“Understanding Human Competence at Work: An Interpretive Approach” – Article Review

Subject: Employee Management
Pages: 6
Words: 1676
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: PhD


In the article “Understanding Human Competence at Work: An Interpretive Approach”, Jorgen Sandberg uses an interpretive approach known as phenomenography with the view to examining what constitutes competence in work settings. The concept of competence, according to Jorgen, warrants further exploration due to its association with organisational viability and competitive success. Specifically, senior managers have to develop an adequate understanding of what constitutes human competence at work if they are to have the required capacity to manage training and development efficiently, which in turn guarantees organisational effectiveness. In this light, Jorgen demonstrates enough justification on the need of the study and proceeds to report an empirical investigation of the selected interpretive approach (phenomenography) by virtue of conducting a competence analysis of engine optimisers at the Volvo Car Corporation in Sweden.

Why the Choice of the Interpretive Approach

Jorgen begins the discussion on why he uses the interpretive approach by providing a comprehensive analysis of current rationalistic approaches to competence, including illuminating the weaknesses of these approaches. Specifically, he distinguishes three main rationalistic approaches to the study of competence, namely the worker-oriented method (competence essentially perceived as constituted by characteristics possessed by employees, such as knowledge, skills, abilities and personal traits), the work-oriented method (competence regarded as a specific set of attributes and work, rather than the worker, is viewed as the point of departure), and the multimethod-oriented approach (competence is constituted by a specific set of attributes, though the approach takes a more comprehensive view of competence by combining attributes of the worker-oriented method with those of the work-oriented method). Jorgen underscores the fact that the discussed rationalistic approaches regard competence as an attribute-oriented phenomenon by virtue of being constituted by a particular set of attributes the employee utilise to accomplish work.

Jorgen’s choice of the interpretive approach to the study of competence at work is influenced by several factors. First, he provides evidence to demonstrate how the rationalistic approaches have been criticised as challenging for identifying and describing competence at work because of operationalising attributes of competence into quantitative measures, often resulting in abstract and exceedingly constricted and abridged descriptions that are unable to sufficiently represent the intricacy of competence in work performance. The second factor identified by Jorgen is nested on the issue of predefining what constitutes competence, whereby rationalistic approaches are accused of often confirming the researcher’s own conception of competence rather than capturing employees’ competence. The third factor is anchored on the indirect nature of the descriptions of competence generated by rationalistic approaches, resulting in a scenario whereby the competencies discussed under these models fail in their attempt to elucidate what constitutes competence in accomplishing work-related activities. These challenges, in my view, may interfere with the desire to develop an adequate and insightful understanding of human competence at work, hence the need to use a qualitative interpretive approach.

Drawing from the shortfalls highlighted above, Jorgen uses the interpretive research tradition due to its phenomenological base; that is the specification that the individual and the world are inherently related through the individual’s lived experience of the world. Consequently, the interpretive approach allows Jorgen to view competence as comprising the meaning that work takes on for the employee in his or her lived experience of it, hence providing an in-depth and insightful way of understanding human competence at work. Specifically, the interpretive approach provides Jorgen with the opportunity to investigate the attributes used in accomplishing work in a situational or context-dependent way, particularly upon the realisation that the attributes used in performing work are not distinct from employees’ experience of it but internally associated with work through their way of framing the specific work situation.

Why the Choice of Phenomenography Research Design

Jorgen makes a good choice by selecting phenomenography as the preferred research design for the study based on its capacity to describe the qualitatively diverse ways in which components of reality are experienced by individuals. This way, Jorgen develops the capacity to examine competence at work by undertaking an in-depth and insightful analysis of its meaning in relation to the people being studied. Additionally, this research design enables Jorgen to develop an adequate understanding of how employees experience or make sense of their work and work-related settings through the use of the phenomenographic terminology of conception.

Lessons from “Understanding Human Competence at Work”

Jorgen provides a multiplicity of contributions to the concept of competence. Although competence is difficult to measure due to its variability on other factors, his use of the interpretive approach ensures that he comes up with original and insightful findings on how human competence can be understood in work-related settings. What is more, Jorgen uses the primary data collected from the field to develop a hierarchy of competence in engine optimisation which enables readers to develop an in-depth understanding of human competence at work through the use of phenomenographic conceptions. Jorgen’s contribution can be summarised as exploring competence in terms of three different meaning-making elements that characterise engine optimisers at the Volvo Car Corporation in Sweden, namely optimisation of separate qualities, optimisation of interacting qualities, and optimisation from the customer’s perspective.

