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The difference between skills and knowledge

By RICHARD WARD Published 20th Nov 2013
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When it comes to hiring new staff, companies have traditionally honed in on two crucial competencies: knowledge and skill. Lately, a third ingredient is also being taken into account by the world’s top CEOs: talent, a quality that simply cannot be taught.

According to conventional custom, managers tended to select people according to their experience, intelligence and determination. Today they are much more talent-focussed; setting expectations for staff by defining the right outcomes rather than defining the steps they need to follow, focussing on staff members’ strengths rather than their weaknesses and finding the right fit for existing personnel rather than simply promoting them to roles they may not be suited to. This new style of hiring and promoting staff is outlined in the groundbreaking book First, Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman.

Despite the new role played by talent in the scheme of things, successful companies continue to prize the presence of knowledge and skills, since these qualities can make a candidate stand out from the rest when it comes to filling a post or making a decision on promotion. Knowledge is traditionally defined as an organised body of facts or procedures which enable us to fulfill specific roles in an organisation. According to Buckingham and Coffman, knowledge is “what you are aware of”. It can be either factual or experiential in nature. Factual knowledge comprises fact-based information like the rules and regulations of mathematics, the way laws are made or the molecular structure of the elements and compounds. Experiential knowledge, on the other hand, comprises “understandings people pick up along the way”.

Skills can be defined as the ‘how tos’ of a particular role. They can be taught by one person to another and can be discovered by breaking a worker’s total performance into steps. Common skills include how to do solve an algebra problem, how to build a roof, how to draft a contract or how to answer the phone. It is vital to teach trainees skills already mastered by long-time staff members since, otherwise, it may be impossible for them to perform their job with any degree of success.

In the past it was said that obtaining knowledge involved learning concepts, principles and information by reading, attending lectures etc. Skills, on the other hand, involved the application of the knowledge gleaned in a specific context. Another generalisation stated that knowledge was mainly theoretical while skills were practical. In fact, the difference is far more subtle than that since, sometimes, knowledge can be gleaned through experience. Moreover, in some cases, procedural knowledge (i.e. skills) develop before declarative knowledge is defined.

First, Break All The Rules is available from Amazon.

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