Employer Resources Professional Development

Knowledge vs. skills: what’s the difference? 

Knowledge and skills are the building blocks for professional success. Both are necessary for career advancement and professional development. Though people may use these terms interchangeably, they are different. The distinction is important, especially as you support your team’s acquisition of knowledge and gain skills to further their careers and productivity.  

Knowledge is a collection of facts, information and theories. Knowing the steps to perform a task does not necessarily mean you can do it. A skill is the ability to apply knowledge to complete a job. An example of this dynamic can be found in music. Music theory is knowledge but playing the piano well is a skill.  

The difference between knowledge and skills is crucial when preparing an upskilling or professional learning and development program. Understanding the distinction can help you plan continuing education, set goals and tailor your professional development to your organization’s needs.  

Here is a closer look at the difference between knowledge and skills and how you can use both in your organization.  

What is knowledge?

Knowledge comprises facts, information and theories acquired by learning or observation. It’s theoretical, rather than practical. In other words, you can know the steps to do something without actually being able to do it. For instance, knowing the name and location of car parts does not necessarily mean you can repair a car. Repairs require the skills to remove and replace parts and integrate them with the other components.  

However, you would be unable to repair the vehicle without first knowing the name and location of the car parts. Knowledge provides the base on which you can build skills.  

This is the reason why many degree programs start with courses providing basic knowledge. An aerospace engineering student first needs to learn about theories of gravity, aerodynamics and propulsion before they learn practical skills like wing design.  

Almost every profession has a knowledge element that you need to grasp before you can develop the skills necessary to complete tasks on the job. 

What are skills? 

Skills are abilities to perform specific tasks or activities effectively. There is a knowledge component to skills. You have to know the steps to complete the job. However, the act of completion also requires abilities.  

These abilities fall into two categories: hard skills and soft skills. You acquire hard skills through training, education and on-the-job experience. Examples include writing computer programs, speaking a foreign language or constructing a house.  

These skills are quantifiable, meaning someone can perform a task to demonstrate their abilities, and you can measure the results. 

Soft skills are personal characteristics that inform how you approach work and interact with others in the workplace. These traits include problem-solving abilities, adaptability, communication skills and organization. Though you can learn techniques to help with these skills, you will most likely develop them through work or life experiences.    

Types of knowledge 

There are other ways to categorize skills and knowledge. Again, these distinctions are important as you seek the best ways to develop professionally.  

Here are the six different types of knowledge:  

Prior knowledge 

Prior knowledge is the information you bring from past experiences or studies. It also refers to information you get from a general understanding of the world. For example, a chef’s prior knowledge of cooking techniques and ingredients will often influence their new recipes. 

Dispersed knowledge 

Dispersed knowledge refers to a collection of knowledge that cannot be grasped entirely by a single person. Instead, it’s spread across a group of specialists. For example, computer engineers know about developing the hardware components of a computer. However, they do not know the techniques to develop software, applications and databases. If software and database developers work with computer engineers and contribute their knowledge, they collectively know about computer systems.  

Expert knowledge 

Expert knowledge refers to the knowledge of a person with a deep and complete understanding of a specific field or domain. Expertise requires extensive studying, practicing and experience. For example, a veteran doctor can diagnose patients more effectively than a recent medical school graduate because of their continued training and experience.  

Empirical knowledge  

Empirical knowledge is the knowledge you gain through direct experimentation or observation. Most scientists use empirical knowledge during research. For example, a researcher can gain empirical knowledge about a species of birds by observing their mannerisms during a given period. 

Explicit knowledge  

Explicit knowledge refers to knowledge that is easy to understand and explain to others. Often, explicit knowledge is tangible or recorded information. As in the teaching field, someone with prior knowledge of a topic explains their knowledge in an explicit way to help others understand it. For example, a guide to home appliances represents the author’s explicit knowledge.  

