Skills, Competencies, and Commonsense
from Henry Astorga in San Francisco - 29th April 2002

East West Strategic Management

The job world is one vast arena where we display our repertoire of work skills. For the most part it serves as a forum where we demonstrate not just previously gained marketable assets but on-going acquired knowledge and abilities as well. In addition, the job world is a place where some shine and excel and others flounder and self-destruct.

It would be interesting to note that this plight applies to all members of an organization from workers to management and all the way up to the executive level. We know that today's forward thinking organizations have assumed, for good reason, the responsibility of continually equipping their workers with skill-building opportunities so they can compete effectively in this ever- increasing competitive, global, and technologically wired economy. The company's whole idea is to keep them sharp individually so it may benefit from them collectively. When managed astutely, the result is a setting where workers earn accolades, managers receive prized projects, and captains of industry build business empires. Greatly influencing these accomplishments are all too human characteristics that parade themselves in the form of skills, competencies, and yes, commonsense, and not necessarily in that order. Some pundits argue that these characteristics arrive at birth while oppositionists say they are developed and polished over time.

Our goal here is to distill relevant distinctions between the three features: skills, competencies, and commonsense. Not one dimension is admittedly more important than another, but we can always hazard to guess. However, before we prove or disprove each another's supposition it will behoove us to take a close look at each and see how one squares against the other.

Skills And Its Ilk

For starters let us be clear that when we talk about competencies and attendant skills, we refer to performances that classify work output within a continuum of two extremes: superb and mediocre. Skills as defined in contemporary work settings apply to a worker's ability to produce an outcome that meets or exceeds accepted standards. As the workplace undergoes redesign due to rapid technological advancements, so does the definition of skills. Occupational and industry specific skills have since held amorphous meanings; consequently, and more sadly, they no longer mean job security to those who possess them. Instead, employability skills are an emerging reality where workers are not merely expected to be technologically savvy but also competent in problem-solving, communicating, allocating resources and understanding complex interrelationships of the work environment. Employees are in a constant race with their environment-internal and external-to prove their value to the company. Further definition classifies skills according to their nature of being either hard or soft.

Soft and Hard Skills

Daniel Goleman's breakthrough book Emotional Intelligence provides workers and leaders in forward-thinking organizations a new way of looking at soft skills and how it can be developed to help organizations stay ahead of their competition. This looks to be a timely concept in the midst of today's protean technology, economic globalization, and shrinking markets. Goleman makes a compelling case for soft-skills such as communication, team building, creativity and innovation among others as vital elements not just for an organizational member's employability but for the organization's success as well. This catchall term even includes various aspects of one's personality although most trainers take issue.

Professionals especially those who come from the training field contend that personality traits and behavioral challenges that require deeper therapeutic intervention do not lend to training intervention must not be included in the definition. Weighing in and adding fuel to the controversy is the American Management Association which lists self-confidence, adaptability, spontaneity, and even stamina as sets of competencies, all considered soft skills. The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), a rather authoritative source, also named personality traits, values and thinking styles as contributing soft factors to management and worker success.

Meanwhile, hard skills refer to technical abilities required to do a job. A limited definitional heuristic covers expertise and in-depth knowledge in HTML, C++, Turbo Pascal (in IT), acuity in devising critical path methods (CPM) for complex projects (in manufacturing, engineering), and sophistication in mathematical formulations for financial reports (in financial).

What makes Goleman's work creditable is that his findings support the fact that soft skills do indeed produce hard results and are now in fact largely accepted by the corporate world. Soft skills are just as important, if not more so than hard skills. In fact, as one rises in the corporate ladder, the demand for keener competency in the soft skill arena grows even greater. Much talk abounds about flatter, less vertically integrated, more participative organizations. However, it is apparent that actions seem harder to come by since most managers even those already caught in the crusade of the new paradigm still cling to management cultures and practices that hark to the days of the hula-hoop.

Competencies And How To Spot Them

It was less than seven years ago that some HRD theorists and practitioners came up with a rather integrated and definitive definition of the term competency. They defined competency as a cluster of skills and attitudes, (conveniently labeled in the industry as K, S, A) that 1) affects a major part one's job; 2) that correlates with performance on the job; 3) that can be measured against well-accepted standards; 4) and that can be improved through training and development.

A practical application of this definition can be seen in a project formulated by both the U. S. Departments of Labor and Education called Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS). The project sought to define the kinds of competencies that workers and graduating high school students must possess in order to succeed in today's competitive work environment. The following serves as an illustrative summary of the report.

