Improving the Effectiveness of Capabilities in EU Conflict Intervention
Project methodology: What is a capability?

Project methodology: What is a capability?


We have just completed a fantastic couple of days on the beautiful island of Santahamina (near Helsinki in Finland), working through the issues involved in developing a robust methodology for the IECEU project. There are many challenges in a process like this particularly ensuring that the method is robust, broadly accepted by partners with different perspectives, and maintains a clear focus on the project deliverables. I am glad to report we made great progress. The emerging approach emerging will be reviewed in several cycles by partners, the Steering Committee, and the Advisory board over the coming months.

Over the years I have been involved in many projects of different types and there is a consistent pattern that emerges. Things that we seem to disagree about are often just a gap in shared understanding. On the flip side things that are assumed to be obvious or known, turn out to be difficult to specify or define. The latter is a particular issue when we have to communicate and idea, such as a methodology, to others (in this case field researchers) to put them into use. To use the Anglicised form of Laberius’ proverb, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.

To address this risk we expend significant effort examining and defining terms and concepts. We addressed many of these over the past few days, as we worked to gain a common understanding of success, effectiveness, efficiency, what we meant by levels in analysis, and how to capture perspectives. All of these will emerge in the project deliverables that set the scene for the project, in the case studies that we present, and most importantly in the analysis we do later on. Getting clarity at this stage can make for much better outcomes as we conclude the project.

One of the terms that we use, but haven’t really bottomed out yet, is capability. At a superficial level it is quite easy to grasp. It has a root in ability and it represents some aspect of an organisations ability to achieve an outcome. Conversely absence of a capability could be seen as a barrier to achievement or effectiveness. It is an important concept and so we will consider various ways of defining it.

What follows is my own thought process – which may or may not be part of the approach we use, but we need to explore, explain, and discuss these things before we can decide. My background expertise is in organisation and strategic leadership and so my initial thoughts move to those fields in the first instance. Capability has become an important concept in these fields over the past few decades. They have become a tool to help think through strategy from the inside out. A more traditional approach to strategy was initially drawn from the military perspective and latterly from the perspective of Industrial Organisation economics (built largely on the work of Porter, 1980) and it tackles strategy from the outside in. That is, figure out what success will look like in your environment (outside), and then design the organisation (inside) to deliver that. Industry did well following this approach for a time, but increases in the velocity of change and depth of complexity we faced made it more difficult if not impossible to predict future success factors, and so complementary approach was needed. The approach that emerged became popularized as the Resource Based View (built on the work of Penrose, 1959; Wernerfelt, 1984; and popularised by Prahalad, 1980).

It is not a total translation I am thinking of here. RBV is a tool of competitive strategy, and despite the popular attraction of translating business approaches to public service activities in the form of New Public Management, RBV does not have a simple analog in Conflict Intervention. It does however provide a really useful exploration of capabilities and their relationship to resources and competences [see the note below on the interchangeable use of these terms].

Following the RBV approach resources, when deployed through competences, provide capabilities; the capabilities (if they are the right ones) deliver on success factors.

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Resources in this context are assets under the effective control of the organisation that can be used to further outcomes and these resources can be either tangible or intangible. It is not always immediately obvious the difference between a resource and a competence, so sometimes I find the mental exercise of replacing the term “resource” with “capital asset” helps clarify things. For example fitness might be a human capital asset, but exercise is more clearly a process activity and so is a competence. Also note how a competence can be used to improve a resource.

In summary we can categorise resources as follows:

  • Physical resources: Buildings, equipment, tools, weapons, etc.
  • Financial resources: Cash, budget commitments, or other instruments that are liquid.
  • Technological resources: Computers, software, networks, databases, communications systems, satellites, etc.
  • Human resources: Physical, intellectual, and emotional.
  • Social resources: Relationships, networks, trust, norms, friendships, and reputation.
  • Organisational resources: Information, systems (formal and informal), procedures, structures, management know-how, culture, organizational relationships (e.g. alliances), etc.

