“If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning”

Mahatma Gandhi

Why do we need to think Business Capabilities?

In today’s fast changing business environment the ability to innovate quickly is needed to survive. Innovation is no longer optional nor can it be done by a separate team. It has be Business As Usual (BAU) activity. Many business organizations find themselves in industries where customer loyalty is fickle, and customer tastes are even more so. The ability to innovate is anchored in an ability to quickly identify where change needs to occur (what to change?), identify the change that needs to be made (what to change it to?), then make those changes as smooth as possible (how to change it?). Every part of the business is subject to change. Identifying what to change starts with the need for change and linking back to the knowledge, skills, and tools the organization has in its arsenal. While some business changes result in a change to a process, most require the adjustment or acquisition of new knowledge, skills, or tools. The combination of knowledge, skills, and tools represent the organization’s ability to do something, working the same way as it does for an individual.

For example, throwing and catching a baseball requires knowing what to do and how to do it, repeated practice at doing it, and using the right tools to make the task easier. Knowing how to line up the ball to catch it is knowledge, but it does you no good until you’ve practiced it enough to become proficient. Knowledge put to practice, usually through repetition, becomes skill. Using a mitt makes catching a ball much easier that not using one, hence the mitt is a tool.

For an organization, capturing a customer order is a capability, something every organization needs to know how to do, but the actual form that takes might vary from organization to organization, and even from context to context withing an organization. Knowledge about capturing an order might include the kinds of information you need to record in order to unambiguously identify the customer, the items they want to buy, and where they want it shipped. It might also include determining whether the customer can pay for the order, either now or in the future. How all that might be done is where differences in process come to play, but all of the variations form the same capability.

In a local hardware store, simply knowing the name of the customer and common descriptions of what they want might be all that is required to accept the order and hand it off to the next capability, fulfilling the order.

A larger business with multiple locations might have more than one customer with the same name, so a more rigorous approach to identifying a specific customer might be necessary. They might also have items stored at multiple locations, so the order capture might need to identify where the items are to be sourced, or whether they are even in stock.

An online business, or either one of the two previous businesses with a website, will need to allow the customer to identify themselves and the items they want to purchase. The processes to enable order capture in this context can be quite sophisticated, as are the tools needed to make it happen efficiently.

In each of the above situations, while the basic knowledge about capturing an order is fairly common, the skills and tools required can vary dramatically. Each situation will have the capability to capture the order, but it won’t be the same from situation to situation.

Getting back to our main question, we need to think about business capabilities because most of the time, that is what we have to change in order to change the results the business is getting. Put another way, we find that we often have to learn new things or learn how to do other things differently in order to meet the needs of our market. Both of these usually, but not always, involve changing or building business capabilities.

What is a  Business Capability?

As we understand the need for a business capability. The following will make it clear to understand how  a business capability is defined.

  • A particular ability or capacity that a business may possess or exchange to achieve a specific purpose or outcome.
  • A business capability consists of a set of knowledge (things you know), skills (things you can do), and tools (things you can use) that support the accomplishing of the objectives of the capability.
  • How the business function is achieved in a particular context and processes involved in executing the function.
  • What is externally visible behaviour (properties) and its expected level of performance (outcomes).
  • Capabilities are used in processes to execute one or more activities in the process, as shown Figure 1.
  • A business capability will  have inherent performance characteristics that can be measured, including capacity, activity cost (the time it takes to do some activity), and the defect rate. These measures are used to determine when investments need to be made to improve the capability.

Figure 1. The relationship between capabilities and processes

Business Capability Models

Models of the set of business capabilities are almost always presented as a hierarchical structure that represents increased specificity as you move down a branch. There are many ways to organize this hierarchy:

The most common is by function (an example is shown in Figure 2), but the scheme used should be based on the reason for presenting the model and the audience receiving it. The last two schemes, level of investment and maturity, serve as the basis for the many “heat maps” seen in business architecture (Figure 3). In a heat map, capabilities are colored green, yellow, or red to represent their position on an ordinal scale where green is “good” (less investment, more maturity) and red is “bad” (more investment, less maturity). There is widespread debate about the utility of the heat map, given its confusing meaning, but they continue to be widely used.

