What’s the Difference Between Skills and Competencies?

What’s the Difference Between Skills and Competencies?

What’s the Difference Between Skills and Competencies?

skills vs competencies

What’s the Difference Between Skills and Competencies? 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.

Abilities A Person Needs

We have all heard the old adage, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link.” This is particularly true in business. If we want a strong, efficient, and productive company, we must ensure we have strong, efficient, and productive people, but how do we do that? An integrated competency framework can help.

Competency models enable companies to define which skills and behaviors are needed for success in a specific position and within a particular company. They also help measure abstract concepts like “effectiveness” and “performance.” Better still, they can provide the standardized data necessary to easily pinpoint our weakest links, by determining the skills and areas of knowledge in which the majority of our company’s workforce is strong or lacking.

Skill shortages can be a major problem for any organization. The bigger issue, however, is usually not in addressing the shortages, but identifying them in the first place, because assessing the company as a whole is difficult. Many teams, departments, and/or groups never work together directly. Integrated competency frameworks make these assessments easier by showing us the holes – even when they exist across parallel groups. This enables companies to make vast improvements in production, service, and even culture by fine-tuning existing talent and hiring new talent who will make the organization stronger. Once we know where our weaknesses lie, we can do something to correct them.

We can divert precious learning resources away from our areas of strength and focus instead on problem areas, thereby saving time and money. We can seek out candidates who show exceptional strength in these areas thereby improving the quality of our talent pool. We also can offer additional on-the-job training for entry-level positions that helps promote the skills and behaviors we lack and turns those jobs into stepping-stones for more advanced positions, which will then be filled with highly qualified personnel. With an integrated competency framework, making such changes is easy, and reaping the benefits of a stronger company comes that much faster.

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