The words capacity, capability and performance are often used as synonyms when applied to the problem of strengthening organizations, businesses and governments. But are there important difference in between the three constructs?
Some would argue that term “capacity building” has certainly won the popularity contest as compared to usage of the word “capability”. Especially in the aid financed development world. In business, it is perhaps more common to talk about “performance”.
Does this indicate a difference in meaning? Or are these words used practically as synonyms? And is this important for how we think about supporting the strengthening of institutions?
Scientific definitions of capacity, capability and performance
In behavioral sciences there is a difference between the concepts. As most scientific knowledge on people and organizations have their roots in core behavioral sciences, we turn, for a moment, to medicine and psychology.
An helpful classification often found in literature on medical and psychological tests (i). For example, in this study on children with disabilities:
- “Capacity” refers to what a person can do in a standardized, controlled environment.
- “Capability” refers to what a person can do in his or her daily environment; and
- “Performance” refers to what the person actually does in his or hers daily environment.
Relationship between capacity, capability and performance
Turns out that the three concepts are highly correlated, but not exactly. Thus, people with high capacities are likely to have higher capability, and to perform better, compared to those with less capacities. But, for two people of equal capacity, their performance may be different.
The key difference then has to do with context. There are factors in the context that impacts how people with otherwise equal capacities actually perform. As such, the construct of capacity has little context. Capability refers to context specific situations, while “performance” is highly contextual.
Exhibit: Correlations of capacity, capability and performance