Competence in terms of Optimisation of Separate Qualities

First, Jorgen’s article is important because it underscores the understanding of competence in terms of optimising separate qualities. His choice of an interpretive research approach and phenomenographic research design allows for an in-depth and holistic exploration of competence within the context of optimising separate qualities. Here, Jorgen makes good use of participants’ perspective of the phenomena (narrative data) to explicate a competent optimiser in terms of having the ability to analyse and interpret how one or several monitoring parameters have influenced the quality of work, attaining accuracy and methodical rigor in the optimisation process, demonstrating adequate understanding of how the qualities of the engine react to shifts in the work parameter, and showing an in-depth understanding of which monitoring parameters have an influence on a specific quality of the engine. He also goes to great lengths to demonstrate how these competence attributes are related to each other with the view to delivering efficiency and effectiveness.

Competence in terms of Optimisation of Interacting Qualities

Again, Jorgen is able to use the interpretive approach and phenomenographic design to his advantage by developing an in-depth understanding of how competence is embedded in several interacting phases in which every engine quality is optimised in relation to every other. He makes good use of participant narrative data to understand competence in work-related settings through the following interacting qualities; capacity to optimise the qualities of the engine in the right order while maintaining accuracy, capacity to establish links between the qualities of the engine, capacity to understand and develop monitoring systems with the view to reaching a desired interaction among the engine qualities, demonstration of interest in engines and self-teaching about the links between engine qualities, and ability to cooperate with other employees involved and communicate to them on how the engine ought to be optimised. Here, it is important to underscore the fact that the use of a research approach that is oriented towards the realisation of meaning has enabled Jorgen to highlight how optimisers in these category develop their own knowledge and include other optimisers in the learning process with the view to achieving a shared understanding about the ongoing work, which in turn motivates the team and spur their efficiency in completing the designated work.

Competence in terms of Optimisation from the Customer’s Perspective

It is exceedingly unlikely that the commonly used rationalistic approaches to competence can trigger the understanding of competency in terms of the relationship between a particular work setting and the needs or expectations of customers. However, through the use of the qualitative research approach, Jorgen has succeeded to demonstrate competency in terms of the relationship between an optimised engine and the customers’ experience and requirements of driving. Employees using this conception are able to not only demonstrate a practical sense of the work to be completed, but also to understand and develop efficient monitoring systems with the view to achieving the set customer requirements. Jorgen’s findings are consistent with other interpretive-based research studies in demonstrating that employees in this category also cooperate with other employees and demonstrate an active interest in the particular work typology and self-teaching about customers’ requirements or specifications.


Overall, it is clear that Jorgen’s use of the interpretive approach and the phenomenography research design has enabled him to develop a new understanding of, and a new methodology for, discovering and describing what constitutes human competence in work-related settings. A major finding that is bound to significantly shift the way competence is viewed in practice is the realisation that the basic meaning structure of employees’ conceptions of their work comprise human competence; that is, the knowledge, skills, and other attributes used by employees to accomplish specific work are preceded by and anchored upon their conceptions of work. Consequently, researchers and practitioners need to focus on the employee’s particular conception of work to understand his or her competencies in undertaking and successfully completing the work in question. Jorgen also does well to provide evidence demonstrating that the conceptions of work developed and internalised by employees specify not only the meaning of attributes, but also which particular competence-related attributes are developed and sustained in accomplishing work. Although the used participant narratives are weak in supporting this claim, the finding has important implications for scholars and business practitioners who would like to understand how specific sets of knowledge, skills and other competence-related attributes are developed and sustained in work performance depending on employees’ conception of work. Finally, Jorgen’s interpretive study provides an alternative and deeply embedded mechanism of understanding the aspects of what constitutes competence in work-related settings and how competence is developed and maintained by employees in their specific work roles. Such an understanding is critical to scholars and practitioners keen on developing an in-depth and insightful understanding of how competence is developed through the mechanisms of shifting the present conception to a different conception of work and developing or deepening present trajectories of conceiving work.