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Let's talk about skills, and play around a bit...

- Anne-lise Ulmann
Sprog: EN
Document available also in: FR



            The thorny problem of skills

The question of skills is part of this new dynamic, which today still remains very controversial as to its form. These controversies particularly involve the way of defining, and therefore using, the concept of 'skill', a word imbued with the social history of work.

If today it is business managers who call for the evaluation of their staff's skills, this state of affairs was very different at the beginning of last century. Then, workers in particular complained bitterly that 'the bosses pay for qualifications but don't recognise skills'. This complaint can probably be explained by the fact that at that time (the beginning of the twentieth century), few workers had qualifications, because many of them had been called up to serve in the army before they had finished their studies. On returning after the war, during the time of full employment, many were taken on directly without qualifications. However, most companies having structured and graded their jobs according to the Parodi-Croizat method, which values qualifications, these people without any inevitably find themselves at the bottom of the social ladder, without the possibility of climbing it or of having their skills recognised. Consequently, during the first half of the twentieth century, the term 'skill' belongs more in the semantics of the labour question, rather than to the social management practices of a ruling class.

The word passed definitively into the opposite camp in the eighties, when the crisis on one hand, and the demands of competition and quality on the other, drove business managers to value skills and not just qualifications. If the reasons of this evolution are naturally understandable by the obvious interest of HR managers to avoid over-valuing qualifications, now that they are commonplace for a greater number, it is also connected to changes in the social context, which increasingly values individual investment in work.

This individual valuation is therefore first perceived as a new opportunity to be grasped, giving greater social justice, because even those who have no qualifications can, in this new context, profit from their skills and have more chance to develop them. However, in spite of this long wait for recognition, the fear that the consideration of skills will only serve to limit the cost of labour is quickly suspected by the social partners, and the word 'skill' is then relegated to the camp of those who hold the power.

Nevertheless, beyond the current controversies which make the term 'skill' a word with deeper meaning socially, it also shows the need to understand work better, not only to value it more highly but also to transform it. The skill then covers complex and contrasting realities, depending on the uses connected with the clarification of these skills.


Several definitions and different uses

A skill is the subject of several definitions which do not bear the same focus of analyses on the questions to be answered. In conversations about everyday life, it is often defined by what it is not; definitions of what it actually is are often difficult to establish. It all depends on the point of view.

(Different definitions of skill: exercise to be designed).

Here are three different definitions, arrived at from different points of view.

1-  LE BOTERF, in MASSON A & PARLIER M (dir) 2004 Skill Initiatives: Editions de l’Anact

"Skill is 'knowing how to act', (the ability to mobilise and combine different resources) combined with the 'ability to act' (having the means of acting from the point of view of content, organisation, and working conditions) and the 'desire to act' (awareness of the stakes, attractiveness, remuneration).  "

2- ZARIFIAN P 1999 Objective: skill.  Editions liaisons sociales

A skill is the practical intelligence of a situation, which manifests itself by:

- autonomy,
- acceptance of responsibility,
- communication.

Autonomy and responsibility 'form part of the basic definition of the skill: we could say that it is about social attitudes, totally integrated into professional skills, which express the organisation's new choices. These attitudes can really only be learnt and developed by accepting the professional situations which require them'. The content and organisation of the work mobilise and develop skills.

3- LEPLAT J. 1988 Cognitive Skills at Work, in Perruchet P. (dir) Automatic Cognitive Reflexes. Mardaga Editeurs

A skill has four characteristics:

It is operational and finalised. It only makes sense with regard to the action. A skill always has an effect, inseparable from the activities by which it shows itself and from the aim which follows this action. "The concept of skill must be always specified: we are skilled 'for' a task or for a set of 'tasks'.

A skill is learnt. It is not natural.  It is a personal and social construction acquired by theoretical learning and experiences.

A skill is structured. It combines elements (knowledge and practical experience, reasoning) to meet the needs of adaptation.

A skill is abstract and hypothetical. It is indiscernible. We only see its manifestations: behaviour, performance.

Individually or collectively, skills are developed in different domains. It is therefore possible to construct a typology of skills, which facilitates their distinction. We can identify skills in the following ways.

  • Cognitive (inherent in all activities): knowing how to construct representations; reasoning with an internal logic (eg solving a mathematical equation, analysing the causes of a malfunction).
  • Linguistic: knowing how to use one or several languages in the way best suited to the context (eg reading, writing, speaking to the boss or to a customer, writing a complaint).
  • Technical: knowing how to handle particular tools (eg use specific software, drive a crane).
  • Methodological: knowing how to use a method (eg teaching a child to read, keeping a company's business accounts).
  • Strategic: knowing how to analyse a complex situation and act on it (eg supervising a team, captaining a boat, undertaking investment decisions).
  • Relational: knowing how to establish a particular relationship (and knowing which to use) (eg taking care of a handicapped person, cold calling, taking a mediation meeting).
  • Organisational: knowing how to organise work for oneself and for others (eg analysing the workload, reviewing a procedure, constructing a schedule).

These different definitions tend to inter-relate, so that the way of defining the word is directly connected to the uses which are going to be made of it. In this way, when a skill is considered as a way of managing mobilities within a structure, or as a revelation of the real work to carry out training, whatever is proposed to define it will not be entirely of the same nature. In one case we can say that the skill allows the identification of elements of knowledge or experience which must above all be transferable from a sector to another; in another case, it will be more a question of clearly understanding how the work is actually carried out, so as to organise training courses which correctly prepare the operators for their function. In this way, we can already identify that, according to the use which is going to be made of the skill, the level of detail needed for its clarification will not be the same.


 Let’s play with skills for a moment:

How do we identify an employee's skills in order to train him?

The question is difficult for at least three reasons:

  • It often happens that the employee is so used to doing what he does that he does not even know that he has acquired certain skills. We say that they are incorporated.
  • Sometimes, an employee does not want to admit to his skill. It is, in a way, his secret and so if he is going to share it with you, he has to trust you, to have the feeling that what he is going to give you will not be deformed, betrayed, passed on. We sometimes forget, with the principle of skill sharing, that employees do not always want to share.
  • Finally, sometimes the employee is very competent; his actions are perfect; but he does not behave in the way which he is supposed to do. He does not always respect the rules, because he has found a way of doing which is much more effective. Are you going to tell him that he does not follow the correct procedures, even if he is very competent? 


            To try to understand the complexities which have to conflict to be called a skill, do the following little exercise:

Tomorrow, you have a problem, and you cannot get to work on time. It is awkward, you do not like taking time off, your boss will be annoyed, your colleagues can need you ... You're looking for a way out.  Suddenly, you have an idea: you can ask your friend to stand in for you. Tell him everything he has to do tomorrow morning between 9 and 10.30 to stand in you, without anyone noticing what you have done.

It's up to you to tell your friend everything he has to do ...

Is it so easy to explain the way you have to behave, and the skills we use every day at work? And in doing that, what definition of 'skill' seems to you the best way of explaining what your work really involves?


Anne-Lise Ulmann is an EPALE expert (workplace learning, life skills). She is a researcher and a teacher at CNAM (Centre National des Arts et Métiers).

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