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Skills, and how to understand them

by Thierry Ardouin
Language: EN
Document available also in: FR DE LV NL


Skills - and how to understand them

'Skill' is one of the most often used terms in the fields of education, training, human resources or work. But it is a term which everyone sees from his own point of view, so is sometimes difficult to interpret. We have been working on this concept, and suggest these ways of identifying the main characteristics.

First, our summary, and our current definition: a skill is the formalisation of the complex dynamic of a structured set of abilities (basic knowledge, expertise, social know-how, knowing what to do, social and cultural awareness, knowledge from experience), all brought together in a complete and usable way in a particular context. A skill is the socially recognised result of interaction between the individual and the environment; in other words, a skill is a recognised ability in action.

Six characteristics of a skill.

1- The skill is closely connected with the activity

The skill only makes sense in relation to the action. Everyone agrees on this point: the skill is linked to the action; they are interdependent. The skill is 'operative and finalised' (Leplat, 1991); it is always a 'skill for action'. It is, in fact, inseparable from the activity for which it is used; the skill can only be seen through the action.

2- Skills should relate to the work situations and the type of organisation

The skill is directly linked to the action and is partly dependent on the context of the action; the work context is more or less the instigator of the skill. In other words, if the skill of the individual or the team are to be questioned, the organisation and the method of work must be queried. An individual skill, and even more so a collective one, is directly dependent on the working system. In this way, performance is directly dependent on the situation and/or the individual, revealing external or internal factors. Jacques Curie (Curie, 1998) listed the external factors in this way: the difficulty of the task; the characteristics of the tool; the unstable external causes - random, chance; the stable internal causes - abilities, skills; and the unstable internal causes - effort, motivation.

3- The skill is made up of a set of elements in dynamic interaction

This aspect is shared by most authors and most points of view, no doubt because that is the part of the iceberg which is above the surface, and so is more visible. And it is here that 'skill' goes from the singular to the plural. The singular corresponds to the generic term and its legitimate origin: it is the attribution, or the recognition, of knowledge and bears legitimate authority, without having to justify its origin or foundations. The plural refers to skills in different areas, by the objectivisation of what is concealed.

We are aware of the famous triptych knowledge, knowing what to do, knowing how to behave, accredited to Edgar Faure (1972) in his report to UNESCO. This triptych was already present in Raymond Vatier's proposal[1], in 1958, when he defined skill in connection with training: "Training is the collection of actions required to maintain all staff individually and collectively at the level of skill required to carry out the company's activities. This skill relates to the knowledge, abilities and willingness to work of each person and every group. 'Skill' is the successful outcome of these three terms: knowledge, abilities, willingness." (p. 7)  Since then, this triptych has been adopted and developed, in particular by Guy Le Boterf (Le Boterf, 1988) who added to it with knowing how to learn and raising awareness; or by Gérard Malglaive (Malglaive 1990), who combined four facets of knowledge - theoretical knowledge, procedural knowledge, practical knowledge and know-how - to develop a skill or usable knowledge. Still others, such as G. Bunk (Bunk, 1995) speak of technical, methodological, social and contributory skills (in terms of participation and engagement). Yves Schwartz (Schwartz, 1997) postulated six 'ingredients' of skill: conceptualised and formalised knowledge; the implementation of knowledge from experience; the practical implementation of both conceptual knowledge and knowledge arising from experience; the ability to invest in the community of values between the situation and the individual; the feeling of belonging to a workplace through the unconscious absorption of the historic elements of the environment; and the capacity to 'play together' in rationalising a cyclical choice.

4- The skill is recognised, socially legitimised

To be considered as a skill, an action must subscribe to an individual or collective process which leads to a  finalised, operational and recognised outcome. It is 'validated operational know-how' (Meignant, 1995). It is not only being skilled at something, it has to be a part of the situation, it has to be 'socially acceptable' (Jonnaert, 2002).

