Human Resources

Competencies and Skills: The Balance for Career Growth

June 23, 2023
7 minutes

Competencies and Skills. A breakdown of their advantages and disadvantages, and how to balance the approach for career growth

When it comes to career development, individuals often face the dilemma of whether to prioritize competencies or skills. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, and finding the right balance is key. 

The Key Differences Between Competencies and Skills

A competency and a skill are related terms that refer to different aspects of a person's abilities or qualifications.

What are competencies?

A competency is a broad concept that encompasses a combination of knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors that are necessary for effective performance in a specific role or domain. It involves the application of knowledge and skills to accomplish certain tasks or achieve specific outcomes. Competencies are often defined by organizations or industries to establish standards of performance or to guide the selection and development of individuals.

Competencies are crucial in determining an individual's suitability for a particular job role. They are not simply a checklist of skills and knowledge that an individual must possess, but rather a comprehensive understanding of the role and responsibilities that come with it. Competencies are unique to different job roles and industries and can be developed over time through training and experience. They are essential for effective performance, productivity, and growth in any organization. Organizations and industries use competency frameworks to establish standards of performance, assess employee performance, and guide the selection and development of individuals. Understanding and developing competencies can help individuals and organizations stay competitive and achieve their goals.

What are skills?

On the other hand, a skill refers to a specific ability or expertise in performing a particular task or activity. It is a more focused and specialized aspect of competency. Skills are typically acquired through training, practice, and experience. They can be technical, such as programming, writing, or carpentry, or they can be more general, such as communication, problem-solving, or leadership.

Skills can be developed through a variety of means, including formal training, on-the-job experience, and mentorship. It is important to continually invest in skill development to stay current and competitive in today's rapidly changing job market.

In addition to technical skills, there are also a range of general skills that are valuable in almost any role, such as problem-solving, teamwork, and adaptability. These skills are typically developed through experience and can be transferred across different roles and industries.

Ultimately, while skills are an important aspect of competency, it is important to also consider other factors such as experience, education, and personal attributes when assessing an individual's suitability for a role. A comprehensive understanding of the role and its requirements, as well as a commitment to ongoing development, are key to success in any role.

In summary, a competency is a broader set of attributes and qualities that enable effective performance in a specific context, while a skill refers to a specific ability or expertise within a particular domain. Skills are a component of competencies, which encompass a broader range of knowledge, abilities, and behaviors required for successful performance.

Competencies and Skills: The pros and cons

The Pros of focusing on competencies:

  1. Holistic Development: Competencies encompass a broader set of attributes, including knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors. By focusing on competencies, you can develop a well-rounded skill set and become adaptable in various situations.
  2. Future-Proofing: Competencies are often transferrable across different roles and industries. By building competencies, you can enhance your long-term employability and be prepared for evolving job markets.
  3. Versatility: Competencies enable you to handle diverse tasks and challenges. They can equip you with critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, leadership, and teamwork skills, which are valuable in many professional settings.
  4. Career Progression: Competencies are often associated with higher-level roles and positions. Developing and showcasing specific competencies can enhance your prospects for career advancement and open doors to new opportunities.

And the cons:

  1. Lack of Specialization: Focusing too much on competencies may result in a lack of depth in specific technical or specialized skills. Some roles may require expertise in specific areas, and emphasizing competencies alone may not be sufficient for those positions.
  2. Difficulty in Measurement: Competencies are often subjective and challenging to measure objectively. Unlike specific skills, which can be quantified or validated more easily, competencies are often assessed through a combination of observations, self-assessment, and feedback.
  3. Time and Effort: Developing competencies typically requires continuous learning and practice. It may take longer to build a robust set of competencies compared to acquiring specific skills, which can be obtained through focused training or education.

The pros of focusing on skills:

  1. Specific Relevance: Acquiring specific skills allows you to address immediate job requirements more effectively. Having in-demand technical skills can make you a valuable asset in a specialized field or industry.
  2. Efficiency: Skills-focused development can be more time-efficient, as you can target specific areas and acquire the necessary expertise relatively quickly.
  3. Tangible Credentials: Skills can often be certified or demonstrated through certifications, degrees, or portfolios. Tangible credentials can provide evidence of your abilities to potential employers or clients.

