We sometimes interchange the words skill, ability and knowledge, but in actual fact, they are very different things. The reason we often mix them up is that they are inter-related to such an extent that they not particularly efficient as solo players. It’s rare that an employer is looking for a single aspect of them and even rarer for a career to be built on just one of them. Oddly though, we do tend to value one as being better than the other based on our view of the world. In actual fact, the most successful teams and individuals have a good balance of all of them.
Knowledge is the understanding of something. So, for example, it is possible to have knowledge of the Eifel Tower without actually having been there. Knowledge is probably most recognisable as conventional learning. We go to school, college or universities to gain knowledge. However, it does not automatically impart a practical application of the subject matter.
Skills are gained through the practical application of knowledge. Although you can learn the method of driving a car without ever actually getting in one, you will not be able to drive without practising the skill of steering. Another great example is the difference between reading the recipe and making biscuits. The recipe is the knowledge, but it requires the skill of baking to actually produce something to dip in your tea.
Ability is often mistaken for skills, but they are actually very different. Ability is about having the potential to do something. So you may have the knowledge of the techniques required to be a world class sprinter, you may have mastered the skills needed to perform at your best on the track, but to be world class requires the innate ability to run faster than other people. However, we can also sometimes think of ability as a strong combination of knowledge and skills which produces an ability to perform exceptionally.
So how does all this relate to the world of work, candidates and employers?
A well-rounded employee who has the knowledge and skill to perform their role, coupled with the ability to perform that role outstandingly, is exactly what most job specifications are describing. In the wider context, a workforce that understands and values these three qualities will be more efficient and capable of implementing the needs of the business. Graduates, for example, will often move into the world of work with new knowledge but a restricted skill set to apply it. The existing workforce will often have the skills required to perform their role, but perhaps not the formal knowledge to adapt to new ideas and methods. If you can get these two sides of the coin to work together with mutual respect, then it is a reasonable assumption that the abilities to succeed will manifest automatically. Development and growth are often dependent on implementing training and practices that focus on the creation of abilities, often through experience.
When a job specification is asking for experienced candidates, it really means ‘with the knowledge, skills and abilities’ required to be successful in the role. Experience is valuable, but it is not really about the amount of time spent in a job role, it is more about how the person in that role used the time to foster learning, create skills and generate abilities. So, an experienced accountant, for example, will likely have a qualification (knowledge) be practised at using the knowledge (skills) and the exceptional attention to detail (ability) needed to practise at a high level. In the end, a balance needs to be achieved and, while certainly, some job roles are more skill based and some require extended specialist knowledge or an innate ability to perform, recognising the need for all three is vital.