What’s the difference between skills and competencies?

August 14, 2015 Sarah Beckett


As a competency specialist, we’re often asked whether there is any difference between skills and competencies. Are they just different words for the same thing, or do they function differently as talent-management tools? Let’s take a look at each of these terms in more detail.

In some ways, a skill and a competency are similar. They both identify an ability that an individual has acquired through training and experience. But the two concepts are not identical in terms of their definitions or the function they perform within the talent-management process.


The “what” vs. the “how”

Skills define specific learned activities, and they range widely in terms of complexity. (“Mopping the floor” and “performing brain surgery” can both be classified as skills.) Knowing which skills a person possesses helps us determine whether their training and experience has prepared them for a specific type of workplace activity. In other words, skills give us the “what.” They tell us what types of abilities a person needs to perform a specific activity or job.

But skills don’t give us the “how.” How does an individual perform a job successfully? How do they behave in the workplace environment to achieve the desired result? Competencies provide that missing piece of the puzzle by translating skills into on-the-job behaviors that demonstrate the ability to perform the job requirements competently.

The bigger picture

Another major difference between skills and competencies is one of scope: competencies define the requirements for success on the job in broader, more inclusive terms than skills do.

Think of skills as one of three facets that make up a competency: the other two are knowledge and abilities. To succeed on the job, employees need to demonstrate the right mix of skills, knowledge, and on-the-job ability. A well-defined, multilevel competency defines each of these elements in terms that allow managers and HR professionals to observe and recognize them through qualifying materials such as resumes, tests, and interviews, and through on-the-job performance in the workplace.

The competency advantage

While skills are an important part of any job profile, they’re not robust or nuanced enough to guide your talent-management activities. To manage the talent lifecycle, you need a system that’s consistent, structured, progressive, and unifying. Well-defined, multi-level competencies are designed to provide a strong but flexible foundation that links every HR activity.

Consistency. Skill definitions—particularly for technical skills—are often pulled from a variety of sources, and as a result, they lack consistency. A competency dictionary defines these types of skills in consistent terms so that employees can see how their skills, knowledge, and abilities align with their own position as well as others in the organization. View some examples of competency dictionaries.

Structure. Competencies bring structure to HR activities that conventional skill definitions can’t match. Competencies were designed to fit into an architecture that spans the entire organization and lends structure to different departments, teams, and other business units.

Progression. Unlike skill definitions, multi-level competencies define a specific skill at different levels of expertise and proficiency. Defining each of these proficiency levels is an invaluable tool for helping employees understand and take control of their career progression.

Coordination. A subset of competencies, called “core competencies,” is designed to articulate the key values and capabilities that form the organization’s competitive advantage in the marketplace. Core competencies are shared by every employee in the company—from entry level to CEO—and bring greater unity, purpose, and coordination to the organization. See our 6 Key Steps to Selecting Core Competencies.

Using competencies to manage talent

Because competencies are more detailed than skills, and because they have an internal and relational logic, using them as a foundation for talent management requires greater rigor and care. In previous decades, the additional work involved in using competencies to define job success made many organizations hesitate to adopt them. But in the past few years, the process of building and deploying comprehensive competency architecture to support the organization has been revolutionized by software solutions such as HRSG’s CompetencyCore.

Replacing spreadsheets and paper-based processes with software enables organizations to create, deploy, and maintain complex competency architecture more quickly and easily. This type of platform also simplifies and automates key competency-based activities such as interviewing, managing performance, and developing talent. As a result, HR professionals no longer need to forego the benefits of a competency-based approach because they lack the resources to set up and manage it efficiently.

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photo credit: Leon Riskin via Flikr


About the Author

Sarah Beckett

Sarah is an experienced marketer with over 10 years experience. She drives HRSG brand marketing strategy and the implementation of all related programs.

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