Imperative knowledge  

Imperative knowledge, also known as procedural knowledge, is fundamental information required for someone to understand and be able to accomplish a task. For example, a driver’s manual provides imperative knowledge to help drivers operate a vehicle safely and effectively. 

The key differences between knowledge and skills 

Knowledge and skills are acquired and applied in different ways. Individuals need to understand how to gain knowledge and develop skills for professional development. Also, companies need to understand these differences to develop employees’ skills and eliminate skill and knowledge gaps in their workplace.  

Acquisition: How we gain knowledge and skills 

Knowledge acquisition and skill development can both lead to professional improvement. However, they require very different approaches. Knowledge usually comes through education. You can acquire knowledge from books, lectures, university classes or online courses. Knowledge acquisition requires understanding the topic and remembering vital information about it. In many cases, you can take an exam or write an essay to show you have memorized key information or learned important concepts. 

Skill development is a more active process. You need to understand the concepts and processes behind the skill. However, you also need to practice it until you can perform it in a real-world environment.  

This process often requires repeating the task and gradually correcting mistakes until you can complete the task while meeting quality and time requirements. In the workplace, the process often involves training employees and then assessing performance. After assessment, you continue training, focusing on areas where the employee still needs improvement.  

The complexity of concepts and tasks varies. In most cases, knowledge is easier to acquire. You can usually absorb and understand information with a short period of intense study and revision. Skills require ongoing practice. Often, you need to learn how to apply the skills in different situations and account for multiple variables while still producing the same results.   

While you can acquire knowledge in a classroom or lecture or by reading a book, skills acquisition often requires hands-on experience.  

Application: Using knowledge and skills 

In the professional world, knowledge helps to make informed decisions, solve problems, create strategies or create new ideas. Decision-makers use knowledge when coming up with solutions to problems. This process often involves critical thinking, discussions with peers and the presentation of ideas to decision-makers.  

Once the planning or problem-solving stage ends, employees with the skills to execute the ideas take over. While knowledge lays the framework and focuses the tasks on specific areas, you need to apply skills to carry out the plan and achieve tangible results.  

The relationship between knowledge and skills 

While knowledge and skills are applied differently, they are usually complementary to one another. In real-life situations, you rarely see the application of skills without knowledge to guide the process.  

Here is a closer look at how these two areas complement each other and why developing both can be important for the success of an organization and the advancement of individual careers.  

How knowledge enhances skills 

During education, training and professional development, knowledge serves as a base for skills development. Knowledge gives you the context, understanding and necessary steps to perform a task. An understanding of the theoretical process allows you to focus your skills development on specific actions.  

An understanding of the process and context of a skill can also help with problem-solving. When something goes wrong during a task, you use knowledge to find potential solutions and weigh their effectiveness. This critical thinking is useful because it allows you to solve problems quickly without having to ask for assistance from others.  

Knowledge acquisition is not only important for company decision-makers. It promotes independent action and problem-solving for skilled employees. For instance, a surgeon does not have time to ask for assistance during surgery. They use their broad knowledge of the body and anatomy to solve problems during procedures even if they are outside of their primary specialty.  

How skills apply knowledge 

You can make plans, adopt strategies and solve problems with knowledge. However, these ideas remain theoretical without skilled application.  

Companies need people with technical skills to carry out the plans and achieve the expected results. For instance, designers can use knowledge to plan the user interface and backend architecture of a website. However, they need programmers, testers and web developers to execute the plan and create a working site.  

In many industries, skills are necessary to turn knowledge-based plans into tangible results.  

The importance of balancing knowledge and skills 

Knowledge and skills are both necessary for success in the workplace. For companies, it is important to balance knowledge and skills to inform planning and execute plans.  

Companies can perform a skills gap analysis to find areas where they lack the skills to execute ideas. Since businesses and industries constantly evolve, this can be an ongoing process.  

It’s important to have a system for upskilling employees so that they can fill current gaps and those that might emerge in the future.