Figure 2. Sample capability model

Identifying Business Capabilities

All participants in a given industry have a common capability model. The demands of the industry dictate the capabilities required to participate. This commonality makes possible industry models such as eTOM for the telecom industry, or the various industry models published by APQC (which are capability models even though APQC calls them process models). When building a capability model, the best place to start is with an industry standard model.

While the industry dictates which capabilities are required, it does not help determine which are important. Not all capabilities are created equal, and excelling at a few important capabilities are what distinguish industry participants from one another. The industry gives you the set of required capabilities; your strategy determines which are most important.

The Business Architecture Guild provides another method to find capabilities in their BIZBoK. The Guild’s method basically creates a business domain class model using object-oriented analysis techniques and wraps them in basic create, read, update, delete (CRUD) functionality. This provides a set of capabilities that need to be reflected in the IT application architecture, but is not sufficient for business architecture; we say the Guild method is necessary but not sufficient.

There are two main ways to find those capabilities important to your strategy, and both of them yield a slightly different set of capabilities. Both methods will be covered and both are recommended.

Perry, Stott, and Smallwood provided some guidance as to which capabilities were important based on the selected business focus. For the purposes of identifying what they call the unit of competitive advantage (UCA), or more commonly, core capabilities, those that help distinguish one business from others in the market, three of the four business focus types matter: Product, Customer, and Technology. Different capabilities are important for each focus as they drive the acquisition of new business and the development of new products based on characteristics of the business focus.

In addition to core capabilities, Perry, Stott, and Smallwood identify three additional categories: Value-added direct support, essential indirect support, and non-essential indirect support. They recommend that all non-essential indirect support activities be stopped as they do not contribute any value to the busines. That leaves value-added, or direct support, and essential, or indirect support capabilities. Essential support capabilities are required in order to stay in business but don’t directly benefit the service delivery. The distinction leads to decisions about how to manage, maintain, and execute capabilities of each kind (this is discussed further below).

In a product-focused business, market position is based on one or more key products that form a product family, including derivatives. The product family often includes significant elements of product support or service. The value proposition of the business may or may not be the product itself; the product may be a component in a larger value proposition, such as the lifestyle sold by Harley-Davidson Motorcycles. New business is acquired by finding additional markets for the product family, including new uses, and new products are created by improving or deriving from existing products. The core capabilities for a product-focused business are:

  • Develop product specifications
  • Design product
  • Manufacture product
  • Service product

A customer-focused business provides a complete set of services and products for customers in a particular industry. Examples include hospital and restaurant supply companies. New business comes from finding new customers or defining new ways to service existing customers. New products are created or found to meet emerging requirements from the existing customer base. The core capabilities for customer-focused businesses are:

  • Identify customer requirements
  • Develop product/service specifications
  • Design product/service
  • Sell product/service

A technology-focused business is oriented around a specific technology, looking for new ways to use that technology to both acquire new business and develop new products. Examples of technology-focused companies include Facebook, Google, Amazon Web Services, and many chemical or pharmaceutical companies. Note that a firm’s business model might not directly relate to the core technology, but depends on it almost entirely. The core capabilities for a technology-focusesd company are:

It is very likely that these capabilities will already be in your model built using either of the two initial methods (industry standard model or the Business Architecture Guild’s method), but it is also possible that some, such as “Identify customer requirements” might be missed.

Many companies, such as retail stores and consumer service businesses, do not fit neatly into one of the three categories above. In that case, the most important capabilities are those directly involved in delivering the customer experience. To find these core capabilities, the following steps have been shown to work quite well:

  • Build stakeholder experience maps (see the customer journey template in Figure 4. Similar maps can be created for other stakeholder: Supplier/Partner, Employee, Investor, Community/Regulator)
  • Identify touch points
  • Identify value-delivering capabilities
  • Identify supporting capabilities

Identify Touch Points and Value-Delivering Capabilities

  • A touch point is a point of interaction on an experience map
  • Each touch point is a business service provided by a capability (usually as used in a process)
  • These are your value-delivering capabilities
  • These capabilities are supported by other capabilities, sometimes with time or other types of dependencies

Identifying and Managing Supporting Capabilities

The easiest way to identify supporting capabilities is to make use of an Ishikawa or fishbone diagram (Figure 5). This diagram is borrowed from root cause analysis but works very well for the problem at hand. Each core capability identified from the experience touch points becomes the main arrow for a separate fishbone diagram. From that arrow, the capabilities that are required, either prerequisites or in real-time, are added to the diagram (identified as “Primary cause” arrows in Figure 5. Capabilities identified this way are direct support capabilities, in turn dependent on indirect support capabilities identified by the secondary arrows (“Secondary cause” arrows in Figure 5).

