facebook Skip to main content



Building Capability

Capability vs. Ability: What is the Difference?


Developing your workforce to drive business success means you’ll start to see a lot of similar words thrown around: Skill, proficiency, competence, ability, capability. It can be easy to mix them up and misunderstand what ability refers to in comparison with capability.

When it comes to ability and capability, these two words are not terms you can use interchangeably. In this blog we’ll discuss the differences that create a distinction between both ability and capability, and take a look at methods to build expertise in your crucial capabilities.

What is ability?

Ability refers to being able to do something that is typically innate (for example, verbal communication). Where that differs from, say, a skill, is that skills are generally learned in order to perform a certain task to a certain standard. These could be leadership or marketing skills.

What is a capability?

At their core, a capability is the mix of skills (both technical and soft), knowledge, tools, processes and behaviours that combine to deliver organisational objectives. Capabilities can be job-specific (also known as functional or human capabilities) or organisational (also known as business capability).

What makes abilities and capabilities different?

Ability and capability differ from each other in three major ways.

  1. Scope
  2. Long- vs. short-term strategy
  3. Context.

Let’s dive into these in more detail.


Capabilities cover a wide range of attributes, such as knowledge, skills, tools, processes and behaviours. They also include abilities. Overall, a capability is a comprehensive set of resources that individuals and organisations can utilise to achieve specific objectives, but an ability is only a small aspect that makes up a capability, and therefore has a smaller scope in the big picture.

But this isn’t to say that ability is useless. By honing and aligning individual ability with capabilities and business goals, you enhance your capability and elevate business success.

Long- vs. short-term strategy

Think of ability and capability as having individual vs. collective use cases. Ability focuses more on the individual’s competence (which is how capable or proficient someone is at performing a task). They can be developed in the short term, honing in on individual talent.

Capability can be both individual and strategic, meaning capability encompasses the potential of the entire organisation and drives business impact. So, capabilities are always developed as a long-term strategy, as they’re crucial for organisational success and performance. Capability development is needed to drive incremental change in employee’s behaviours over time to drive organisational transformation.


As abilities tend to be innate or inherent, they remain largely the same over time (though worth noting this doesn’t mean they can’t be honed, they’re just not subject to the dynamic shifts capabilities are). Capabilities, however, are context-specific, acquired and developed through learning, training, and experience. They vary depending on the situation or task at hand.

Let’s take verbal communication, for example. Over time, you can get better at communicating as an ability, but communication is just one aspect of a variety of specific leadership capabilities. For example, the kind of communication required for a conflict management capability is different to the communication style required of coaching and mentoring.

How to develop capabilities in the workplace

The best way to develop capabilities in the workplace depends on several factors, including your business goals, industry, and the specific business function. Some examples of methods you can use to build capability in your organisation include:

Invest in a knowledge management system

When we talk about a knowledge management system, we’re referring to a software tool used to organise documentation and information in an accessible location for employees. You might think of a traditional learning management system (LMS) here, and you’d be right. An LMS stores and manages learning content and measures learning completion.

But to really make sure your capability building initiatives are working, you need to measure how individuals perform after training is complete. This is why we pioneered the first performance learning management system (PLMS) here at Acorn. A PLMS codifies and operationalises core capabilities to improve organisational efficiency and performance.

It combines the learning content management of legacy LMSs with performance measurement, so you can track how your capability development impacts business success.

On-the-job training

You can get employees to sit through formal training exercises, but you can also allow them to learn in the flow of work. In other words: On-the-job training. It’s a hands-on method of teaching the skills, tools, processes, behaviour and knowledge needed for a specific role. On-the-job training is helpful because not only does it provide teaching in a relevant area, but it also offers the opportunity to practice that expertise, which provides context for L&D overall.

Because on-the-job training occurs, well, on the job, you can do away with additional costs in travel, guest speakers, conferences, and days off work. It’s a useful way to build capability because:

On-the-job training comes in several forms. The most common types are coaching and mentoring, which allow for immediate training in terms of reinforcing desired behaviours and correcting mistakes.

Formal and informal coaching

There are two types of coaching you can use to build organisational capability: Formal and informal coaching. They allow the coachee to spend time with a more experienced coach, who is able to nudge the coachee in the right direction, improving their decision-making independence, communication, and collaboration skills. Down the road, this leads to increased productivity, satisfaction and performance of capabilities.

  1. Formal coaching involves the coach and coachee engaging in a structured relationship with dedicated learning outcomes. This type of coaching has a set period from beginning to end, with conversations and meetings usually occurring at scheduled times.  
  2. Informal coaching is less structured. It has no scheduled appointment times or specific start and end dates, instead occurring in everyday conversations or interactions.


Mentoring is a mutually beneficial relationship between two people that is similar to coaching, in that the mentor is skilled in specific areas of knowledge that the less-experienced mentee is seeking advice and guidance on. You might think there’s little difference between the two, but coaching is more about pushing the less-experienced person to build their knowledge and aptitude themselves, while mentoring is about imparting knowledge for professional development.


  1. Builds a feedback loop between mentor and mentee
  2. Attracts talent & helps retain high performers
  3. Provides clarity for career goals
  4. Builds employee capabilities.

Formal internal courses

This is probably the most obvious thing that springs to mind when you think of training: A classroom-like environment where an educator or guest speaker addresses the class and imparts knowledge. These learning environments can be ongoing or one-time, and make it easier to train employees in certain capabilities that are essential knowledge for multiple roles, decreasing time to proficiency.

It’s especially helpful if you have multiple employees who need the same training at once. For example, say you’ve got a group of new or emerging leaders, and you want to build their leadership capability. You can use an internal course to roll out uniform leadership training so you’ll have a group of employees with equal leadership capacity ready for your succession planning. The classroom situation also allows them to take advantage of social learning, where they can validate concepts and thinking with one another and build collaboration and problem solving skills.

Of course, even if you’re using a one-time internal course, you can’t just leave it there. As we said, capability development is a long-term investment. A one-time internal course is essential for getting a foot in the door of capability building, but does still require follow-up to ensure knowledge is retained, rather than lost over time.

Key takeaways

Understanding the distinction between ability and capability is important for your learning and development initiatives. The crucial thing to remember about the two terms is:

Want informative L&D content delivered straight to your inbox?


Share this post!

Related Reads on This Topic

skill vs competency vs capability

Skill vs Capability vs Competency: How to Differentiate the Three 

Skill, capability and competency are all important and essential characteristics of an efficient workforce. Learn how the three differ…

business capability

Understanding Business Capabilities: A Comprehensive Guide

Business capabilities are the key to driving long-term business success. We’ll look at how you can use them to reach your goals…

competency vs capability

Competency vs Capability: What’s the Difference? 

Competency refers to the level of skill towards a task while capability is the capacity to perform a task. While different, both matter in business…