the breach with performance management systems, personalised learning and skills platforms that allow quicker decisions, collaborations and virtual learning. AI is already ubiquitous in recruitment but sometimes eliminates the best people, owing to faults in algorithmic programming.

Because capabilities are critical in the evaluation of individuals and teams, high-functioning capability frameworks demonstrate five criteria. 

A well-designed capability framework should be:

  1. Scalable: Applicable across all roles, not just management;
  2. Enduring: Encompassing jobs we’ll see in five-ten years’ time – aligning with where an organisation’s heading); 
  3. Interpretable: Easy to understand and interpret, not requiring an organisational psychologist’s input;
  4. Intuitive: User-friendly (ie. intuitive, no training required, readily plugging into the capabilities that an organisation needs; and
  5. Cost effective: for the small business or organisation numbering less than 50 employees.

As yet, very few online platforms have the capacity to evaluate candidates’ aptitude quotients against the frameworks currently in use. However, by leveraging governments’ capability groupings, there is now commercially-available technology that delves more deeply into what a person can offer, identifying their true “fit” within an organisation. These capability frameworks objectively measure a person’s potential beyond the position advertised and are proving a valuable stimulus to employee motivation and direction.  Moreover, a software’s broader range of articulated capabilities can still align with an organisation’s values. Best of all, it prepares staff for the vagaries of career life during periods of considerable transformation. 

Unlocking Human Performance

Humans can’t resist quantification to gauge an asset, process or person. Years ago, this was synonymous with reducing people to expendable units in their economy’s production processes. Management guru Peter Drucker was skeptical that knowledge work could be measured the way manual work could: “One cannot tell a knowledge worker in a few simple words whether he (sic) is doing the right job and how well he is doing it.” Drucker did however believe that knowledge workers could be helped towards effectiveness, but not through micromanagement.

A caution sounded in the Harvard Business Review also holds true: “when an organization falls below the norm in any of (its identified) capabilities, dysfunction and competitive disadvantage will likely ensue”. In recommending capability audits, the article’s authors were concerned that leaders would focus on “what is easy to measure instead of what is in greatest need of repair” (ie. concrete activities rather than the capabilities to which further training could be directed).

Given that knowledge work is here to stay, maybe we should ask whether capabilities can be further quantified to drive human performance?

The answer for organisations continues to be yes, but society increasingly has the tools and understanding to do it better. A broader palette of capabilities, together with tech, has made considerable inroads in measuring – if not knowledge work – the conditions that enable the proliferation of knowledge. 

The good news is that there are capability frameworks combined with psychometric assessments that don’t simply pigeonhole a person, they map and project genuine possibilities. Well utilised during an individual’s career or organisation’s development trajectory, such frameworks measure for ongoing discovery and could indeed prove astounding.

This paper looked at the origins, value and key features shared by the best capability frameworks. It is our hope you now have the tools to confidently rank and review the capability frameworks in the market and apply these learnings to unlocking human performance and creating a happier, more fulfilled, workforce.

Interested in learning more about the AbilityMap Capability Framework? Click the link below to download the overview.

AbilityMap Capability Framework


  1. https://iep.utm.edu/sen-cap/
  2. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4624667
  3. https://www.anzsog.edu.au/preview-documents/research-output/5342-capability-reviews-of-australian-government-departments-2010-2013/file
  4. This quote is incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein, but reportedly it was American sociologist William Bruce Cameron, in 1963.
  5. https://hbr.org/2004/06/capitalizing-on-capabilities
  6. V. F. Ridgway, “Dysfunctional Consequences of Performance Measurements”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Sept 1956), p. 240.
  7. https://ins.com.au/capability-frameworks/
  8. https://www.psc.nsw.gov.au/workforce-management/capability-framework/the-capability-framework
  9. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/the-next-normal/capability-building
  10. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/may/11/artitifical-intelligence-job-applications-screen-robot-recruiters
  11. Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive, 1966
  12. https://hbr.org/2004/06/capitalizing-on-capabilities
  13. Ibid.

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