“Understanding Human Competence at Work: An Interpretative Approach” by Jorgen Sandberg

Subject: Employee Management
Pages: 6
Words: 1706
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: PhD


Organisational activities have always been heavily dependent on the concept of human competence that emerged when the attribution of authority shifted toward reason and ability. Different notions of competence have entered professional practice, invariably changing it from both domain-specific and behavioural perspectives (Mulder 107). The introduction of different conceptions of professional competence has resulted in the development of competence-based learning programs aimed at professional growth. Professional identity construction is increasingly being highlighted in organisations because competence is regarded as one of the most valuable resources in the twenty-first century (Kosmala 578).

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This paper reflects on the article titled “Understanding Human Competence at Work: An Interpretative Approach” by Jorgen Sandberg. The aim of the research presented in the article is to explore competence profiles in order to conceptualise the notion of competence. Sandberg rejects the rationalistic approach to identifying human competence, in which it is ‘seen as constituted by specific sets of attributes, such as the knowledge and skills used in performing particular work’ (Sandberg 9). Instead, the author advocates for an interpretative approach to the conceptualisation of competence—an approach known as phenomenography. This paper aims to conduct an impersonal evaluation of the article’s strengths and weaknesses. It will be argued that the interpretive approach to solving the fundamental managerial problem of conceptualising professional competence should only be utilized by leaders of large organisations who have a statistically meaningful sample of employees whose personal experiences can be used as the point of departure for generating descriptions of professional competence.


It is clear from the abstract of the article that it is not an easy task to choose an appropriate means of creating a comprehensive and precise framework of workplace competence. In order to develop a viable approach to competence at work, the researcher makes a clear statement of the problem by suggesting that to increase the economic effectiveness of their companies, managers should have a clear understanding of what constitutes the difference between the least and most competent employees (Sandberg 9). The point of departure in this exploration of the issue is the author’s review of the current rationalistic approaches to identifying and conceptualising competence at work.

Sandberg argues that the modern managerial approaches to conceptions of professional competence are based on the principles of rationalistic research that are inherent to science (10). These approaches can be divided into three groups: ‘the worker-oriented, the work oriented, and the multimethod-oriented’ (Sandberg 10). The researcher states that by engaging in the rationalistic attempt of conceptualising competence, scholars create an attribute-based framework in which workers who are capable of performing their duties with a high level of finesse are thought to possess a specific set of attributes (Sandberg 11). Furthermore, it is argued that the workers who are most effective in accomplishing their work simply have superior sets of skills and attributes. Sandberg concludes his review of the extant literature on the issue by saying that ‘the rationalistic “operationalizations” of attributes into quantitative measures often result in abstract and overly narrow and simplified descriptions’ (11).

In this way, the author argues that the biggest flaw of the rationalistic approach to competence is its indirectness. In other words, knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) cannot be used to illuminate the central prerequisites of performing a task or a job in a competent manner. The author claims that the mere fact of possessing a set of KSA does not guarantee excellent performance because workers use their competencies differently (Sandberg 11). To support this claim, the researcher utilises phenomenography as an interpretative approach to competence. He then presents and discusses the results of his research involving 50 engineers who work in an optimisation department of the Volvo Car Corporation (Sandberg 12).


After reading the first two sections of the article, one can determine that Sandberg manages to escape the pull of what Chalmers calls ‘naïve inductivism’ by introducing his readers to a clear statement of the problem (qtd. in Durand and Chantler 15). By identifying the problem and critically evaluating the rationalistic approach and its underlying dualistic ontology, the researcher presupposes a theory, albeit not explicitly formulated, thereby rendering his research in the hypothetico-deductive model of scientific inquiry. However, it should not escape one’s notice that despite the fact that Sandberg presents an alternative approach to the bifurcation of professional competence into two separate entities (i.e., worker and work), the author does not generate a hypothesis that can be confirmed or falsified through research. Such an approach to empirical observations is impermissible within a theoretical framework for understanding scientific knowledge produced by Karl Popper in 1968 (Durand and Chantler 15).

It can be argued that the inquirer’s decision to reject the rationalistic position in favour of an interpretive approach to social research is driven by a desire to uncover the meaning of reality as it is understood by the engineers participating in the study. The researcher even goes as far as to say that the conception of professional competence in his study ‘signifies the indissoluble relation between what is conceived and how it is conceived’ (Sandberg 12). This statement allows one to deduce that the article’s content is an attempt to define the conceptions of professional competence by relying on two dimensions: connotation and denotation.

