Combatting Capability Decay
The loss of revenue is one of the most obvious impacts we have seen in our businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, during lockdown there has also been quieter loss from our organisations: capability.
What is capability?
Capability is the extent of an ability to achieve a particular outcome. It comprises different elements, including: knowledge, skills, mindset and physiology.
- Knowledge is the internally memorised information required to complete a task. It is derived from learning, either active in the form of training or passive through having direct exposure.
- Skills are practised techniques that enable the achievement of an outcome. These skills can be viewed as cognitive (considering ideas), technical (doing things) or interpersonal (relating to people).
- Mindset is the mental aspect that enables skills and knowledge to become action. It comprises three distinct elements: emotional (how we feel about something); cognitive (how we think about something); and behavioural (how we react to something).
- Physiology is the physical aspect required to translate knowledge, skills and mindset into action. It comprises mental (intelligence) and physical (manual dexterity, health and wellbeing).
Why does capability matter?
Recruitment does not seek to simply hire empty vessels; our hiring decisions aim to bring to our organisations the key capabilities that we need to achieve our business objectives. From a workforce planning perspective, it becomes more than simply headcount numbers and is much more focused in achieving the right mix of capabilities within the organisation. When we implement learning and development initiatives, they do not create new people, they grow capabilities that we will come to rely upon over the coming years. When we think of people purely as numbers, we see them as a cost to manage; when we see people as capabilities, then we begin to recognise their value as assets that provide leverage in the marketplace.
What is capability decay?
Capability decay, more often known as skill fade, is the decline in capability over time through lack of use; a dripping tap that slowly drains value away from the organisation. The half-life of a learned skill is five years; this means that we can expect to have forgotten at least half of a skill if not practised within a five-year period. However, such decay happens rapidly and significantly; one comprehensive study found that such decay took place as soon as one day after non-use or non-practise and performance after a year was reduced by almost a full standard deviation. Research has indicated consistencies in the impact of capability decay:
- Overlearning, where training has gone beyond the basic proficiency requirements, is a key factor in the retention of skills and knowledge. Greater focus on the subject matter embeds capability to a much greater degree and reduces the rate of decay.  This means that where there are high levels of learning and development, capabilities will not decay as fast.
- Closed and open-loop activities are distinguished by those with a fixed sequence (closed), such as working from a checklist or work instruction, and those where there are continuous and repeated responses without a clear start and finish (open), such as problem-solving. Capabilities associated with open-loop activities decay at a much slower rate than closed-loop activities. This means that workers in more entry-level and administrative roles are at a far greater risk of capability decay.
- Physical and mental abilities, different aspects of our physiology, decay at different rates. Physical capabilities, based on manual dexterity and muscle memory, such as manual labour, suffer slower decay than mental capabilities for tasks requiring cognitive dexterity, such as problem-solving.3
- Speed and accuracy are vital components of productivity. Capability decay is over three times higher on the accuracy in completing tasks than it is on the speed to complete a task.3 So whilst capability decay may not be obvious in the early days, its impact may not be felt for days or weeks.
Why should we be concerned?
The capabilities that organisations had back in March of this year are not what they have today. Of course, many businesses will have lost workers and others will have needed to hire new people. However, even for those who have remained, capabilities across two segments of the workforce will have decayed: those who have been furloughed and those where working practices have changed. Think of the password resets that happen when people return from a week away at Christmas; that will pale into insignificance when compared to the loss of capabilities from those who have been furloughed. Add to this the impact to their mindset and mental wellbeing that will have generated through a loss off purpose and connection, a drop in income and prolonged uncertainty. For those who have been able to continue work, processes may have temporarily changed to accommodate social distancing, remote working and the significant changes in customer requirements. As we look to return either to pre-existing practices, or new ways of working, we face an uphill struggle in bridging that gap between the capabilities we have and what we need to recover from the impact of the pandemic.
What can we do?
Capability decay will be a challenge for all organisations throughout the year, but if we act now then we can both delay and reverse this decline:
- Furlough need not be absent. Providing it does not generate revenue or provide a service for the business, those on furlough can still undertake training. Which activities have not changed that can be refreshed and overlearnt? Create training for activities that have changed and upskill your furloughed staff. At a minimum, be more proactive at a first-line manager level in connecting and interacting with those on furlough. Out of sight need not be out of mind.
- Forecast the gap. Look at the range of activities that you conduct and identify those where capability decay is most likely. Which carry the greatest risk to your reputation? Where has the greatest impact on revenue and customers? Though budgets will be under considerable pressure, focus on those areas that will be critical to operational recovery.
- It’s not only about 2020. Business survival under the current conditions is vital, but would you really expend this amount of energy on recovery if you genuinely expect the business to fold at Christmas? Work under and assumption that you will survive and thrive and ensure you have an eye to the future. What capabilities will you need next year and in the coming years to ensure success?
 Matthews, P (2014) Capability at Work: How to solve the performance puzzle, Three Faces Publishing, Milton Keynes
 Thomas, D & Seely Brown, J (2011) A New Culture of Learning, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, South Carolina
 Arthur, W, Bennett, W, Stanush, P L & McNelly, T L (1998) Factors that influence skill decay and retention: A quantitative review and analysis, Human Performance, 11 (1), pp 57-101
 Farr, M J (1987) The long-term retention of knowledge and skills: A cognitive and instructional perspective, Springer-Verlag, New York
 Schendel, J D, & Hagman, J D (1982) On sustaining procedural skills over a prolonged retention interval, Journal of Applied Psychology, 67 (5), pp 605-610
 Childs, J M & Spears, W D (1986) Flight-skill decay and recurrent training, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 62 (1), pp 235-242
This article originally published in August 2020 by Blue Arrow
Adam Gibson is a global leader in Workforce Planning, creator of the Agile Workforce Planning methodology and a popular keynote speaker. He has successfully implemented and transformed workforce planning and people analytics in businesses across both the public and private sector. As a consultant, he advises company executives on how to create a sustainable workforce that increases productivity and reduces cost; he is also the head of CIPD's workforce planning faculty.