It is obvious that mastering any language only has meaning and interest if it is possible to use it, and if it is recognised by the user’s peers or responders. In a sense, only recognisable knowledge is usable, or even used. So there is a kind of return trip, still under construction, or even in the balance, where people with knowledge (as well as those who are recognised) feel able to intervene on or in a specific situation.

5- The skill is learned, and forms part of a process of identity

This is an extremely important point: we are not naturally skilled, but we become so through theoretical, practical and experience-based learning. The sciences of education and training emerge from an innate approach to skills; being skilled means taking the context and the constraints into account. In fact, the individual ingredients are only one aspect of the factors contributing to skills. People do not become skilled on their own, even if the focus is primarily on the individual. Skills, particularly professional skills, are acquired through training, as well as at the discretion of a professional navigation (Le Boterf, 1997), from day-to-day situations, or by going from one situation to another. And this training is not - and cannot be - independent of the person's identity, of what made it up, or of any interaction between the past, the present, the future and what may happen (Dubar, 1991). In other words, in order to be skilled, has the person had the opportunity to learn, or to go back to his practice as a vector of learning?

6- Skill as a theoretical social construction

This dimension is not much considered by the various authors, particularly in the field of human resources or work, and yet it is an important feature, and one which locates the limits of the skill approach at the same time as it allows for a theoretical decline. Skill is an abstract concept which only exists through the representations we build, often terms of reference. Skill is an abstract and hypothetical concept, not observable by its intrinsic nature. We only see its demonstrations, behaviour and performance. It is therefore, for us, an illustration of the 'move to action'.  In this way, working on skill is a work of formalisation and demonstration.   

Apart from the attempt to summarise existing work, we insist on three dimensions:

- the idea of the interaction of the individual and the environment, in that the person can never be skilled alone, independent of any context and organisation;

- skill is the result of a joint effort between the organisation and the individual, between the technological and the action;

- the idea of the representation and production of a reality which is never entirely discernible, and which requires analysis.



Ardouin T. (2015). Les capacités de l'organisation par les compétences individuelles, collectives et organisationnelles (The Organisation's Capabilities through Individual, Collective and Organisational Skills), in Renard L., Soparnot R., Les capacités de l'organisation en débat (A Discussion on the Organisation’s Capabilities) L'Harmattan – Logiques sociales (Social Logic). pp. 71-101.

Fernagu Oudet S., Batal C. (2016). (R)évolution du management des ressources humaines.  Des compétences aux capabilités (The (R)Evolution in Human Resource Management from Skills to Abilities). Lille : Presse universitaires du Septentrion.


[1] Lucie Tanguy (2001): Un mouvement social pour la formation permanente en France, 1945-1970 (A Social Movement for Continuous Training in France 1945-1970), in : Entre Travail et citoyenneté, la formation permanente, Paris, juin 2001. (Between Work and Citizenship: Continuous Training, Paris. June 2001).

Raymond Vatier, former HRD in the Renault works and an active member of ANDCP and IAS, took part in the implementation of GRETA's continuous training advisers.


Translation : French to English / EPALE France

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  • Sabīne Petruseviča's picture
    Piekrītu. Lai arī ir ļoti sīki aprakstīts termins prasmes, ir ļoti grūti uztvert tulkoto. 
  • Ilze IVANOVA's picture
    Šodien mēs ļoti plaši lietojam jēdzienus spējas, prasmes , kompetences, bet droši vien labi būtu, ja mēs šos jēdzienus skaidrotu konkrētāk, vienkāršāk, saprotamāk ,atbilstoši situācijām,praktiskajam pielietojumam.
  • Jean Vanderspelden's picture
    Merci Thierry pour cet éclairage et cette mise en perspective du concept clé de  "compétence" qui occupe beaucoup de notre énergie, à la fois comme appreneur dans nos contextes professionnels respectifs, mais aussi comme apprenant tout au long de nos vies. 

    Des compétences de base, clés (Voir certification CléA), transversales (Voir Etude AEFA), professionnelles, sociales, cognitives, citoyennes, etc.... 

    La formule que je préfère qui résume assez bien sa complexité et son ; "La compétence serait l'intelligence situationnellle", dixit P Villepreux.