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An HR manager asked me once what the difference is between skills, competencies and talents. And I do understand this question because these terms are interchangeable. Under ‘competencies’ HR advisors often mean behavior and competencies the way they are described in the competency library of their organization.

Although these terms overlap, there is a difference between them. In this article these differences are explained and I will also clarify why it is important for an organization to know these differences.

What is a skill?

There are many definitions of skills:

  • Abilities you need to perform well
  • Abilities you acquire through training
  • Something you are good at
  • The ability to find solutions in a certain area

Moreover, there is often a distinction between hard and soft skills.

Soft skills

Soft skills are personal, emotional, social and intellectual abilities. It is a technical term that is originally used in competency-based curricula for education. In training and educational sector soft skills are understood as: the ability to convert one’s competencies, when necessary in cooperation with others, into practical abilities and knowledge.

Soft skills are a collective name for personal social qualities, communication and language skills, personal habits, kindness and optimism that add color to the relationships with others.

Hard skills

Hard skills are also called functional or technical competencies that can be derived from one’s curriculum vitae. Hard skills are related to functions, processes and roles in organizations and they are needed to put a specific job or task into practice and bring it to a successful conclusion. Examples are programing in C#, speaking Dutch, driving a car, milling etcetera.

So a skill is something that you have learned and thus you have become more qualified and capable to perform one or more tasks required for your work or role. As such soft skills are complementary to the hard skills.

What is a competency?

I would like to use the iceberg metaphor while talking about competencies. What is above the water surface is the observable behavior. Below the water surface are the causes of this behavior: knowledge, capacities, beliefs, norms & standards, values, motivation and intelligence (IQ and EQ). The observable behavior arises from the dynamics of the natural behavior of a person and the desired behavior is determined by his/her environment.

Talent is an aptitude for competencies. A competency can be seen as cluster of expectations described as criteria for behavior and made explicit by an organization for the roles and functions of employees. A competency therefore is the behavior that the organizations would like to see. Someone can acquire this behavior through knowledge and experience. It works much faster and better if the person has the talent to develop the competency.

Talent determines the aptitude for the competency.

Organizations make up competency profiles to clarify their expectations about a function or a role.

Example:

In IT ‘programming’ is an important hard skill. To write a good computer program the programmer needs to have good analytical qualities and make sure the program meets quality requirements. So, such competencies as ‘Problem Analysis’, ‘Attention to Detail’ and ‘Focus on Quality’ are underlying for the skill ‘programming’. Concrete examples of behavior that define the competency ‘Problem Analysis’ are e.g. “quickly sees causes and consequences” and “sees connections between seemingly unconnected operational problems and events”.

Thus competencies are capabilities that are expressed in observable successful behavior.

A competency encompasses the capability and the associated behavior and knowledge that someone needs to apply certain skills.

Example:

A skill of a purchasing agent of a company is for example procurement. In this case ‘Negotiating’ is an important underlying competency for the purchasing agent. However, for a diplomate – for who ‘Negotiating’ is also an important competency- other behavioral criteria will be used for this competency. 

The behavioral examples will therefore vary per function and per level of competency development (you can distinguish between e.g. operational, tactical or strategical behavioral examples; or between behavioral examples for junior, medior and senior advisors).

What is a drive?

A drive is what motivates a person from the inside. The basic human needs are essentially at the bottom of these drives. These needs boil down to avoiding something (e.g. fear, rejection, fighting) or to getting something (e.g. recognition, contact, fun). Drives are in fact neutral, which means it is neither good nor bad when the drive is weak or strong. However, in a certain environment, function or role a certain drive, or combinations of drives, unfold better.

Individual needs are manifested as drives and drives in their turn can be manifested as talents (both for high and low scores). The Talent Motivation Assessment (TMA) measures 22 drive-scores and 44 related talents.

Talents give color to one’s personality. Thus someone who has a high score on the drive ‘Dominance’ can have a talent to lead and convince others. Someone who has a low score has a talent to influence others in a more subtle manner and probably does not create that much of resistance in conversations.

What is a talent?

Talent is a catch-all term. In daily life we often mean a person when we use the word ‘talent’ (e.g. a soccer player), but in the context of talent management we see talent as a property of every human being. Everybody has talents but not everybody has talents required for a specific job or function.

Every person wants to develop his natural talents. Talents proceed from the drives of people and therefore originate from their natural predisposition. A talent is the intrinsic and natural need of a person. People get the highest recognition when they demonstrate the behavior that results from their talents. Talents color one’s personal identity. From natural talents someone can develop their competencies and skills

Malcolm Timothy Gladwell in his book “Outliers gave a short but powerful definition of a talent: “talent is the desire to practice”. From natural talents someone can develop their competencies and skills” In other words: talent is a strong desire to do something and a strong will to persevere in the effort related to it.

Talent-based Management

Of course someone who has a certain talent will not automatically show the associated behavior or competencies. You can see a talent as a factor for the potential development of competencies. From their talents people develop their personal preferred behavior. So, if you know what someone’s talents are, you can also predict the potential for the development of the associated competencies.

The organization can improve the performance of people by facilitating their talents properly. Every person wants to develop his natural talents.

NEEDS => DRIVES => TALENTS => COMPETENCIES => SKILLS

To attune the cohesion between talents and competencies in the organization it is crucial that every person, team and management can strategically translate talents into desired competencies and identify the steps that are needed for this process.

These steps are explained in a clear organizational strategy for talent management.

The context determines what the most important competencies are and which ones are critical/crucial. The importance of competencies is often based on three criteria:

  • Core competencies: These are competencies that each employee in the organization should be able to show or develop.
  • Key competencies: These competencies add important value to the results of the organizations and define the potentiality of employees to contribute to the strategic needs of the organizations. They are not only important for specialists but for all individuals in the organizations.
  • Critical competencies: These are the competencies the organizations need. Without these competencies the organization cannot achieve its goals and the organization strategy will fail.

Conclusion:

If you want to start with talent development or talent management, it is important that you understand the difference between skills, competencies, talents and drives and also know what competencies the organization considers to be important.

Moreover it is important for the organizations to define what competencies should have priority to achieve the maximum result of HR – investments.

(Click here to read this article in Dutch)