SCANS Five Worker Competencies

This brief governmental report extract shows that different categories include generic knowledge and skills needed in the workplace. Included also are behavioral predictors that according to career counsellors can be measured by a number of authentic and performance-based assessment instruments available in the market.

Resources: This means that a worker is able to identify, plan, organize, and allocate resources effectively. These resources include time, money, materials and facilities, and human assets.

Information: This competency covers one's ability to acquire, organize, interpret, and evaluate information.

Interpersonal: This means that a worker is adept in working with others. This relational skill involves participation as a team member, shares know-how, and negotiates by working toward agreements and resolution of divergent interests.

Systems: This denotes one's ability to understand how social, organizational, and technological systems work. A worker with this skill grasps the inter-relatedness of various structures within an organization and works toward maximizing the potentials of different departmental resources.

Technology: Today's competent worker displays the ability to select technology, apply it, and maintain its usability through a basic understanding of knowing how to prevent problems or identify them.

The criticality of possessing both functional and enabling competencies and attendant skills is also evident in higher education. The Johns Hopkins University recognizes the contextual integration of employability into academic curricula. They embrace this by adopting the SCANS/2000. The program involves administering a Career Transcript System that uses the government's SCANS project to provide a diagnostic baseline entry analysis of its workers and students. It then implements a task-oriented test after which results are compared with the base line entry data to identify the gap and formulate desired states and methodologies for improvement.

These competencies as observed in the corporate world and higher education present a skill-set made up of an adaptive mixture of technical and interpersonal abilities. When supported by mental acuity, it would not be far-fetched to imagine that a person who is proficient in these competencies and attendant skills will be highly successful.

Managerial and Leadership Competencies: A Step Up

Executive and management level competencies take a global and holistic significance since the scope of responsibility at these levels appears to be broader than at the worker level. A significant shift takes place when one starts to rise in the organizational hierarchy. The demands on technical skills diminish while requirements for keener cognitive and contextual interpretations rise. We can view this from four distinct orientations: decisional, conceptual, relational and ethical. This typology of leadership and management competencies reveals specific behaviors under each orientation. Decisional competency is output-oriented displaying a predisposition to action, results, and decisive calls. Conceptual competency shows a leader who is visionary, thinks strategically, and is analytical This competency gives one the ability to see the big picture, draw conclusions from information available and to analyze the results to show good judgement and decision-making. Relational competency provides a leader the ability to build team spirit, motivate a workforce toward a mutually desired cause, and purposefully create an atmosphere where individuals from diverse interests are encouraged to work together in pursuit of a common mission. Ethical competency suggests that a leader is able to model and thus reinforce the organization's belief systems and strategic values.

A classic example of how the synergism of decisional, conceptual, relational, and ethical competencies of a leader can propel an organization to untold heights is at Reynolds and Reynolds of Dayton, Ohio. In the early 1990's, the company was a stagnant supplier of paper forms and promotional products to the automotive industry mostly to dealerships and independent auto shops. When Dave Holmes took over as Chairman and CEO in the mid-1990's, he boldly declared to take the company's sales from a flat $600 million a year to a robust 1 billion dollars by the year 2000. Holmes's methodology combined visceral and cerebral approaches. He leveraged the company's present position while reflectively theorizing the impact of his actions. The result was a calculated decision that went through an iterative and transparent process of action and evaluation by both management and the workforce. What Holmes created was an environment that fostered learning as a collective practice. This business model not only allowed the company to meet its target; it met it four years ahead of schedule.

Theorists and practitioners alike see components of the Kolbian model as a contributor to Holmes's success. David Kolb (noted for his learning preference modalities) advocates a learning style model that depicts a cycle of action, reflection, theorizing and experimentation. All these appeared evident in Holmes's corporate playbook.

To illustrate, Holmes first instituted action to transform Reynolds and Reynolds from a mere paper forms supplier for the auto industry into a solution and information partner of its clients. He then taught the workforce think introspectively, to think big, and become possibility thinkers. Holmes further theorized that by leveraging the company's strong corporate features he can offer business know how to help clients run their enterprises better. He created a sense of pragmatism by integrating organizational and personal development by coupling performance metrics with rewards and individual goal setting aligned with corporate vision planning. Holmes did all these while adhering to humane and ethical standards that for years endeared the company to its loyal workers. The result as we now see is what transpires when all the elements of skills, competencies and perhaps commonsense combine.