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It would be hard to disagree with the researcher’s claim that ‘when attributes are viewed as context-free, the tacit dimension of competence is overlooked’ (Sandberg 12). This notion is reflected in Sandberg’s approach to data analysis, which seeks to find variations in the engineers’ conceptions of the task of engine optimisation. The inquirer conducts a content analysis of the interview transcripts in an attempt to uncover the meaning of every response provided by the study participants in context. By doing so, Sandberg attempts to show that the dominating rationalistic approach to the concept of competence at work is invalid because it does not take into account a wide range of personal experiences and perceptions.

In the discussion section of the article, the researcher argues that ‘it is the workers’ ways of conceiving work that make up, form, and organize their knowledge and skills into distinctive competence in performing their work’ (Sandberg 12) and goes on to conclude that instead of using attributes to describe competence, one should opt for employees’ conceptions of their own professions. However, although there is no denying that attributes are often work-specific and should not be divested of context lest they lose their tacit dimension of competence, it is hard to agree with Sandberg that subjective connotations of meaning, which are inherently influenced by people’s personal experiences, should be used as the point of departure for generating descriptions of professional competence.

Representative constructs used for the systematisation of experiences are secondary instruments of cognition and can be regarded as symbols of meaning. According to Hill, people are the ultimate bearers of meaning; therefore, ‘every considerable variation in the bearer carries with it a correlated variation in meaning’ (21) because it is impossible to divest a cause from its effect. Nonetheless, it is impossible to deny that there is a high degree of concurrence in the meaning that people attach to their experiences. After all, interpersonal communication would not be possible without such correspondence between subjective connotations inherent to all concepts. Hill argues that the fact that people have similar conceptual needs explains the development of language (21).

Having established that there is an overlap between subjectively determined experiences and meanings, it is necessary to look at the denotation of the concept of professional competence provided by researchers and theorists who specialise in competence construction. The extant body of literature defines the concept of professional competence as the capacity of a worker to use his or her knowledge and skills to successfully perform a certain task or job (Kosmala 578; Mulder 112). Bound and Lin, in their paper on conceptualisations of competence, follow Sandberg’s line of reasoning that stand-alone attributes of workers cannot be divorced from the context of the work (404). Furthermore, the researchers suggest that the concept of competence at work should be regarded as a continuous process of personal development, rather than ‘a static end product’ (Bound and Lin 405). However, unlike Sandberg, these scholars do not posit that personal conceptions of professional competence should be used to solve the fundamental managerial problem of understanding what constitutes competence at work.

It can be argued that the study conducted by Sandberg, when taken as a whole, presents an exceptionally convincing approach to conceptualising professional competence. However, despite being well designed, the study is not entirely effective in contributing to the understanding of the problem under investigation. This judgment has to do with the fact that the procedures for exploring the issue have already been conducted countless times and at a much larger scale. Indeed, conceptions of professional competence have been of interest to people since the dawn of civilisation (Mulder 107). The competence movement has been unwillingly driven by domain-specific experiences and perceptions of professionals across all fields of practice. As a result of this movement, complex competence models have emerged to outline the requirements for assessing performance at work. The current understanding of competence can be regarded as the consequence of an analysis of people’s conceptions of work fuelled by the desire to optimize productivity. It can be argued that this analysis has led to the emergence of the current sets of KSA associated with different trades and professions.

It is undoubtedly a challenging task to come up with the specific attributes that an employee has to possess in order to reach the level of performance required by an organisation. However, it would be unreasonable to suggest that a small company hiring an employee would be better off if its managers were to devise their official demands for competence based on informal criteria for cognitive and affective factors as well as personality traits provided by a minuscule workforce.


The article is exceptionally well written and provides a novel approach to understanding the concept of competence at work. However, Sandberg’s approach to solving the fundamental managerial problem of conceptualising professional competence should only be utilized by leaders of large organisations who have a statistically meaningful sample of employees whose personal experiences can be used to generate descriptions of professional competence.

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Works Cited

Bound, Helen, and Magdalen Lin. “Developing Competence at Work.” Vocations and Learning, vol. 6, no. 3, 2013, pp. 403-420.

Durand, Mary, and Tracey Chantler. Principles of Social Research. McGraw-Hill Education, 2014.

Hill, Thomas. The Concept of Meaning. Routledge, 2014.

Kosmala, Katarzyna. “Scripting Shifts in the Regulatory Structures: Professional Competence Constructed as a Lack.” Organization, vol. 20, no. 4, 2012, pp. 577-595.

Mulder, Martin. “Conceptions of Professional Competence.” International Handbook of Research in Professional and Practice-based Learning, edited by Stephen Billett, Christian Harteis, and Hans Gruber, Springer, 2014, pp. 107-139.

Sandberg, Jorgen. “Understanding Human Competence at Work: An Interpretative Approach.” Academy of Management Journal, vol. 43, no. 1, 2000, pp. 9-25.