Skill vs knowledge in the workplace
In a world where you can Google anything, does knowledge still matter? Yes! There’s a big conversation happening right now about hiring for skills and using skills to assign the right training and projects.
But skills without knowledge = capability without action.
The knowledge-skill paradox plagues many employers, but it’s actually not that complicated when you break it down.
Skill vs knowledge—an overview
The main difference between skill and knowledge is that knowledge is theoretical (I can know this) while skill is practical (I can do this). But there’s more to it than that. Knowledge refers to information that can be imparted or transferred from one person to another while skill requires the ability to apply knowledge in an effective way.
Knowledge can sometimes be transferred quickly. For instance, if someone tells you that the PLU code for cantaloupe is 4050, you might retain that knowledge for years without being reminded. But skill generally requires practice and refinement. That skill might be the culmination of acquired knowledge (e.g. developing a theoretical understanding of communication principles to sharpen your communication skills), but you’re not going to achieve skills mastery until you work at it and become proficient. You can memorize the semantics of how to build a house, but that doesn’t make you a master builder.
Examples of knowledge vs skill
Skills and knowledge are two sides of a coin. We understand that the difference comes down to theoretical or practical understanding, but what does that look like?
Here’s an example: An employee has excellent sales skills. They’re good at building relationships and engaging people in conversation, and they even know how to build a successful sales strategy. But even if the sales person’s skill is on point, they still need to have knowledge of the product they’re selling.
Product knowledge isn’t a skill; it’s a moving target. If the salesperson is trying to sell a complex medical device to a doctor, but they have to constantly refer to the documentation to answer basic product questions, the doctor’s confidence in the item and the seller is going to plummet.
So even if a team member possesses a specific skill, they can only act on that skill if they have corresponding knowledge. For instance, a grocery worker may be extremely skilled with a (10-key) numeric keypad. She can input product codes in the blink of an eye without even looking. And because her experience and grocery LMS training have helped her to memorize the most common product codes, she can process fresh produce more quickly than any of her fellow employees.
But what if a customer comes to the register with a large volume of specialty produce (like lemongrass, galangal and Thai basil) that she doesn’t handle as often? Now the transaction is slower because she has to manually look up products. Knowledge of product codes contributes to the skill of being able to execute an efficient transaction.
Skill vs knowledge in hiring
Skill and knowledge are both essential, and company hiring should account for both. Some organizations are shifting their talent strategies away from job descriptions and instead stressing skill requirements. Whether or not that will prove practical in the long run, the right skills are critical—and skills require knowledge.
Employers should clarify not just the skill requirements of a job, but also the knowledge requirements that will activate those skills—even if the knowledge is to be learned on the job. Finding people with deep knowledge is less common, so hiring for skill (which is harder and takes longer to build) and then imparting knowledge in training while continuing to develop both makes sense.
For instance, if you’re hiring call center representatives for a home security company, you might specify a need for skills like organization, empathy and communication, but you should also specify the knowledge that will be required—like technical knowledge of home security and camera installation as well as specific product features.
Even if a prospective employee doesn’t possess this knowledge at the outset, they should know what to expect. If a person has previous experience with home security installation or electrical work, they might be more able to quickly absorb this type of knowledge than the average call center applicant.
How to impart knowledge and skill in training
Recent workplace trends emphasize skill-building as a means of encouraging engagement and retention, but while skill-building is important, it’s not the whole story. Employers should prioritize both knowledge and skill when training team members. Determine the knowledge that must be imparted in order to encourage the skills you need—or to help employees utilize their existing skills more effectively.
To continue with the call center example, a new employee might be required to complete customer service training modules (skills) as well as security system comparison modules (knowledge). Their basic understanding of the products combined with their heightened communication skills will equip them with everything they need to assist customers seeking home security solutions.
- Organizations should clarify the knowledge and skill requirements for each role. Clarify what knowledge must be retained vs what can be researched in the flow of work. Clarify skill proficiency requirements. Determine how skills will be measured or validated.
- The best way to close knowledge gaps and encourage new skills is to bring the concepts together to help people learn how to apply their knowledge and skill in practice. It’s like learning how to play golf. You don’t memorize the ins and outs of clubs, grass and wind resistance and then go practice swinging a club. You develop knowledge and skill together over time so you can reinforce them both through application.
- Make sure training covers both knowledge and skill in ways that promote application to the level desired. Make sure that each course has a singular focus or learning objective—e.g. active listening, overcoming customer objections, common product codes, etc. Employees will develop skills and acquire knowledge more effectively when the learning is focused.
- Emphasize short-form training (microlearning) that’s continuous and emphasizes bite-sized sessions. For instance, Axonify uses microlearning principles to deliver training lessons in as little as 3 to 5 minutes per day. The learning is continuous, so even if you have a lot of skills and knowledge to impart, you can promote constant growth and improvement with minimal time investment. And because the information is reinforced via spaced repetition, employees remember what they learn. Best of all, the learning experience is personalized for each employee.
- Measure skills, knowledge and performance improvement over time. Axonify allows you to access a complete knowledge profile for each trainee (which shows you both baseline knowledge and current knowledge), and you can also track your employees’ skills via behavior metrics and earned certifications. If an employee is struggling in a particular area, provide any necessary coaching or assistance.
Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of emphasizing skill at the expense of knowledge. Both principles are essential, and neither should be neglected. When you prioritize theoretical concepts as well as practical proficiency, it will make a difference in the performance of your team.