The Difference Between Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

by Sharlyn Lauby on December 29, 2013

Confession: I have a tendency to use these terms interchangeably at times. Truth is, I shouldn’t. Knowledge, skills, and abilities (aka KSAs) are three different things. And it’s important to know the difference – even though the difference can be subtle.

knowledge, skills, abilities, skills gap, career, training

Knowledge is the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. For example, an employee might have knowledge of the ADDIE model used in instructional design. This doesn’t mean the employee knows how to be an instructional designer. It means they know the model.

Skills are the proficiencies developed through training or experience. Using the ADDIE example, the employee has demonstrated skills in applying the ADDIE model when designing training programs. Skills are usually something that has been learned. So, we can develop our skills through the transfer of knowledge.

Abilities are the qualities of being able to do something. There is a fine line between skills and abilities. Most people would say the differentiator is whether the thing in question was learned or innate. I think of organization and prioritization as abilities that can help an employee develop their instructional design skills.

The reason we sometimes use the terms interchangeably is because they are all “must-haves” in our career. Recruiters look for knowledge, skills, and abilities during the hiring process. Managers use KSAs when they are considering employees for transfers and promotions. KSAs are used as the company creates and updates their replacement and succession plans.

As we talk more about the skills gap, it will be important to understand the difference because the way we obtain knowledge, skills, and abilities can vary. And if we’re an organization trying to figure out how to solve the skills gap that exists within our workforce, then we have to link the right solutions.

For instance, if the issue is knowledge, then maybe we can create an in-house library that employees can check out books on the topics. But if the challenge is skills, the answer might be training. And if abilities need to be improved, is it possible to develop personal action plans that give employees the opportunity to refine their abilities.

Thank goodness we have the terminology purists to correct us on the words. There are times when it’s fine to use the terms interchangeably and others when we need to emphasize the exact term. Regardless, they’re all equally important.

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Brian December 29, 2013 at 11:47 am

In my view, the “semantic dissonance” problem can be solved by replacing Abilities (confusing and redundant) with Attitudes.

It has the added benefit of aligning very neatly with the Cognitive (K), Psychomotor (S), and Affective (A) learning domains identified by Bloom.

Mary Wright December 30, 2013 at 2:13 am

Excellent! I’m also going to remember this when discussing workplace accommodations — as in, one method of disability accommodation is transfer to a vacant position for which the employee is qualified by virtue of current knowledge, skill and ability…
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Sharlyn Lauby December 30, 2013 at 1:25 pm

@Brian – I like bringing attitude into the mix. Many organizations place a high emphasis on attitude and subsequently train for skills. Not sure that I would substitute attitude for ability. I see attitude as the way someone thinks or feels about a task. Thanks for sharing!

@Mary – Thanks for the comment! KSAs are valuable in many aspects of business.

Snowy Owl December 30, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Knowledge is information plus experience.

Terry Portillo January 1, 2014 at 5:26 pm

I like how you distinguish between knowledge, skills, and abilities. The latter two are so closely allied, I think I prefer the trilogy knowledge, skills, and applications (applications being a means for proving our ability to utilize our skills). The New Year is a perfect opportunity for employees to consider and then write out their S.M.A.R.T. Personal Action Plans.
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Prash Chopra January 3, 2014 at 8:11 pm

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Brian January 4, 2014 at 10:08 am

@Sharlyn you’re spot on. Attitude is the way someone thinks or feels about a task- and the world around them. And, because so much of what we can do is enhanced or inhibited by who we are when we’re doing it, I see it as a critical dimension of performance and development. It is also part of the fabric of culture because a great deal of our attitudes stem from our underlying values.

Teach: Knowledge
Coach: Skills
Counsel: Attitudes

Skill set + mind set = sustained performance

Heather January 14, 2014 at 10:57 am

Abilities and Attitude are not synonymous nor can one replace the other. I agree that attitude/affective, depending upon the desired performance outcome, can be added to the mix…but could never replace abilities.

Affective domain involves “objectives which emphasize a feeling tone, an emotion, or a degree of acceptance or rejection….expressed as interests, attitudes, appreciations, values, and emotional sets or biases” (Krathwohl, et al, 1964, p. 7).

JSF January 21, 2014 at 11:18 am

I was “raised on” KSA’s referring to Attitude, not Abilities. I always wondered why the latter was substituted when it was so close in meaning to Skills. If you have to struggle to differentiate the two then the value of tripartite seems lost.

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