Choosing the right skill scale

You want to introduce skill management in your organization, and you are looking for the right scale to access skills? This article explores the most common scales used in talent development and human resources.

What is a skill scale?

I started Judo when I was 6 years old. For my first day I received a white belt, and I saw that my comrades had colored belts instead. I quickly learned the belt system: yellow, orange, green and brown. The black colors were only worn by the teacher and his assistants. To get the next belt color, you had to make Katas successfully in front of teacher, patterns that demonstrate various Judo techniques. I was of course envious of the kinds wearing the green belt, and I was very motivated to get soon my yellow one. As a kid generally needs 18 months to get the yellow belt, teachers used to give stripes to put on our belt to acknowledge progress. I was then proud to wear my first yellow stripe and was eager to get the next one.

A scale is like a progression framework which makes clear development goals. Employees use skill scales to rate their skills, identify their strengths and their improvement potential, and then know what must be learned next.

The skill levels are generally displayed in the skill matrix, enabling the team to identify skill gaps which are putting the delivery capability of the team at risk.

Besides talent management, skill scales may be linked to compensation structures, influencing salary levels like performance evaluations.

The most popular skill scales

Shu Ha Ri

Shu Ha Ri is a concept originating from Japanese martial arts that describes the stages of learning and mastery. It is often applied to various disciplines, including martial arts, craftsmanship, and other forms of skill development. The Shu Ha Ri scale consists of three stages:

Shu (守) – “Protect” or “Obey”In the Shu stage, the focus is on learning and following the fundamental techniques and principles taught by the instructor or a master. People adhere strictly to established forms and rules. This stage is characterized by a deep level of respect for the master and a commitment to building a solid foundation.
Ha (破) – “Detach” or “Break”The Ha stage marks a transition where students begin to question, experiment, and explore beyond the strict adherence to the established forms. Practitioners develop a deeper understanding of the underlying principles and may start to deviate from traditional techniques to find what works best for them. It involves breaking away from strict imitation and incorporating personal insights.
Ri (離) – “Leave” or “Transcend”The Ri stage represents the point where practitioners achieve a level of mastery that allows them to transcend the established forms and create their own way. At this stage, the practitioner has internalized the principles and techniques to the extent that they can express them naturally and creatively. They become innovators or masters in their own right.
The Shu Ha Ri is an interesting scale because it covers the concept of autonomy and innovation. A person who has reached the Ri is able to define new best practices and teach them, which are valuable in a business context.

The NIH Proficiency scale

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is the primary agency for conducting and supporting medical research. It has defined a competency proficiency scale which is used in many Human Resources departments in the US.

1Fundamental AwarenessYou have common knowledge or an understanding of basic techniques and concepts.
2Novice (Limited Experience)You have the level of experience gained in a classroom and/or experimental scenarios or as a trainee on-the-job. You are expected to need help when performing this skill.
3Intermediate (Practical Application)You can successfully complete tasks in this competency as requested. Help from an expert may be required from time to time, but you can usually perform the skill independently.
4AdvancedYou can perform the actions associated with this skill without assistance.
You are certainly recognized within your immediate organization as “a person to ask” when difficult questions arise regarding this skill.
5ExpertYou are known as an expert in this area. You can provide guidance, troubleshoot and answer questions related to this area of expertise and the field where the skill is used.
The NIH scale is a simple scale which is appropriate for most purposes. Its only limitation is that there is no distinction in the expert levels. So if you have a large organization and want to value experts which are recognized beyond the boundaries of your organization, then you have to add additional levels, like in the Adept/Specialist/Expert scale.

Adept, Specialist, Expert

The Adapt/Specialist/Expert scale is a simple scale which assesses the autonomy of the person and complexity of tasks that can be handled.

1Adept (or Beginner)The Adept has partial theoretical knowledge and limited experience.
2SpecialistThe Specialist is autonomous and requires help from Experts only in complex situations.
3ExpertThe Expert can handle complex situations, provide guidance, and innovate in his area.
You can use variants of this scale by adding 2 to 3 intermediate levels.

With a scale of 9 levels, you can introduce 3 different expert levels, according to the scope of the expertise recognition and impact in the Industry.

1Adept 1Basic knowledge of techniques and concepts.
2Adept 2Limited knowledge and experience. Requires assistance.
3Adept 3Autonomous in situations with low complexity.
4Specialist 1Autonomous in situations with medium complexity.
5Specialist 2Autonomous in situations with high complexity.
6Specialist 3Autonomous in situations with very high complexity.
7Expert 1Recognized as Leader and Innovator in his direct Organization.
8Expert 2Recognized as Leader and Innovator in the Company
9Expert 3Recognized as Leader and Innovator in the Industry.

The Adept/Specialist/Expert scale is a simple and generic scale which can be used with 3, 6 or 9 levels. Its limitation: It may be difficult to estimate the complexity of tasks, therefore it is a good practice to give examples of complex and very complex tasks.

Scale for Soft Skills

As Soft Skills as behavioral and situational, the same scale cannot be applied for hard skills. A person can be an expert in Creativity, but then the Creativity Techniques are meant, which is an hard skill. We can say that one person more creative than the average. This is expressed by demonstrated creative Behaviors in various situations.

In our Skill Matrix Tool , you can define a specific scale for the soft skills like:

  1. Slightly pronounced
  2. Somewhat pronounced
  3. Moderately pronounced
  4. Pronounced
  5. Very pronounced

Conclusion: Choosing the right Competency Scale

Skill scales provide a framework for assessing and rating skills. Choosing the right skill is an important decision. A simple scale makes it easier to assess skills, but do not show the progress of employees.

If you need a skill scale to identify skill gaps and experts in your teams, then a scale with three levels will be sufficient. If you need a scale for tracking and fostering learning progress, then a 5-points scale is the minimum.
If you are a large organization and want to promote industry experts, then a scale with at least 6 levels will be more adapted.

Here is a summary to choose your right skill scale:

Organization Size / PurposeSmall to Medium Large
Skill Gaps3-points3-points
Learning Progress5-points6-points to 9 points
To help Employee assessing skills, teammeter provides individual skill scales which can be used to define expectations at each level.

See also