This exercise can be repeated for other groups of stakeholders: Suppliers, employees, investors, and regulators (and the communities they represent). The diagrams for all of the core capabilities for all groups of stakeholders, taken together, comprise the entire set of capabilities (core, direct support, and indirect support) needed for this business.

Many capabilities, especially indirect support, may appear on more than one diagram. This is a good indication of shared capabilities and provides some clues as to how they can be organized and managed.

Figure 5. Ishikawa or Fishbone diagram

Table 1 shows two characteristics of support capabilities that help determine how they should be organized and managed. Support capabilities, either direct or indirect, can be proprietary or generic. Proprietary work needs to be owned (executed internally) or licensed and carefully managed.

Proprietary Generic
Direct Provide – do it yourself Broker – develop on-going access to the best capabilities possible
Indirect Maintain – manage internal capability to meet cost and quality standards Contract out – monitor to ensure compliance
Table 1. Managing support capabilities

To provide means both owning and developing support capabilities. To maintain means that capabilities can be owned, but downplays the importance of improvement. To broker means to outsource it, but pay careful attention to make sure the work is done to specification. To outsource means to enter into a contractual relationship with a supplier, but not pay much attention to it except to monitor compliance with the contract.

Assessing the Impact of Change

One of the tasks of the architect is to determine the scope of a change. Simply, this means looking at the capability model and identifying those capabilities likely to be affected by a change. Building architects use a technique called “red-lining” – they take a set of blue prints that are updated to match the current building configuration then use a red marker to indicate the changes on the drawings. It’s a very effective practice that results in a clearly defined scope of change. The practice can be applied to a capability model. For example, starting with your model, as in Figure 2, use a red marker to indicate those capabilities likely to be impacted by a change. Do this separately for each change project.

To determine the set of capabilities that may need to change, start with the goals in the financial perspective of the strategy map (covered in other articles in the ITABoK). From those goals, assess what needs to happen differently in the customer perspective. Then, focusing on the processes that deliver customer touch points, and the capabilities those processes use, identify the processes that directly impact the touch points that need to change and how those changes might be made. In order to change customer behavior, a business organization can only influence its customer through advertising, pricing, or changing the customer experience. Changes to customer experience require changes to processes that deliver that experience, and often to the underlying capabilities.

For each capability identified this way, look at the current performance measures (capacity, activity cost, defect rate) and assess whether the current level of performance is sufficient to influence customer behavior enough to meet the new goals. It may be that a capability is insufficient to meet goals even though it might not directly influence the customer behavior that needs to change. For example, the capability to accept and process and order may need more capacity as customers are encouraged to order more online. Identify the capacity measures that are or will be insufficient, and determine the minimum value they need to become. Then, determine the changes to each affected capacity required to achieve the new measures. The collective set of changes becomes an improvement project or program, depending on its size.


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Ulrich Homann, “A Business-Oriented Foundation for Service Orientation”, Feb. 2006, http://bit.ly/2faqT67.

Burlton, Roger, Business Architecture Essentials : ‘Developing your Capability Architecture: It’s all about being able to get things done’, February 27, 2017, accessed August 5, 2020, https://processrenewal.com/business-architecture-essentials-developing-capability-architecture-able-get-things-done/

Whitmire, Scott A. “It’s Time to Kill the Heat Map”, March 19, 2019, accessed August 10, 2020, https://scottwhitmire.wordpress.com/2019/03/19/its-time-to-kill-the-heat-map/

APQC’s Process Classification Framework® (PCF) is a taxonomy of business processes that allows organizations to objectively track and compare their performance internally and externally with organizations from any industry. It also forms the basis for a variety of projects related to business processes (https://www.apqc.org/resource-library/resource-listing/apqc-process-classification-framework-pcf-cross-industry-excel-7).

Perry, Stott, and Smallwood, Real-Time Strategy: Improvising Team-Based Planning for a Fast-Changing World, New York, NY: Wiley, 1993.