Understanding Proficiencies in a skills-based organization

The proficiency levels within the role also play an important part in defining our capabilities. For example: Two salespersons, programmers or writers may have different levels of proficiencies, even though they might do the same job and have the same skills. To understand the concept, let us consider the simple example of proficiency with regard to language. We know that the proficiency levels of different people who know the same languages can be different. My proficiency level in English is considered high— I can speak and write well in English. The same is not true of my proficiency level in my mother tongue, Tamil. I would say my proficiency level is just about average. I can read with some difficulty, but I cannot write in Tamil.

The connection between Capability and Proficiency

Proficiencies have many connotations. From how we have defined career, that is capabilities development, we can set one of our aims in career development and keep improving our proficiencies. From another angle, we are rewarded better when our proficiencies are shaped and sharpened or higher than that of other comparable professionals with similar skills. Our aim and constant effort should be to develop or enhance our proficiency, both for internal fulfillment and for better recognition.

Thus, when we identify the skills in which we have capabilities, we must also define our proficiency levels in these skills. This will help us in knowing where we stand today and what it takes to reach a higher level of proficiency. Developing our proficiency is part of the general learning process.

We need to have a better understanding of proficiency. In simple terms, proficiency means our ability to do things well. We will gradually build on this simple definition as we move forward.

Defining a scale for proficiency

In order to indicate how well we are doing things, we need to have a scale. Let me propose measures of our capabilities on certain scales. If we were to describe the physique of a person, we use some measures, such as height, weight, complexion, and shape. Let us note that the first two are easily measurable, and thus, objective. The latter two are also scales, but the measures are subjective. We may say that a person is beautiful.  However, different people can perceive beauty differently. Nevertheless, complexion is a scale.

We need scales to measure capabilities even if they are not quantifiable. Thus, when we say a person is more proficient than another, we mean that capabilities of the former are higher than the latter. We will now discuss and arrive at some scales we can use for capabilities.

Let us begin with the analysis of two individuals who have been solving Sudoku puzzles over a period, say months. We want to judge who is the more proficient of the two. We would infer that one is more proficient if they are able to solve more complex puzzles than the other. As people become more proficient, they are able to handle more complex problems or environments of work.

Why do we say the level of complexity varies? The simplest case is the quantum of information. For a student, any unit or midterm test will be less complex than the annual exam. For the annual exam, the student has to learn all that has been taught or covered in a year, whereas in the unit or a midterm test only a part of the portion is covered. The complexity is due to the higher number of chapters that one needs to revise the annual exam.

Let us take the case of the Sudoku puzzle. Why are some puzzles harder and some easier? Isn’t it because a lot more information is revealed, in the case of the latter, as compared to the former? Therefore, we can say that the extent of availability of information is a factor to assess the level of complexity.

When more information is available, then complexity is lesser compared to a situation when little or no information is available. If I have access to information about all my employees, then making decisions related to them becomes a lot easier compared to a situation when very little information is available.

Another dimension of complexity – Interdependencies:

Crosswords are interesting and unique as they test our knowledge of English. There are other dimensions to it. We need to crack the clue to arrive at words, which are of a certain length and also have certain alphabets in common, with the intersecting word or the opposite direction (across or down). Therefore, apart from English, we also have other variables to consider. Let us say that we have two clues—one full of anagrams, the other a mix of clues that pertain to anagram or cryptic and others. This is likely to be more complex because the number of variables that one will have to process is higher. So, what we have is a set of crossword puzzles of varying levels of complexity arising from different variables.

Kids and adults try hard to solve the Rubik’s cube and get uniform color squares on each of the six faces of the cube. It is indeed a very difficult puzzle. Is it more difficult than Sudoku? Probably Yes, but Why? The number of variables and the  dependencies between the variables is high. When you change one column in one direction, changes happen in a column you had set earlier. Thus, there is one more dimension of complexity: interdependence of variables. When the interdependencies are high, the problem is highly complex.

The 4 dimensions of Complexity:

We see that there are four dimensions of complexity:

  • Quantum of information
  • Availability of information,
  • Number of variables, and,
  • Interdependence of variables.

As the complexity increases, the ability to process information needs to be higher.

Let us take an example to see how these factors affect complexity.

I am arranging a party. Initially I had intended to invite 25 friends, but gradually the number increased to 100. I sent invitations to the 100 but I do not know how many will come; some have confirmed, others have not. I had planned to prepare only South Indian food. However, now I have decided to cook South Indian, North Indian and Chinese food, but I do not know how many of them prefer which. We can see that the whole event has become highly complex.

We can relate the significance of complexity to any of the technical professions. Let us see how a finance (Stock Market) professional goes on to become more and more proficient. Let us assume that he first starts trading in stocks to a value of 1 lakh. He trades in stocks of a particular category; let us say blue chip stocks, which cover say 30 different scripts. Slowly his portfolio increases and soon he is managing a portfolio of 100 crores. Of the same blue chip stocks, but now covers 100 different scripts. Subsequently, he looks beyond blue chips and covers stocks of middle and small companies too. The information he has to process now is far more complex. We can see that the proficiency level of the finance professional has increased gradually. This is what is meant by promotion to a higher responsibility.

Human beings love complexity. It challenges them. They cannot rest at the same level of complexity. Once they become proficient at cracking problems at one level, they want to move to the next level of complexity.

Having understood complexity, we can now say that proficiency is our ability to handle higher levels of complexity.

Now we can revisit the question with which we had started this discussion, i.e. What do we mean by developing our capabilities? Why does the world or market, reward or value capabilities of some people more than that of others? Here is the answer: when we say we want to develop our capabilities, it means that we need to move up the ladder of proficiency in our chosen capabilities.

We all constantly aspire to keep improving our proficiencies. Our development should be a relative measure of our proficiencies at two different points in time rather than a comparison between our proficiency vis-à-vis that of others.

Does the link between complexity and proficiency and resulting development work only for technical capabilities, or does it work for artistic and humanistic capabilities too?

Let’s consider the same question that we had asked when dealing with technical/functional expertise.

  • How do we value one’s capabilities as more valuable than those of others?
  • How do we measure the development in our capabilities?
  • We rate someone who sings complex ragas, which very few can, as better singers. We rate someone who is able to manage a team, consisting of people with different backgrounds and profiles, higher than others.

Thus the issue of complexity-proficiency-capabilities are applicable to all capabilities.


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