Understanding Human Competence at Work: Article Critique

Subject: Management
Pages: 6
Words: 1604
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: PhD

Study Purpose and Objectives

With the increase of attention to understanding the concept of human competence in an organisational setting, Jorgen Sandberg (2000) aimed to answer a question of “what constitutes human competence at work?” (p. 9). With the help of introducing an interpretative approach as an alternative to the most common rationalistic approaches to research, Sandberg (2000) wanted to present a fresh perspective on the notion of human competence. Thus, the purpose and objective of the study were clearly defined and discussed. The empirical examination of human competence in the workplace was conducted on the example of the Volvo Car Corporation in Sweden. To proceed with the analysis of Sandberg’s (2000) study, it is important first to give a definition to the concept of human competence. According to Gilbert (2013), the term “human competence” is not something that is often discussed by researchers. Competency refers to the quality of possessing a required skill, capacity, knowledge, and qualification (Vincent 2008), so the notion “human competence” can have a similar meaning. When it comes to the overall contribution of Sandberg’s work, given the fact that the research was conducted in 2000, it may be regarded as a basis for further studies on the subject as well as an example of an exceptional research that took a unique approach when discussing the notion of human competence.

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Theoretical Framework

Sandberg (2000) made a differentiation between rationalistic and interpretative approaches to competence to provide a background on which the research was structured further. Among the rationalistic approaches, the author underlined worker-oriented approaches, in which competence is seen predominantly as the combination of attributes workers possess and performance traits necessary for efficient work performance (Veres, Locklear & Sims 1990). The work-oriented approaches are criticized because the set of work activities do not usually align with the attributes necessary for employees to accomplish them efficiently (Raven 1984). For this reason, Sandberg (2000) leaned towards an interpretive approach towards competence. First established by Weber, the interpretative approach was later developed by Schutz (1953), Berger and Luckmann (1966) and Giddens (1993). The essential characteristic of the interpretative approach to research is its phenomenological basis, which stipulates that the world and people are directly related to events that a person experienced (Berger & Luckmann 1966). According to the interpretative approach, human competence is something that is formed by a worker and his work and the experiences that occur between the two. Therefore, Sandberg (2002) provided a theoretical discussion about the field of the research.

Sandberg’s Study Concerning Previous Research

If to situate Sandberg’s (2000) study within the research conducted in the field, there are many studies conducted prior to his contribution. For example, research by Ogbu (1981) examined the theory that a child’s family surroundings and further socialization have a direct impact on the development of his or her cultural, political, economic, and social competence. Hase (1999) studied the implications for human resource development and management on the basis of the notion of human competence. As found by Hase (1999), capable people are not only competent but are creative, eager to learn, have a high standard of self-efficacy and are able to use their competencies in a variety of new and familiar situations that occur at work. It is also important to mention the study conducted by Gilbert (1978) that provided insightful knowledge about human competence that managers, educators, teachers, psychologists, and other professionals have the used in their practice. Gilbert’s (1978) work is one of the most prominent within the studies on human competence. According to Krapfl (1982), despite the fact that Gilbert ignored the intellectual and academic communities, he managed to focus on the achievement of results that could contribute to the maximization of the human competence in the workplace.

Regardless of the availability of research on the topic of human competence at work, there was still a need in filling the gap in knowledge (Head, van Hoeck, Eschler & Fullerton 2013). Because most researchers focused on rationalistic approaches to competence, Sandberg (2000) made a practical choice to examine the problem by applying an interpretative approach, which does not separate workers and their experiences in the workplace.

Research Approach

Sandberg (2000) clearly explained the type of the research approach; it was evident that the data gathered in the course of the study was qualitative and was approached from a phenomenographic perspective. First developed in the 1970’s by a group of Swedish researchers, the key focus of phenomenography is to understand the meaning structure of experiences, through which people lived. Phenomenographic researchers should not be confused with ethnographers because they never adopt a skeptical attitude towards the statements done by the participants of research (Richardson 1999). Phenomenography, on the other hand, accepts the descriptions of accounts and experiences at face value. The approach is closely connected with the notion of conception, which refers to the ways in which people experience different events and make sense of their lives. In Sandberg’s (2000) study, the idea of conception refers to the solid connection between what is conceived and how it is conceived.

