Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.

Anton Chekhov, Russian writer

Definitions of competency, skill, and knowledge vary across different sources. Some may say that terms like competency and skill are interchangeable, while others clearly don’t. These variations are not important for this blog post. My aim is to help you grasp the differences behind these notions. Which term you use at the end is up to you.

During my earlier career, I spent a considerable amount of time reading books and very little time experimenting in my text editor. Such extremes are never a good option. To understand why, we need to reflect on the definition of competency.

Being competent is being able to execute a given task efficiently. It’s not just about knowing something, but doing something. But to do something you need to learn how to do it. So, there are two different aspects behind competency, namely knowledge and skill.

Knowledge refers to the theory, that is the gathering of information that help you answer questions, take informed decisions, and make good choices. Skill refers to the practice, that is the numerous training sessions required to do something, each time going further, and getting better.

Let’s take, for example, touch typing. The knowledge behind touch typing can be grasped in a few minutes. You should type without using the sense of sight to find the keys on a keyboard and each key should be pressed by one and only one finger. For example, you should use your index fingers to press the keys F and J (using your left and right hand, respectively). It’s very easy to understand the logic and why it’s necessary if you want to type faster. But developing the skill to touch type is a totally different challenge. You need to practice every day for your muscle memory to develop the skill and if you plan to type above 100 WPM (words per minute), be prepared to practice during months. Touch typing is the perfect example of a competency that takes five minutes to learn the theory and a very long time to master the practice. This example is not isolated.

What about professional writing? Learning the rules of good style is relatively easy. They are numerous books on the subject. Elements of Style, written decades ago by William Strunk Jr. and‎ E. B. White, remains the timeless reference. In just a few hours, you see perfectly what works and what doesn’t work. But knowing the rules is not enough to write clearly. Far from it. You only know if what you have written follows the rules but you will not instantly write clear English. It takes time. Indeed, it’s a skill that you will develop throughout your whole life.

These examples demonstrate that developing a skill is a combination of knowledge and effort. Basic knowledge is always a prerequisite. Practicing without knowledge could be extremely dangerous. Imagine diving into water before learning the movements. Not a good idea. Interestingly, practicing helps develop knowledge, that help you get better at practicing. It’s a virtuous circle.

Sometimes, developing knowledge without practice is an acceptable choice. A dietitian does not need to get fat and try to lose weight to help patients in their weightloss. Knowledge suffices to advice the patient in changing his or her alimentary habits. The knowledge of one could help the other to adapt his or her practice. In the same way, a sport trainer doesn’t need to have won a gold medal at Olympic Games to help trainees reach the top. Of course, it helps and it is not surprising to see so many retired champions to assume the role of trainer. But when things need to be done, that is a different story.

The principal risk about ignoring skills is known as the illusion of competence (or Dunning–Kruger effect). It happens when you think you’ve mastered a set of material but you really haven’t. That’s why it’s an illusion. You’ve fooled yourself into believing you know something you don’t. Many students find out during an exam that they actually don’t know the material, even though they believed they did when they were studying it. Practice help to remediate this situation. It’s the best way to validate that you have really learn the subject.

On the opposite, ignoring knowledge altogether is not without consequences. It results in skills executed in a suboptimal manner. For example, you could be promoted manager due to strong communication skills, but if you fail to learn the theory behind Management 3.0, agile methodologies, the practices of lean manufacturing, the importance of quality, the influence of psychology, and so on, it will take you years of trial and error to improve your practices a little bit, or worse, to convince you that you are doing the right thing when you aren’t.

To conclude, developing knowledge is easy but developing skills is hard. It requires perseverance, commitment, concentration, and almost all, time. If you spend most of your time acquiring new knowledge - devouring books, consuming your feeds on Feedly, scrolling indefinitely your Tweeter Timeline, you may be not doing the right thing. In the end, it is always the right balance between knowledge and skills that makes the difference but keep in mind knowledge is often the easier part of the competency equation.

About the author

Julien Sobczak works as a software developer for Scaleway, a French cloud provider. He is a passionate reader who likes to see the world differently to measure the extent of his ignorance. His main areas of interest are productivity (doing less and better), human potential, and everything that contributes in being a better person (including a better dad and a better developer).

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