Everywhere you look today you can find discussion about skills. There is the need to upskill, reskill, and future-skill. Many studies and reports cite the workforce skills gap crisis as a critical issue:
- 74 percent of CEOs are concerned about the availability of key skills (PwC 2020).
- Only 28 percent of leaders are developing critical skills for the future (DDI 2020).
- Only 29 percent of new hires are highly prepared with the skills needed for their role (Gartner 2021).
To succeed, companies need to start developing their leaders. But, to take this step forward, skills and competencies must be defined for practical use. Many of the voices driving the discussion have likely never implemented skills or competencies within organizations. Analysts and professional writers are hired to write articles for companies that want to differentiate themselves by describing a skills-based approach as something new. The issue here is that the discussion is being run by researchers when practitioners should be the ones to lead the way.
Competencies vs. Skills
The term skill is not well understood or defined. The term itself was first used around the 13th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines skill as the “capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability; cleverness, expertness; an ability to perform a function, acquired or learned from practice.” This definition represents the broadest use of the term. A skill is something that you know how to do, which can include anything from coaching to writing c-sharp code.
On the other hand, competencies are a relatively new idea created in the 1970s. In fact, skills have long been much easier to understand, define, and measure. There’s a general misunderstanding of how competencies are meant to work in practice compared to skills. The Oxford English Dictionary defines competency as “the ability to do something successfully or efficiently,” and one of its synonyms is skill.
The Gap Competencies Fill
Many of the articles that advocate for skills over competencies misunderstand one primary thing: There are many competency DIYers out there, and while they are well intentioned, they lack expertise. As a result, they developed their competencies in ways that become problematic down the road.
Consider, for example, the idea of trade skills. Can we verify that a person can wire an electrical outlet in an office or home correctly? We can, easily, because we have relatively well-defined standards to evaluate whether the person has the skill to complete that task.
Historically, it has been harder to evaluate soft skills, such as coaching, influencing, delegating, and working on a team. Because we have not had universally accepted definitions of what high performance looks like in these areas, competencies were created to fill this gap.
Learn more in DDI’s blog.