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

Most people know how to use a device. The average person that you stop in the street could tell you that you need to turn on the power button . Most people could go into more advanced detail, perhaps telling you to connect the charger, log onto the Internet, search for the wifi, how to write code.

Just because someone knows how to use a device, should they be trusted to do so?

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?

Skills are the practical application of knowledge needed to successfully undertake the duties that make up the occupation. They have to be learnt through on and/or off-the-job training or experience. They do not need to be expressed in the workplace context, because the duties are expressed in this way. Skills statements typically include a verb.

& Behaviours?

Behaviours are mind-sets, attitudes or approaches required for competence, generally across the entire occupation. Whilst these can be innate or instinctive, they can also be learnt, so they are effectively a subset of skills. Behaviours tend to be very transferable meaning that, at any one level, they may be more similar across apprenticeship standards than knowledge and skills

Why do employers need to know the difference?

Beyond the CV and interview stages, understanding the difference between knowledge, skills and behaviours 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.

A good employer should be able to identify an employee’s abilities and should provide opportunities for those skills to be used and refined, even if the development of an ability is a much longer and more complicated process.

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

Knowledge, skills and behaviours 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. Whereas Behaviours can be highlighted in the interview process by arriving on time and how you portray yourself.

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.