Is there a difference between skills & competencies?

April 3, 2017 Lorraine McKay

skills-vs-competencies

I am often asked “what’s the difference between skills and competencies?” In this article, I define the term “competency” and break it down into its key parts: knowledge, skills and abilities.

Competencies define the abilities, skills, and knowledge that are needed by employees to be successful. The term “Competency” is broad as it encompasses all three elements.

Let’s first understand the different types of competencies. There are two main types, commonly referred to as: “soft” competencies or “behavioral”; and “hard” competencies or “technical.” Behavioral competencies include cognitive and personality characteristics while technical competencies include learned expertise such as Project Management.

Behavioral competencies involve the “abilities” element of the definition, such as analytical thinking, interpersonal ability, and initiative. Abilities rely on natural or inherent behaviors as opposed to learned. Although abilities can be honed to some extent, the majority of what constitutes ability cannot be learned.

Technical competencies involve the knowledge and skills elements which are learned through study and practice. Skills are the application of knowledge in work or leisure, in a trade or profession. For example, keyboarding skills involve applying knowledge of the symbols and functions of a keyboard.

The combination of the three elements – abilities, knowledge and skills are critical to effective performance in any job. While almost every job entails some knowledge requirements, having knowledge of how to do something does not necessarily mean you are capable of carrying out the task. Take hairdressing for an example; keeping a steady hand while cutting hair is ability, the techniques you learned in a hairdressing course are knowledge, and cutting hair in an attractive way is skill.

Packaging Knowledge, Skill, and Ability into Competencies

To succeed, employees need to demonstrate the right mix of knowledge, skill and ability. A Negotiator can’t be effective without a combination of:

  • knowledge of the topic, the opposing party and negotiation techniques.
  • skill in using this knowledge to formulate a compelling argument.
  • ability to listen and communicate persuasively.

Altogether, these elements form competencies and the right combination of competencies is used to define a Job Profile, or what it takes to be successful in a particular job.

Specific Skills and Knowledge – where do they fit?

Many organizations need to identify the specific and discrete skills and knowledge associated with jobs. This is normally needed for highly technical jobs such as those in Information Technology or Engineering. Take for example a Programmer; we define the competency “programming” in a generic way that can be applied regardless of the technical environment, we do not list the specific software languages or platforms involved. This is because the specific technology will change depending on the product or job involved.

We address the need for very specific knowledge and skills by including a separate list or inventory to complement the competencies. This inventory, in combination with the competencies, provides more complete information needed by the company to recruit the candidates with the best fit, to identify training needs, and to plan for transition.

How HRSG can help

We remove the difficult and time consuming step of defining ability, knowledge and skill by providing an extensive dictionary of competencies.  Each HRSG competency is multi-level, providing up to five proficiency levels that define the progressive complexity and impact required for different jobs. Multi-level competencies provide a deeper level of detail than single-level competencies, and help employees clearly see their path to advancement in the organization.

Well-defined, multi-level competencies allow managers to measure them through tests, samples of work, interviews, and observing on-the-job performance.

Going one step further, our libraries pre-define the most important competencies needed for jobs and the level of proficiency needed for excellence.

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About the Author

Lorraine McKay

Lorraine has over 30 years of experience as an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and HR Professional. She is well known for her experience developing competency-based programs and tools and has been instrumental in building HRSG’s competency management methodology, certification program, and tools.

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