Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Wednesday Word of the Week: Capacity

Not long after I began working for the Arts Council, a friend of mine said to me, menacingly, that she would be checking how often I used the word capacity. It is a bit of a jargon bingo classic.

It is often used to mean:
1. Ability (organisational or individual) to do the ‘right’ or necessary things
2. Training or support provided so people learn how to do things more effectively
3. The number of staff an organisation has (more people = more capacity)
4. The number of good people an artform or other ‘subject area’ has working in it
5. A mix of the above that can be created by investment of money, or staff time.

It is often used in the negative: eg this organisation/sector lacks capacity, or needs to build capacity. It can therefore be a kind of code for brilliance, failure, lack of willingness to do the right thing or 'correcting' a lack of funding for an organisation or sector.

Interesting dictionary definitions include : innate potential for growth, development, or accomplishment and the quality of being suitable for or receptive to specified treatment alongside definitions clearly relating to the above.

My preferred meaning is a mixture of skills and ability; understanding and willingness; stamina and strength. Being a metaphor kind of guy I think of organisational capacity as being like lung capacity for an athlete: you need to learn how to breath, build up stamina and technique and know how to use it at the best time.

The importance being that building capacity that lasts requires investment, practice over time and real motivation. (If I think of my own ‘capacity’, it’s mainly come from the most testing situations, usually lasting some time, where I could ‘put learning into practice’.)

If you’re interested in capacity building in the arts you could have a look at Annabel Jackson’s work in this area as a starting point.

(I should say that none of these comments, or on other words, should be taken as ironic or critical. I won’t bother with words that don’t have their uses. I just think it’s helpful from time to time to observe and think about the words we use, and the linguistic conventions that build up around them.)

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