“Do you know how to cut hair?”

It’s a simple question, but one that immediately distinguishes the difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills and abilities’. These words are often used interchangeably, but what are the differences between them?

Most people know how to cut hair. The average person that you stop in the street could tell you that you should cut hair with a pair of scissors. Most people could go into more advanced detail, perhaps telling you to work on a section at a time or describing how to add layers.

Just because someone knows how to cut hair, should they be trusted to do it?

What is Knowledge?

Knowledge is an understanding. It’s mental or theoretical, rather than practical. Knowledge can be gleaned from a book, and you can gain knowledge by researching online or visiting your local library.

Having knowledge of how to do something does not necessarily mean that you can do it, even if you understand the steps and what should happen.

What about Skills and Abilities?

The difference between a ‘skill’ and an ‘ability’ is much less obvious than the difference between ‘knowledge’ and the other two. In very basic terms, abilities are natural or inbuilt whilst skills are learned behaviours.

When cutting hair you might have an ability to keep your hand steady or cut a straight line, but the skill is what you learned on your hairdressing course.

Skills can be developed and improved over time, by combining our abilities and our knowledge, but the underlying abilities are needed in order for the skills to be developed.

Abilities, likewise, can be improved and honed to some extent – running fast is a skill, but the ability to run fast comes in part from having strong leg muscles, which can be developed through regular exercise.

Ability and knowledge combine to create skills that can be used.

Why do employers need to know the difference?

Beyond the CV and interview stages, understanding the difference between knowledge, skills and abilities can help small businesses to support the development of their employees. When an employee is looking to develop, it’s important to work out which area is lacking.

If knowledge is lacking, further training might help an employee to learn a little more. Alternatively, books can be read and research can be done. If skills are lacking then more practical training might be required, to provide the knowledge in a practical context.

It’s harder to train someone if their abilities are lacking, because these are typically innate or much harder to alter. That said, a good employer should be able to identify an employee’s abilities and should provide opportunities for those abilities to be used and refined, even if the development of an ability is a much longer and more complicated process.

What are some examples of the differences between knowledge, skills and abilities?

Fred is a professional swimmer. He has a knowledge of the various swimming strokes, how best to train and what to eat. Fred’s ability to swim might be attributed to his streamlined body shape, his strong arm and leg muscles and his ability to hold his breath for a good length of time. Swimming itself is the skill – a combination of his knowledge of how to swim and his ability to swim.

Laura is a professional baker. She has a knowledge of ingredients and recipes, and her abilities include the careful measuring of ingredients. Her skills are baking and cake decorating – a combination, again, of her knowledge of techniques and her abilities to use those techniques.

What should an employer be looking for when hiring someone new?

Knowledge, skills and abilities are all important when you’re hiring someone new. You need someone with a theoretical understanding and the skills (or qualifications) to show that they’ve put that knowledge to practical use. Abilities are harder to quantify, so shouldn’t be as much of a concern during the interview and hiring process but should be an important consideration for future career development.

‘Knowledge, skills and abilities’ is often reduced to the acronym KSA for the hiring process.

An interviewer can look to qualifications as proof of a skill. Interview questions can be asked to determine the level of knowledge. An ability is more difficult to assess, but certain questions can help. For example, an interviewer might ask:
Can you tell me about a time when…?

  • You solved a problem by working in a team.
  • You turned a complaint into a positive experience.

Such questions can give an interviewer a sense of someone’s ability to work in a team, solve a problem or provide good customer service. The only way to really see abilities in action, however, is to put someone into an actual working environment.

Some employers choose to have trial days before committing to taking on a new employee, and these can be very useful when checking that someone is suitable for a job. Trial days can also help candidates to get a sense of what it’s like to work for a certain company, so that they can be sure that they’re a good fit for the culture as well as the role.

How important is ongoing development?

It’s never wise to allow things to become static or stagnant, which is why it’s important for employers to provide ongoing training for members of staff. Training can help people to expand their knowledge, develop new skills or improve their existing skills.

Employees should also work to hone their abilities in order to enhance their career prospects, but you’ll find that some abilities are naturally improved through repetition and experience. Cashiers in supermarkets, for example, develop their ability to memorise through typing PLU codes for fruit and vegetables hundreds of times each day. Some employers might ask their cashiers to work on memorising the PLU codes quickly, but those that don’t will soon find that the codes are memorised anyway.

Always remember that skills and knowledge are easier for an employer to influence, and for an employee to improve, but that you can’t develop skills without ability.

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