I need an elephant!

I need an elephant!

Why we need a common language for skills


Many years ago, when I was running an office supplies company, we had a customer come into the shop saying “I need an elephant!”. The initial response to the blank looks of the staff resulted in the customer saying with more urgency “you know, an ELEPHANT!”. We tried to help, avoiding the obvious jokes about this not being a zoo or a specialist pet store, and asked a few more questions like “OK, what do you use it for”. It must have taken 10-minutes before we worked out they needed a staple extractor / remover. I explained that I’d never heard them being referred to as ‘elephants’, but I did understand where they were coming from (to a degree) when they pointed out the ‘elephant’s ears’ (the red parts on the picture below).


Bringing this back to the area of Digital, IT, Cybersecurity, Business Analysis, Project Management, and the various technology-based skill sets that we cover in our work………… I was at a large industry conference recently, where a very well-respected senior industry figure said “everyone knows what a Business Analyst or a Project Manager is”, going on to explain that they were standard consistent roles for all organizations. Unfortunately, my experience is that this is untrue! Over the last 20+ years of focussing on the people and skills aspects, I very regularly find people with the same job title but very different sets of responsibilities, skills and experience. Even in the same company I can find one set of Business Analysts who spend all of their time producing business requirements specifications, and another group of Business Analysts (same job title) that also contribute to the business case and write the acceptance test plan. So, even in this example we have 2 groups of people with the same job title, but with very different skills profiles – some skills are common, others only appear in one of the two job descriptions or role profiles.


So, even when we use the same terminology, we don’t always have a consistent view of what it is!


An organization’s own framework?

On a regular basis I come across organizations who have developed their own in-house set of skills and competencies. Generally I advise against it for a number of reasons:

  • Save time – why spend the time trying to create something which has already been created?
  • Standardization – why wouldn’t you use an existing framework which provides consistent definitions and has been adopted in nearly 200 countries? As an example, in recruitment, if you use your own skills framework language, it’s likely to be misunderstood or misinterpreted by applicants as they used a different language in their previous employers.
  • Simplification – we rely on frameworks throughout these disciplines – methodologies, bodies of knowledge, international standards etc. e.g. Prince2 and PMBoK in Project Management, BABoK in Business Analysis, ITIL and VeriSM and ISO/IEC 20000 for Service Management, DevOps, COBIT, Agile, Scrum, ISO/IEC 9001 for Quality Management, NIST and ISO/IEC 27001 for Information Security, .NET and other languages for software development – the list is endless, and they are invaluable in improving consistency, quality, and efficiency.
  • Completeness – an in-house framework is unlikely to cover all the ground of a globally-adopted industry framework which has been around for over 20 years and is regularly updated by people who use this framework in companies around the world.
  • Alignment – many of the frameworks mentioned above are aligned to a recognised skills framework, and offerings from training providers also align to these frameworks making it easier to match people to the most appropriate development activity.
  • Core Competency – do you really want to be in the business of writing and maintaining bespoke frameworks?


The complexity of managing your specialist resources in technology-dependent disciplines, is not going to be helped by risking misunderstand and inconsistent interpretation because of a lack of a common language.


The choice

There are a few different skills and competency frameworks around which you might like to consider.

  • iCD (Japan) – i Competency Dictionary (and other country-specific frameworks): many of these are now being mapped to SFIA because the countries themselves recognise that they operate in a global market. Several have fallen out of date because of a lack of user input and experience in keeping these frameworks up-to-date.
  • e-CF (Europe) – European Competency Framework: owned by the European Commission, but still only has a relatively low number of users across a handful of European countries. Comparison of SFIA and e-CF
  • SFIA (Global) – Skills Framework for the Information Age: the most widely adopted, stable, mature, and up-to-date skills framework, covering much more than just IT.



The recommendation

Look at SFIA first because it is adopted globally, has new versions released to reflect changes in the real world, is updated by practitioners using the framework, is available in more language translations than any of the others, and has been proven to work. There’s also a great network of SFIA Partner organizations who can help provide as much or as little as you need – you can just download the SFIA content from the SFIA Foundation website and use it for FREE (within your org), or you can pick and mix from a selection of SFIA-based tools, training/workshops, supporting services, consultancy, all the way through to a fully managed professional services project.



There’s no point trying to create or maintain a skills framework which only has relevance within your organization, when there’s a mature and regularly updated internationally-adopted set of standardized skills definitions for Digital, ICT, Cybersecurity and other technology-related skills, used in nearly 200 countries.

Matthew Burrows