When we exercise rational thinking in the course of our day to day functions and perform actions that are good natured, positive, civil, and responsible, we show commonsense. Positive actions spring from rational thinking processes that have visible signs, natural, and spontaneous. Commonsense, although not always deliberate, make us mindful of our actions when we interact in business, at home, in social settings, and even in the most mundane tasks that we do.

In our everyday affairs commonsense is at work. It does not occupy the deep conscious processes of our minds, but instead it works in the conscious level of conversations, simple planning, and even day dreaming. When initiated commonsense activates our problem solving abilities. It summons both logical and intuitive reasoning which in turn is guided by judicious insights and impels by our conscience to do what is right. Looks simple, or is it? Obviously, commonsense does not require us to delve into the deep recesses of our subliminal thoughts, nor does it compel us to expend some unspent neural reserves so we can think critically. Commonsense is just that: common. It is possessed by any human being who bears even a modicum of sanity and rationality. The regular "Joe Blow" has it; captains of industry have it.

What is it then that makes people up and down organizational ranks and in their professional lives-accomplishments and erudition notwithstanding-succumb to behaviors and actions that reduce them to asinine and unthinking nincompoops? History reveals that doltish behavior is commonplace among the privileged, the holy, and the powerful-a true equal opportunity trait.

America's corporate highways are littered with heaps of former business, political, religious personalities who, despite their talents and professional mastery, have fallen from public adulation and grace because of their utter lack of commonsense.

Despite the presence of what appears to be an incontrovertible connection between competencies and commonsense the government-sponsored SCANS report, ASTD, and the American Management Association studies fail to make the link. Goleman, however, in his book Emotional Intelligence, comes closest to ascribing commonsense as a skill. He links cognition to affect factors such as intuition and practical feelings and considers them as traits that can be developed through repeated action and reflection.

Let's take Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap former CEO of Scott Paper, the paper conglomerate and Sunbeam, the famous household appliance maker as an example of commonsense case. He was nicknamed "Chainsaw" for good reason; he exemplified a slash-and-cut management style that endeared him to stockholders but drew vilification from workers whose jobs he mercilessly decimated. His business acumen was beyond reproach; in fact, whenever news of his hiring as CEO of a company broke the stock value of the company jumped significantly. As times changed and when management styles and business demands required a new and set of competencies, He kept his brash swashbuckling style. While his business decisions were finding its target, the morale of his workers were falling off the mark. Although he kept his keen strategies and management style, he missed a critical element that could have helped him tremendously. Folks in management circles identified this critical factor as commonsense. Dunlap was later eased out of both Scott Paper and Sunbeam with Wall Street experts wondering how a man with such a brilliant mind fail to spot elemental changes necessary to effectively run an organization.

On the political front, Bill Clinton perhaps exhibits the best example of sophomoric decision-making and total lack of good judgment. His political savvy and interlocutory skills failed to make up for the faux pas of lying and obfuscating to both the American public and courts of law. One would think that someone with his stature would be more circumspect at the least and morally sensible at the best. His eight years in office were squandered to the point that his legacy-if he ever finds one-will be tarnished by scandals that could have been avoided had he used commonsense.

Just recently, Kenneth Lay of the now defunct Enron exhibited the same telltale cues that took Dunlap in business, Clinton in politics, Swaggart in religion, down in flames - utter lack of commonsense. His arrogance, insensitivity, and blatant failure to take responsibility for his company's actions ape the same behaviors that caused the downfall of his now disgraced partners.

Quite remarkably, we can easily spot similarities in actions, behaviors, and attitudes among those who we might term as highly competent. They are decisive, ethical, perceptive and empathetic. On the contrary, we can also find common traits among those people who, inspite of their intelligence, appear to be devoid of commonsense. They are self-absorbed, arrogant, insensitive, and unethical among others. Thus, might it be fair to contend that skills and competencies may propel us to untold heights of fame, fortune and mastery but it is commonsense that allows us to stay there?

...from Henry Astorga's East West Strategies

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Henry Astorga :: San Francisco USA

About East West strategies & Henry Astorga

We welcome Henry as the newest columnist on the Asia Pacific Management Forum. As a Filipino working in the San Francisco Bay area, which contains one of the world's densest communities of Asians, he brings a new Asians-in-America perspective to the Forum. His monthly column "East West Strategies" focuses on Asian work issues in America, and management strategies for capitalising on diversity. You can learn more about Henry by clicking on his photo.

Henry Astorga: San Francisco, USA

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