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Building Capability

Your Guide to Defining and Building IT Capability for Performance


IT is hands down the department facing the quickest rate of change, thanks to technological advancements. No fearmongering here: You just need to make sure the infrastructure supporting IT is robust and agile (and that combination is possible). 

We’ll cover it all in this guide, starting with how to create IT capabilities, straight through to a step-by-step process for creating a sustainable IT capability engine. 

What is IT capability?  

IT capability comprises the skills, behaviours, processes, systems and knowledge that an organisation possesses in order to fulfil its mission. These are generally centralised within its information technology department. 

3 steps to define IT capabilities 

As with all things strategic, we need to start with IT’s place in the business.  

Step 1: Define the category 

Let’s kick off with a couple of questions. 

  1. What is the organisation’s mission and values? How does it run? What does it do? 
  2. What is IT’s role in this mission? How does it create value? 

The aim is to distinguish between other business capabilities and those unique to IT’s prerogative. You don’t want to cannibalise or duplicate capabilities from elsewhere in the organisation. 

Step 2: Define the purpose 

On the point of creating unique capabilities, there are a handful of factors to keep in mind. 

  1. Will the capability help achieve long-term strategic goals? If not, it’s added fat. 
  2. Is there market demand or need for the capability? (Self-explanatory.) 
  3. Do you have the right resources (people, equipment, budget) to sustain the capability? Think about IT investments specifically here.  
  4. Is the capability competing with other capabilities in your organisation? Again, you don’t want to double up on existing work. 
  5. Are there any risks associated with building and sustaining the capability? Would it negatively impact your finances or reputation, as examples? 

When you know how critical a capability is, you can name it. 

Step 3: Name the capability 

Given capabilities will prop up job descriptions, performance management, learning and development, and career planning, you need to use universal language to describe them. 

Capabilities generally describe the outcome of their performance. You can go long-tail (e.g. managing and maintaining cloud-based services and infrastructure) or short and sweet (i.e. shared services). 

There are a few IT capability lists out there for inspiration, if you need a foundation to build from. However, there aren’t too many that name and describe each capability, with levels of competency included. So, we’ve done a lot of research to compile a comprehensive list of IT capabilities for you here.  

We’ve also got specialist sets that can touch IT, like management, research and development, and strategy. They’re all free for you to copy, just remember to change wording so it fits your organisation’s brand. 

Strategies for building IT capability 

When it comes to developing IT capability in your organisation, there are a few steps to work through before you reach development. 

That is: 

  1. Winning leadership buy-in 
  2. Getting HR and IT to co-own capability building 
  3. Assessing IT capability gaps 
  4. Assessing IT capability maturity 
  5. Building IT capability 
  6. Tracking progress.  

Engaging leadership  

Leaders across all business units want to know what’s in it for them to really invest in capability building. You need to have a clear idea of what your CIO, CTO and senior IT leaders care most about. Perhaps that’s: 

The point is to understand the business value they are generating, and then work backwards to figure out the gaps you can plug.  

Let’s say you start the argument with the impacts (yes, plural) of an empty bench. Tech leaders have a notoriously challenging job; their function directly drives business operations (through a technology strategy), but keeping plans realistic while matching pace with external technological change is no easy feat. They’re also intimately familiar with your technical architecture, which means hiring externally to fill talent gaps isn’t a sustainable solution. Yet, the longer leadership roles go vacant, the less innovation and strategic execution is going to happen.  

So, it becomes about framing capability building within the KPIs they do care about. Capability building improves individual performance, which increases employee engagement and team effectiveness and enables process improvement, which all drives revenue per employee. (Or at least that’s the story you can tell.) 

Co-ownership between HR and IT  

Aside from securing buy-in from IT leadership, another milestone is scoping project management for building IT capability.  

No single business unit has all the information needed in this process. Human resources know what the overall business objectives are and how to facilitate them through talent. IT leaders have the on-the-ground insight into their talent needs, and champion learning in their teams. L&D, even if they come under HR’s umbrella, can translate that into learning, but that translation is often reactive and transactional.  

Ergo, you need to create co-ownership in the business process of building IT capabilities. It means that every stakeholder knows what they’re responsible for—basically, still the above, but in harmony, not silos. 

That way, you’ve got project owners for championing learning, designing learning, and addressing business needs. 

Understanding IT capability gaps

Now we have the key players, we can start to etch out the landscape. And by that, we mean the gap between the full potential of your IT capability model or framework and the reality of what IT capabilities are available to you. 

Keep a few questions in mind when starting capability assessments

  1. Do your capabilities drive or contribute to competitive advantage? 
  2. Do you have the IT talent necessary to compete? 
  3. What capabilities are you going to need in future? 

There are a few methods for assessing capability gaps. The first is the self-assessment, where employees evaluate their own level of competency or capacity to perform a capability. This best paired with a manager assessment—which evaluates the employee from the manager’s perspective—to create a fully informed picture of individual capability. Subject matter expert assessments can also be used for specialist capability sets, but should always be done alongside one or both of the other assessments. 

Assessment is done on a sliding scale. For example, if we’re assessing the capability of maintaining IT security and compliance, then the criteria need to follow a logical spectrum of progression. 

The outcome should be a report that outlines areas for improvement, aka the gaps between current capability and where you need it to be. 

Assessing IT capability maturity  

Capability assessments and gap analyses are what allow you to do capability mapping. This is generally a measure of the maturity of business capability building across the board. 

That’s because you want to know what’s most critical to develop, based on what drives the most business value but is most at risk of extinction in your organisation.  

Another way to assess maturity is on a five-point scale

  1. Initial: Performance is unpredictable and reactive. 
  2. Managed: Performance is managed project to project. 
  3. Defined: Performance is proactively managed through org-wide guidelines. 
  4. Qualitatively managed: Performance KPIs are aligned with business processes and objectives. 
  5. Optimised: Agility is achieved through continuous improvement and talent stability. 

Using the outcomes of gap assessments, you can start to build a heat map of capability maturity. It’s an important part of tracking progress given you can identify areas of weakness or even redundancies—but more on that later. 

Methods to build IT capability

You don’t need to reinvent the L&D wheel to build information technology capability. You just need to better align learning activities with capability needs. 

An easy win is to design immediate learning interventions. That could be: 

Remember to bring everything back to performance and business requirements. What is going to have the most immediate impact for employees, and therefore IT leaders? 

Tracking progress 

Let’s refer back to continuous improvement, as mentioned under “assessing capability maturity”. A truly optimised capability building function is always seeking innovation and tracking progress. If you’re not doing that, you’re leaving cracks for things to slip through. 

Re-assessments are your best course of action here, given we’re assessing the ongoing health of capability and strength of capability building methods.  

Let’s break it down by each purpose. 

To understand IT capability in real-time, you need to place capability assessments at key points of the development process. 

And then on understanding the strength of methods to build capability, you can look to: 

Key takeaways 

Given technology changes fast, there’s no business function that needs a continual capability-building process as much as IT. 

It needn’t be an insurmountable mountain, though. Embedding capability building follows a rather simple, data-driven process. 

  1. Start by engaging leaders. Understand what their pain points are and how those impact their KPIs, and you’ll be speaking their language. 
  2. Establish a co-owned approach. Share the capability load between IT, HR and L&D so you’re covering all bases. 
  3. Identify the baseline for IT capability with gap assessments. 
  4. Evaluate the maturity of existing capabilities to know what’s most critical develop first. 
  5. Create immediate learning interventions to demonstrate value and kick off long-term capability building. 
  6. Seek continuous improvement by consistently reviewing capability building methodology. 

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