The difference between knowledge, skills and ability

knowledge, skills and ability

Do you know how to bake a cake?

Many people will answer yes to this question. Certainly, I would. I know that you mix together flour, sugar and eggs. I know that you use a cake tin (don’t forget to grease it). And I know that you put the tin into the oven. But would you want me to create your wedding cake? I wouldn’t recommend it!

That’s because although I’m fully aware of the process of making a cake, I’m not very skilled at it.

Knowledge and skill are two very different things. Knowledge is about information and understanding. It’s about ‘knowing what’ something is. Common sources of knowledge include your parents, teachers, books, training courses, the internet, co-workers, and so on. Over the course of a lifetime, each person amasses a huge amount of knowledge about millions of different things.

Skill, on the other hand, is about ‘knowing how’ to do something. Whereas knowledge deals, in theory, skill is about the practical application of knowledge. Skill only comes when knowledge is put into practice over and over again. The person who produces a beautiful wedding cake will have baked dozens, hundreds, thousands maybe. And of course, there are varying levels of skill. After a few attempts at baking, you might be able to produce a passable Victoria sponge. You have acquired basic skills. Interestingly, you have probably increased your knowledge of the subject too, and that will support you as you hone your skills.  

What about ability?

Skills and ability are closely linked, but ability might be described as a focused process for improving your skills. Think of a child learning to ride a bike. They know what to do, but every time they get on the bike, off they fall. After a few days or weeks of practising, they can balance, turn and brake. They have acquired skills. But will they ever compete in international events? Maybe they will if they have the ability. To compete at high level, they will need to train regularly, follow a special diet and have a focused mental attitude. Most people can develop the skill of riding a bike, but very few people go on to become top cyclists. Those who do will have developed an ability others don’t have. People sometimes refer to ‘natural’ ability, so for example, you may do better at cycling if you have the length of leg most suited to it.

Why is all this important to employers?

When recruiting, it helps to understand the knowledge, skills and ability (sometimes shortened to KSA) of your applicants. It’s important that the interviewer frames questions that reveal the level of each of your candidate.

If your interviewee is young, then you can expect them to have some knowledge but maybe not the skills. If this is the case, you need to be prepared to help them to develop the skillset they need to perform, with, for example, structured practical training over a number of weeks or months. 

A more experienced candidate should be able to demonstrate skill. Look for examples of how they have put their knowledge into practice and demonstrated skills in overcoming challenges or finding solutions.  

Identifying abilities can be harder; you may pick up on the dedication or positive attitude of a candidate who isn’t currently skilled in the areas you need, but you believe could excel with the right support.

Finally, understanding the difference is also crucial in helping to retain and develop your employees. If someone is lacking knowledge, this can be addressed through supporting them with research and other sources of information such as desk-based training. If they need to develop skills, then more practical training or on the job mentoring will be needed. And if you spot the potential for a real ability in one of your team, they can be fast-tracked on management development schemes.

How do you identify knowledge, skills and ability in your recruitment process? Share your views below.

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