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“Prahalad & Hamel’s (1990) theory of ‘core competencies’ suggests that if we focus on a set of key skills we should be able to live and work more effectively.”

This fourth blog of the wellbeing series focuses on the idea of competency and action. 

How able do we feel to live the life we want? 

Or from an organisation’s perspective, how able do you feel as an employee to do your job properly?

This idea first popped up in 1959 when the researcher R. W. White published an article on ‘competence’ as a concept for performance motivation. This led others to think more deeply about executive training, with subsequent ‘pioneering’ programmes focusing on capability enablement rather than intellect. Gradually the thought that a combination of practical skills and behaviours improved performance was accepted and Prahalad & Hamel’s (1990) theory of ‘core competencies’ emerged. In essence it suggested that if we focus on a set of key skills we should be able to live and work more effectively.

So what justifies a competency core and is it the same for everyone?

From a theoretical standpoint they make the business grade if they fulfil three criteria:

  1. They provide potential access to a wide variety of markets – i.e. they promote attitudes of possibility and growth
  2. They contribute significantly to perceived customer benefits – i.e. they are attractive to others 
  3. They are difficult to imitate – i.e. they are differentiating 

These seem logical and if we do a little research into 2014’s top 5 employer core competencies they include initiative & creativity; commercial thinking & judgement; problem solving; action or achievement orientated and teamwork. And if we look as far back as 2005 these competencies are exactly the same. 

So if we are all focusing on the same things and have been for some time, how are we developing in a unique and valuable way?

This week I attended a ‘Game Changer’ conference which shared the story of future mega trends for innovative workforces. Interestingly four speakers explicitly emphasised the same point; that to truly stand out from the crowd, it is time to evolve the standard competencies and focus on vertical development instead of horizontal. Well I thought that sounded exciting but what exactly were they talking about?

Excitedly (from my perspective) they were talking about wellbeing. Many companies express the desire to transform, to change and to develop new ways of working, however they assume this can be achieved on the same set of behaviours. The reality is that if we want to progress the relationship between individuals and business, we as employees also have to change. 

In Yoke’s research we found that ‘competency and action’ was ranked the 6th (out of 7) area that individuals wanted employers help to progress with. This may seem confusing, as don’t we typically look to companies to train us, especially in job related skills? If we dig a little deeper it revealed that actually employees wanted time or financial investment in ‘outside of the box’ competencies that led to greater wellbeing, all of which went beyond the core competency framework. On reflection these included toolkits to improve their mental and emotional resilience; skills that cultivated greater self control; and an enhanced understanding of positive wellbeing habits. Collectively these refer to vertical development, and as Alan Watkins (Complete Coherence) reiterated in the ‘GameChanger’ context, enable humans to take responsibility and grow towards responsiveness rather than reactiveness actions.

So what can we do today?

With this background it’s time to reflect. Take 10 minutes out, in a quite space, and with a pen and paper write down;

a) What your top five skills are today

b) What top five skills you are focusing on developing this year 

c) What your top five goals (in &/or outside of work) are this year

Now sit back and notice if your current and future competencies support your life ambitions. And if not, begin to write down the types of personal and professional skills that you believe would. Then….take responsibility and work within and outside of your company to improve them and take note of the impact it has on your wider quality of life.

Rachel is a leading wellbeing researcher and consultant at Yoke consultancy. If you’re interested in meeting Rachel, make sure to join her at the Health @ Work Summit 2015 in June.


Rachel Arkle is Director of Yoke Consultancy, a leading wellbeing analytics company based in London and Bristol. As an expert in the wellbeing field, Rachel works with UK companies to help them understand and improve organisational wellbeing, in order to drive workforce and cultural effectiveness.

Rachel has worked with a range of companies from global consultancies to social enterprises in the UK and the US, and with over ten years' management experience, she ensures that her insight always adds value to a business's bottom line. She is completing a pioneering Wellbeing Masters Programme at Bath University, to deepen her expertise in organisational wellbeing.

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