Research Methodology

Sandberg (2000) managed to report and explain the research methodology clearly. With regards to participants’ selection and data collection, the researcher selected 20 engine optimizers at the Volvo Car Corporation in Sweden on the basis of previous phenomenographic research, in which phenomenon variation reached around twenty research participants (Sandberg 2000). To collect data for exploring competence in engine optimization, the researcher conducted interviews and observation of engineers. The interviews and observations were targeted at capturing a potential variation in the conception of engine optimization in a cohesive manner.

The methodology of the subsequent data analysis started with getting a general understanding of engineers’ conceptions of engine optimization. After acquiring some basic information, the researchers conducted a systematic search for discovering what each engine optimizer conceived of as engine optimization (Sandberg 2000). Then, the analysis was shifted from the exploration of individual conceptions of engine optimizers to compare their conceptions across all participants.

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When it comes to the criteria of validity and reliability of gathered data, the researcher used communicative and pragmatic validity and reliability as interpretative awareness for justifying interpretations. Communicative validity was established through the ongoing dialogue, in which the research process dictates the debate about the knowledge claims. Pragmatic validity, on the other hand, implies testing the knowledge that had been produced in action (Kvale 1989). Reliability as interpretative awareness means that a researcher has to acknowledge that there is no way to escape the interpretation, so there is a requirement to deal with the possible interpretations throughout the entire process of research (Sandberg 2000). When collecting data from engine optimizers, the research tried to achieve communicative validity through the following means:

  • The establishment of the interpretation community for achieving a mutual understanding between the researcher and engine optimizers about their work and the study, in which they participated.
  • The usage of only two open-ended questions during interviews in order to encourage participants to adequately describe to the researcher what they conceived as crucial with regards to engine optimization.
  • The usage of follow-up questions during interviews to make sure that the researcher understood the ways in which interviewees conceived the notion of engine optimization.

To ensure pragmatic validity, the researcher conducted observations of study participants at their work and then compared the observations with what engine optimizers said during the interviews. Then, the researcher asked follow-up questions so that optimizers could show what their statements mean in practice. Moreover, Sandberg (2000) observed the reactions of optimizers to specific interpretations of their statements. Lastly, reliability as interpretative awareness was achieved in the process of obtaining information through the orientation on the ways in which optimizers conceived of their work on the stages of interviews and observations (Sandberg 2000).

Presentation and Analysis of Results

The interpretative approach, namely phenomenography, was adopted for providing an in-depth understanding of what makes human competence in the workplace. The key finding achieved through the application of a phenomenographic approach was that human competence does not refer to a certain set of attributes that workers possess (Chen & Partington 2006). Rather, human competence at work is associated with the ways employees conceive the work that transforms their skills and knowledge into distinctive competencies. Therefore, it can be concluded that Sandberg (2000) found that specific conceptions of employees regarding their work define what competence is and how it is used during work.

First, the phenomenographic approach was very effective in finding out that attributes and skills do not have specific meanings; instead, they acquire such meanings through the ways in which individuals conceive their work. Second, participants’ conceptions of their work are associated not only with the attributes’ meanings but also with the way in which certain attributes are maintained and developed when the work is accomplished. Third, the conceptions of employees about their work not only contribute to the variety of competence forms but also enhance the hierarchy of competence (Sandberg 2000).


Despite the fact that Sandberg’s (2000) research was conducted almost two decades ago, it gave a profound understanding of the notion of conception. The conception of work competence potentially has implications for managing the development of competence in organizations. For example, the key research implication is associated with the ability to identify and describe competence as a “starting point for training and development activities” (Sandberg 2000, p. 21). Sandberg’s (2000) approach was innovative in describing how workers’ attributes emerge, progress, and get structures into specific patterns of competence. Therefore, the usage of the researcher’s description can help in enhancing the chances of managers to reach the desired level of competence at work.


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