Man scratching his head to symbolise the difference between knowledge and skills

The difference between knowledge and skills

We’ll explain the difference between knowledge and skills, detailing everything you need to know to improve your knowledge and skills in the workplace. 
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Dom Murray, Content Writer
2017-05-22

You use knowledge and skills every day. When you’re watering the garden, when you’re driving a car, when you’re writing an email. Knowledge and skills are fundamental to human achievement. As the saying goes, knowledge is power. And if that’s true, then skills aren’t far behind. 

As the global skills gap widens and knowledge becomes more specialised and in-demand, knowledge and skills are valuable commodities. To remain future-ready, it is vital to keep your knowledge and skills up to date. Therefore, understanding the difference between knowledge and skills is an excellent first step. 

With this in mind, we’ll explain the difference between knowledge and skills, detailing everything you need to know to improve your knowledge and skills in the workplace. 

Knowledge vs skills

Knowledge and skills are similar but separate terms that express two vital elements of success in a situation. Many people use these terms interchangeably despite their different meanings. So, what does each term actually mean?

Here are the Oxford Dictionary definitions:

  • Knowledge:facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject”, or, “awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation.
  • Skills:the ability to do something well; expertise”, or, “a particular ability.”

eLearning industry takes these definitions a step further, explaining that knowledge is “information acquired through sensory input: Reading, watching, listening, touching, etc. The concept of knowledge refers to familiarity with factual information and theoretical concepts. Knowledge can be transferred from one person to another or it can be self-acquired through observation and study.”

In contrast, skills “refer to the ability to apply knowledge to specific situations. Skills are developed through practice, through a combination of sensory input and output. As an example, social skills are developed through interaction with people by observing, listening, and speaking with them. Trial and error is probably the best way to achieve skills mastery.”

Or, in other words, knowledge is theoretical, whereas skills are practical. 

Pull quote with the text: Knowledge is theoretical, whereas skills are practical

Both knowledge and skills are necessary to achieve a goal. A teacher may have a certificate showing the requisite knowledge to educate young people, but, without engagement skills, they will struggle to transfer their knowledge. In simple terms, it’s the difference between knowing something and putting it into practice.

A teacher must be able to interest students, motivate, and nurture fascination. Likewise, the best performing salesperson in a team may not have received higher education in the finer points of sales. They may not have attended seminars on communicating with clients. Nevertheless, their skills give them a knack for quickly building a rapport with clients, thereby making them an exceptional salesperson.

Understanding the skills gap

Many employers are concerned about the skills gap, and rightly so. The skills gap is the gap between what employers need their workers to do and what their workers are capable of doing. For example, a team leader may want an image edited in Photoshop. However, no one in their team has the skills to complete this task, as they are unfamiliar with the software. In recent years, this gap has widened. 

A recent survey by McKinsey found that nine in ten executives say their organisations either face skill gaps already or expect skill gaps to develop in the next five years. 

Pull quote with the text: Nine in ten executives say their organisations either face skill gaps already or expect skill gaps to develop in the next five years

Additionally, 1 in 5 workers say their professional skills are not up to date, with a further 85% of employees saying they wish their company had offered more new skills training last year. Further, Skillsoft’s Mind the Gap report finds that 48% of L&D employees believe their team is underskilled to deliver what is needed for their business.

As a result, 62% of L&D professionals say that ‘closing the skills gap’ is their number one priority. 

While there are many nuanced explanations for the global skills gap, one theory is the over-emphasis on attending university for young people. While these soon-to-be employees may have gained an exceptional education during their time at university (knowledge), their lack of exposure to the practical demands of the workplace (skills) can make it hard to hit the ground running in a new job. 

In other words, they have the knowledge but do not possess the skills. This example does not mean that university isn’t worthwhile. Rather, it means that universities should encourage students to apply their knowledge in real-life situations more frequently.

For further insights on the skills gap, be sure to read our articles on how to identify your skill gaps and closing the L&D skills gap

Developing employee’s skills

To help close the skills gap, organisations can use a number of strategies to develop an employee’s skills. 

  • Offer team-building exercises: Corporate team-building exercises and holidays are becoming more popular every year. Yet, not every organisation uses them. Teamwork is a necessary skill for anyone who works within an organisation. Further, teamwork can improve the efficiency and performance of a business.
  • Improve communication skills: Online resources like eLearning courses offer a speedy way to improve staff communication skills. Digital learning courses that require engagement with other learners are ideal as this will allow learners to practice their new skills. Companies that offer these courses can also tailor them to the needs of an individual learner.
  • Constant feedback: Employees can track their performance via ongoing feedback from a manager. It is a good idea to set goals and offer incentives and encouragement to help develop an employee’s skills. 
  • Invest in L&D: Most importantly, companies who wish to develop employees’ skills should invest in L&D. Companies with robust L&D programs have a significant advantage in closing the skills gap. According to a report by RMIT, 52% of people value a learning culture over a fun culture at work. Similarly, The Transformation Journey report found that high-performing learning organisations are 3x more likely to “possess the right skills to exploit learning technologies for business advantage.” These figures show that learners crave consistent L&D opportunities to help close the skills gap. 

Developing your skills

While companies should invest in their employees’ skills, this is not always the case. Unfortunately, 59% of employees have received no formal workplace training. Instead, most of their skills were self-taught. Likewise, 42% of employees have pursued training on their own. As such, many employees are forced to develop their skills independently. 

If this sounds familiar, here are a few essential tips for developing your skills. 

  • Public speaking: Any good public speaker knows how to tell a story. By honing your skills on PowerPoint and Keynote, you’re more likely to produce an engaging speech. Being familiar with these programs won’t be the silver bullet, but they will give you the confidence to perform with aplomb.
  • Empathy: There’s no single course you can complete to learn how to empathise with others. However, by practising your listening skills, you can be more aware of other people's needs. This trait is always attractive to employers — no one wants a hardheaded colleague who is never willing to co-operate.
  • Doing, not speaking: Being decisive and doing what is required shouldn't be a skill that needs to be taught. Yet, employers frequently complain that they have to spoon-feed employees. Work on doing rather than speaking, action rather than inaction and indecision, and employers will value you further.

Additionally, a recent report by SkillSoft identified the skills training that would best help employees adapt to the transformation of their role. These were: Microsoft Office training (59%) video-based microlearning (50%), collaboration training (48%), Social for Business training (37%), G Suite training (35%), and Adobe Creative Cloud training (34%). As such, workers may also want to focus on developing these skills.

Ultimately, knowledge can only get you so far. The practical application of this knowledge (i.e. skills) is what sets outstanding candidates apart. With the skills gap continuing to widen, ensure that your knowledge is up to date and your skill gaps are closed as tightly as possible.

Need some support developing your skills? Go1 can help. Start your free trial today to access dedicated courses on Identifying your skill gaps, Knowing your skills and gaps, and many more.

For more insights, be sure to subscribe to the Go1 newsletter to stay on top of all the latest L&D trends. Or, you can book a demo today to find out how Go1 can help with your team’s learning needs.

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