And the cons:

  1. Limited Adaptability: Relying solely on skills may limit your ability to adapt to new roles or industries that require a broader range of competencies.
  2. Skill Obsolescence: In rapidly evolving fields, specific skills can become outdated relatively quickly. Depending solely on skills without continuously updating or acquiring new ones may lead to professional stagnation.
  3. Lack of Versatility: Some skills may be highly specialized and not easily transferable to different domains. This may restrict your career options or limit your ability to explore diverse opportunities.

In practice, a balanced approach that combines both competencies and skills can be beneficial. Developing a core set of competencies while acquiring relevant skills can provide you with a strong foundation for long-term career growth and adaptability.

How to identify employees competencies and skills?

Identifying the competencies and skills of your employees is crucial for effective talent management and workforce development. Here are some steps you can take to identify and assess the competencies and skills of your employees:

  1. Define the required competencies: Begin by defining the key competencies and skills required for each role within your organization. These competencies should align with your business objectives and job descriptions. Consult relevant stakeholders, such as managers and team leaders, to ensure you have a comprehensive understanding of the skills needed.
  1. Conduct job analysis: Perform a thorough analysis of each job role to identify the specific competencies and skills necessary for success. This can involve reviewing job descriptions, conducting interviews with subject matter experts, and observing employees in their roles.
  1. Use competency frameworks: Implement competency frameworks or models that outline the core competencies and associated behaviors required for each role. These frameworks can serve as a guideline for assessing employee skills. Examples of competency frameworks include the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) and the Leadership Competency Model (LCM).
  1. Develop assessment methods: Determine the most suitable methods for assessing employee competencies and skills. Common assessment methods include:

   - Self-assessment: Allow employees to evaluate their own competencies and skills using predefined criteria or competency frameworks. This can provide valuable insights, but it's important to balance self-assessment with other assessment methods.

   - Manager assessment: Encourage managers to assess their employees' competencies and skills based on their observations, performance reviews, and feedback received. Managers often have a good understanding of their employees' abilities and can provide valuable input.

   - Peer assessment: Consider incorporating feedback from colleagues and peers who work closely with the employee. Peer assessment can provide different perspectives and a broader understanding of an individual's skills.

   - Skill tests and simulations: Depending on the nature of the competencies and skills, consider using tests or simulations to assess employee abilities. These can be particularly effective for technical or job-specific skills.

   - Performance evaluations: Regular performance evaluations can provide insights into an employee's skills and competencies. Include specific competency-based questions or criteria in performance evaluations to gather relevant information.

  1. Provide training and development opportunities: Once you have identified the competencies and skills of your employees, use this information to create targeted training and development programs. Offer opportunities for employees to enhance their existing skills and acquire new ones through workshops, courses, mentoring, or on-the-job training.
  1. Monitor progress: Regularly assess and monitor the growth and development of your employees' competencies and skills. Provide ongoing feedback and support to help employees continuously improve and stay aligned with organizational needs.

Prioritizing either competencies or skills in your career development journey has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. However, finding a balanced approach that combines both competencies and skills is crucial for long-term career growth and adaptability. Focusing on competencies allows for holistic development, future-proofing, versatility, and enhanced career progression. On the other hand, focusing on skills provides specific relevance, efficiency, and tangible credentials. By striking a balance between competencies and skills, you can build a strong foundation, leveraging the adaptability of competencies and the immediate value of skills. When identifying the competencies and skills of your employees, follow a systematic approach involving defining required competencies, conducting job analysis, using competency frameworks, developing assessment methods, providing training and development opportunities, and monitoring progress. Remember that this process should be ongoing to align with evolving job roles and organizational needs. Ultimately, a balanced approach to competencies and skills empowers individuals and organizations to thrive in an ever-changing professional landscape.

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