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Resources in of themselves do not typically do anything. They are not purposeful, at least not until we develop true self-initiating artificial intelligence. To address an objective, an outcome, or a success factor, we need to put the resources to work through their deployment with competences. Competences have a performative or transformational characteristic to them and utilise a resource or more commonly a set of resources to cause a change. They are activities that the organisation performs with some proficiency, and importantly, is repeatable and reliable – in other words routinised. Getting lucky once at delivering an outcome cannot be considered a capability; certainly not in any sustainable sense. Therefore we look for activities in terms of identifiable processes that are known either tacitly or explicitly, and that can repeatedly deploy resources when required for the purpose of causing defined outcomes. Typically we look for organizational competences in socially complex routines that are applied to transform inputs (resources) into outputs (achievements) (see Collis, 1994). We can assess the capability (resource deployed by competence) in terms of the efficiency with which the competence achieves the transformation, and the effectiveness with which the achievement aligns with the desired outcomes.

If we were digging holes in the ground the analysis might be relatively straight forward. If we have resources of structurally sound soil, an excavation machine, and a trained operator, we simply put an established routine into action where the operator follows a well defined process and efficiently opens up the earth.

Human systems, societies, and even more so societies in conflict are more challenging. In situations of substantial conflict, there is no static capability (set of resources and competences) that can be applied to all situations. The desired outcomes are multifaceted, temporal, and highly contextual. The EU therefore recognises that the desired outcomes are not isolated components, but rather part of a comprehensive system, and so require a comprehensive approach; which in turn requires comprehensive capabilities.

So what might a comprehensive capability look like? We might think of it at three levels. The first is at a static level where established competences deploy stable assets. These are capabilities that deliver objectives that are known and understood in advance. As a mission deploys such capabilities include those required to deliver basic functions such as security of personnel and communications. To progress it is then necessary to move to higher order objectives, such as alliance objectives to build relationships with key host state institutions; capacity building objectives such as up skilling of institutional staff, establishment of systems, and culture change; and impact objectives such as a reduction in violent attacks. What becomes clear when we address these levels of objectives is that the capabilities required become more comprehensive as we move through them. They requirements become more opaque, the stakeholder networks grow, and the challenges become and less amenable to standardised responses. Responses must be carefully timed, effectiveness has a path depencency, relationships are fragile, contextual sensitivity is essential, and the situation is constantly changing in ways that are often only identifiable by those close to it.

As we move to higher order objectives we move from relatively static and deconstructable objectives (establish a secure base facility) to more comprehensive and dynamic objectives such as institution building where new staff, cultures and process are needed in culturally sensitive, contextually shaped and evolving circumstance. Here advance prediction is difficult if not impossible and responses are time sensitive. These dynamic challenges require dynamic rather than static capabilities. Dynamic capabilities are the ability to learn, adapt, and renew resource and competences over time and in response to needs. Finally, at the highest level of objective we need to develop meta level capabilities where we can gain insights into our own capabilities (both static and dynamic) and the contexts and objectives within which we operate. This level brings with it a requirement for reflectiveness and creativity where we learn new ways of learning and improving.

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In summary we will try to think about:

  • Static capabilities
    • Known configurations of resources and competences
    • The capabilities to achieve well specified outcomes within understood contexts
  • Dynamic capabilities
    • Improving existing resources and competences
    • The ability to learn, adapt and improve capabilities over time and in the face of changing circumstances
  • Creative (meta) capabilities
    • Create innovative solutions to higher order challenges
    • The ability to learn how to learn, reimagine capabilities and reframe challenges


Note on terms: One of the problems that occurs as fields emerge is that terms are often given different meaning by different authors. RBV and its popularisation in practitioner literature as core competence, suffers from an acute issue with competence and capability and their meaning used interchangeably. In this post I follow the guide of Johnson, Scholes and Whittington (2008) to define resources and competences as components of capability.

Disclaimer: This post provides personal reflections. It does not represent the views of the IECEU Consortium, its members, the EU or its institutions.

Professor Robert Galavan holds the Chair in Strategic Leadership at the School of Business in Maynooth University and is co-founder and Joint Academic Director of the Edward M Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention.