Steven Forth is a Co-Founder of TeamFit. See his Skill Profile.


Skill profiles, competency models, all rely on skills and skill definitions. This raises a critical question though, who gets to define a skill?

To answer this question we need to know a few things. What is a skill term and how are they used? Who is concerned with the definition of a skill and how does the definition impact different roles and people? How can the competing perspectives be handled? We conclude by inviting you to think about how you define your own key skills, and if how you define a skill tells you something about yourself.

Before diving into the social dynamics of this, let’s ask ‘What is a skill anyway?’ This is a question that we avoided in the early days of TeamFit. We wanted to see what sorts of terms people used to describe their skills and what skills they suggested to other people. Now that we are introducing a competency modelling environment, we need to formalize this a bit. The competency model we have designed is very flexible but has the following basic structure.

Architecture – a basic arrangement that can be applied across many different models

Model – a collection of jobs, roles, behaviours and skills with attached learning resources

Jobs – generally named positions within an organization (like Director of Product Marketing)

Roles – roles can appear across many different jobs (Project Manager, Team Leader)

Behaviours – the actual application of skills

Skills – we are getting to these

Learning Resources

Skills can attach at any level of the model. They can be directly connected to Jobs, Roles and Behaviours. An organization can even mandate skills for everyone regardless of what job they may have or roles they may play.

So what is a ‘skill’? We have been having some fun with this. We began by saying ‘a skill is an ability.’ This is how one of our users had described a skill to us. That didn’t get us very far though. It just asks the question ‘What is an ability?’

Let’s see what Google has to say. “the ability to do something well; expertise”

Hmm, that doesn’t seem to get us any farther. We worked on this a bit more and came up with “A skill is one of the abilities needed to complete a task.” OK, now we need to define ‘ability’ and ‘task.’

“The ability to complete a task with some degree of success.” Note that from the above an ability can require many different skills.

For a task, we have “A particular work outcome.”

And that is as far as we have made it.

So now that we have some notion of what a skill is, and more than 30,000 skills sitting in TeamFit with more than a 100,000 relations between all these different skills, we come back to the question “Who gets to describe a skill?” The challenge was captured by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carol’s book Through the Looking Glass.

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,”said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.

Skill definitions do turn on questions of power. In some cases, there is an authoritative body that can enforce its definition, or at least try to. Standards bodies, governments, large companies, the people who originate new models all strive to control definitions, with varying degrees of success. Popular terms like Lean, Agile, Design Thinking, Solution Selling, Sustainability, Resilience all mean different things to different people.

Still, it does seem useful to have a fall back definition that can be used by all the different individuals, teams and organizations across the TeamFit platform, and we will support this in the new version. We are still deciding how to generate and manage these definitions. One suggestion is to take a wiki style approach where all our users can work together to evolve the definitions.

Many organizations want to have their own definition of a skill. How skills are defined can be a core part of their DNA and company culture. The definition of a skill can also shape how it gets applied, measured and supported. It seems reasonable that many companies will want to be able to modify the general definition or create their own definitions.

Between the organization and the individual is the team. More and more of our work is done in teams and teams can need their own definitions of how a skill is defined and applied.

Then, there is the individual. Many people, especially those with very high degrees of expertise, the Gurus in TeamFit’s default rating system, have their own way of describing their own skills and that description may be important to them. As an example,

One general definition of ‘design thinking’ from the Interaction Design Foundation is as follows:

Design Thinking is a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It’s extremely useful in tackling complex problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by understanding the human needs involved, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, by creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and by adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing. Understanding these five stages of Design Thinking will empower anyone to apply the Design Thinking methods in order to solve complex problems that occur around us — in our companies, in our countries, and even on the scale of our planet.

Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with this but I do have my own definition:

Design thinking assumes there are general patterns and processes for design that apply across multiple disciplines (if this is not the case then design thinking is a dead end). Design thinking takes these patterns and processes and applies them widely, frequently to problems not conventionally thought of as design problems, like pricing (see Don’t set prices. Design pricing!) It them takes what is learned from these applications and feeds the learnings back into the design patterns and processes, expanding our understanding of design and improving our ability to design.

The definition of skills gets even more subtle than this. In some cases, different roles will want to use different or augmented definitions of a skill. I have seen ‘customer centricity’ used in slightly different ways by people in sales and people in customer success. Both definitions begin with the definition from Investopedia and then elaborate.

The sales definition:

Client centric is an approach to doing business that focuses on creating a positive experience for the customer. Client centric businesses ensure that the customer is at the centre of a business’s philosophy, operations or ideas. For sales, this means respecting the customer throughout the sales process, selling the configuration that will optimize value for the customer, and setting a price that reflects that value.

The customer success definition:

Client centric is an approach to doing business that focuses on creating a positive experience for the customer. Client centric businesses ensure that the customer is at the centre of a business’s philosophy, operations or ideas. For customer success, this means understanding the customer’s goals and key performance indicators and helping them to achieve them.

How will we reconcile all these different approaches to skill definition? The TeamFit platform will have to have room for all these different levels of definition, give administrators the power to turn them on and off, and make sure that the right definition appears in the right context. Being open to different user definitions is important, but we need to be careful not to confuse users.

Do you have a skill for which you have a unique definition? One that gives insight into your own abilities or how you apply the skill? If so, please share with us at