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Quest for Sense

Achieving Organisational Competence

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Anyone who is a business owner or manager nowadays will recognise there is a commodity that is in desperately short supply in South Africa right now.

No. I'm not talking about money - we seemed to have solved that little problem as a nation by running up debt. Credit, and with it money, has been in bountiful supply. So much so that there might be a rather desperate reversal, but let's leave that challenge for another time.

The shortage that I think our nation is suffering from is far more sinister, debilitating and generally bad for medium to long term prospects than something as relatively uncomplicated as money. What we are desperately short of is competence. And it's starting to cost us dear.

You certainly don't have to look far to find evidence, normally packaged in the term "skills shortage." In fact the term "skills shortage" is probably on the verge of becoming the standard disclaimer for lack of performance in numerous press releases - to the point that it may soon overtake "legacy of apartheid" as the touted cause of any particular deficiency in performance.

Let's pause for a moment and take a closer look at what makes up competence. In simple terms, the primary ingredients appear to be training and experience, to the point where theory and practical application are seamlessly understood and applied.

There are some tell-tale signs that give competent people away. One of them is when watching competent people, their work seems easy to them. There is an economy of effort in relation to the results. To the point where we can be easily fooled into think the job they're doing is easy. Well, it is, if you're competent at whatever you are trying to do.

Another is problem solving. The ability to solve a problem that is outside of previous direct experience is a strong pointer towards competence. It demonstrates a strong understanding and application of the underlying principles.

Most important, especially for business owners and managers, the results match the goal. Talk, concept and theory magically becomes reality.

I'd like to make a rather bold suggestion here. I'd like to propose that the greatest asset in your business is competence. The greatest enemy - incompetence.

Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice. (Avedon Carol)
The need for competence applies not only to your staff, but also to organisational competence. An organisation where all activities are consistently in tune with and build on each other seamlessly.

Just to clarify quickly - we are not talk about harmony within the organisation. We are talking about harmony when looking at, or dealing with the organisation as an outsider. In business, what counts here is the experience of your client.

  • Does your client have the experience that is the set goal of the leadership of the company?
  • Do all the parts of the client's experience mesh together?
  • From making the initial enquiry, to placing the order, to receiving the service or product, to experiencing the benefits.

Organisational competence is more than meeting the expectations of the client, it's also meeting the expectations of the organisation's leadership!

  • Is delivery in line with the objectives of the organisation?
  • When the client is handed over from person to person, is the transition seamless?
  • Does dealing with your organisation feel like dealing with a single entity?

Organisational competence is even trickier to achieve than individual competence in a specific skill. Even if you are a one person business, competent in a specific skill, there is no guarantee that you will achieve organisational competence. This is because business competence requires a basket of skills. Our single specific skill tends to compensate for inadequacies elsewhere, which keeps most of us viable, rather than wholly competent.

One area where organisational competence can be clearly measured and understood is in government. Here there is no shortage of statements from leaders so the objectives are well known. Ideally, these objectives should integrate and support each other. And, with organisational competence, should clearly show in our experience of service delivery.

Who'd want to be in government? At least in business we don't have to declare our goals, objectives and standards to our clients. But I recommend that your entire organisation is kept in the loop from time to time, even if that is only you.

Finally, I took a little time to research "Competence" at It makes for an interesting read. Two entries really caught my eye:

Competence (human resources) produces this little gem:
The fundamental problem is that high level competencies such as initiative and the ability to understand and intervene in organizational processes are difficult and demanding activities that no one will engage in unless they very much care about the activity in which they are engaged. Such qualities will, therefore, only be developed and displayed while people are undertaking activities they care about.
Administrative incompetence
Whilst trying to keep this upbeat and focused towards what we should be doing, this next list is useful as warning signs of organisational incompetence:

  • Poor communicator: The manager that has difficulty expressing himself can leave his subordinates confused. Often relies on buzzwords to appear to be communicating.
  • Aloof: The manager that keeps to herself may seem cold and uncaring to subordinates.
  • Inconsistent: Does not apply the same criteria in similar circumstances.
  • Hypocritical: A hypocritical manager applies differing rules in similar circumstances; for example, the manager may apply one set of rules to his or her behaviour, while applying completely different rules to employees in the same situation.
  • Cowardice: Has a poorly performing subordinate, but will not confront employee for fear of conflict.
  • Dereliction of duty: Has a poor performer but gives a good performance review to facilitate the employee's movement to another department.
  • Self-centred: The manager whose self-interest comes first will appear selfish to subordinates. A variation on this is the manager whose chief drive is to curry favour with senior managers at higher levels in the organization.
  • Secretive: While some information cannot be released at certain times or to certain people, this habitually secretive manager withholds information as a way to control people. This can endanger trust.
  • Focused on minutiae: Some managers employ micromanagement, which can irritate employees. Some managers do this from a desire to feel involved; others from a genuine belief their employees are not competent to make decisions themselves.
  • Focused on appearances: When a manager places undue emphasis on the appearance of the workplace, more important priorities can be neglected.
  • Focused on short-term: The manager who is not strategic in his focus can fall victim to the demands of the moment. This 'fire-fighting' style might be appropriate at a crunch time, but can be demoralizing when it becomes the manager's norm.
  • Inflexible: While, as a general rule, policies and procedures should be followed, the manager who refuses to be flexible may be viewed as 'insensitive' to the needs of others.
  • Unrealistic expectations: The manager demands that a task be completed on an unrealistically small budget, or with an unrealistically close deadline. In some cases, employees who point out the unrealistic constraints are castigated, and discouraged from making such comments in the future. This may exacerbate the problem, since future excesses may not be reported during planning. Typically employees are blamed for failure to meet the manager's expectations.

As dysfunctional as the above behaviours are, worse forms of incompetence may include:

  • Intellectual incompetence: The slow-witted manager, prone to misunderstanding people or processes.
  • Harassment: The manager who 'crosses the line' into illegal harassment, whether sexual or not, has created a hostile work environment.
  • Malice: This is the manager who, for some reason, sets out to make his subordinate's life miserable. This may, in some cases, be the run-up to a planned termination.

I particularly like that "Often relies on buzzwords to appear to be communicating." Seen it anywhere lately?

If you recognised any of these problems in your own business organisation, it might be a good idea to join with us at The Forum SA and we can work on improving our business competence together.

First published on TFSA in 2006 - content lost in the December 2010 ugrade.
I did not include the link to administrative competence this time as the page is gone since, but I think the points remain relevant.
With the benefit of hindsight, my prediction of the price of credit coming home to roost one day has since come to pass.

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  1. callen's Avatar
    You got your eye on the ball Dave !