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?

In this post, we'll look at the following points:

  • How skills and competencies are similar, and how they're different.
  • The information that "skills" provide us with (and what they don't provide).
  • The information that "competencies" provide (and why they're a better way to measure someone's abilities).
  • How you can use competencies in your HR and talent management programs.

How Are Skills and Competencies Similar?

In some ways, a skill and a competency are similar. On a basic level, they both identify an ability that an individual has acquired through training and experience.

But the two concepts are quite different in terms of the function they perform within the talent-management process.

How are Skills and Competencies Different?

Skills: 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.

Competencies: Skills give us the "what," but don’t give us the “how.”

For example: How does an individual perform a job successfully? How do they behave in the workplace environment to achieve the desired result?

This is where competencies come in.

Competencies take "skills" and incorporate them into on-the-job behaviors. Those behaviors demonstrate the ability to perform the job requirements competently.

Skills + Knowledge + Abilities = Competencies

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 these behaviors, using a variety of materials, including... 

  • Resumes
  • Tests
  • Interviews
  • On-the-job performance in the workplace.

Hopefully by now, you have a solid understanding of the difference between "skills" and "competencies." Now, let's take a look at how competencies are used in a practical way.

How to Use Competencies for Talent Management

Skills are an important part of any job profile (what's a job profile?). But they’re not robust or nuanced enough to guide 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. 

How Multi-Level Competencies Improve Talent Management Processes

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Conclusion: Why Competencies Are More Useful Than Skills

Competencies are more detailed than skills and take a person's knowledge and abilities into account to determine whether a person has the right behaviors to succeed in their roles.

But because they have an internal and relational logic, using them as a foundation for talent management requires greater rigor and care than simply hunting for people that have the right skills.

Implementing Competencies in your Company's Talent Management Programs

In the past, the additional work involved in using competencies to define job success made many organizations hesitate to adopt them. But more recently, the process of building and deploying comprehensive competency architecture to support the organization has been revolutionized by competency management software solutions like 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.

Learn more:

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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