Chapter 2: Professional work in contemporary contexts

The mounting demands of epistemic work

The rapidly widening use of Information Technology in contemporary work has made much more visible the fact that knowledge is produced in a multitude of places, and that it flows rapidly across organisational, disciplinary and national boundaries (Gibbons et al., 1994; Nerland & Jensen, 2014). As Nerland & Jensen explain, rendering knowledge into abstract and symbolic forms makes it easier for it to travel – to be decontextualized and recontextualised, to circulate rapidly, and to be applied in unforseen circumstances. Knowledge is no longer bound to place.

“…the knowledge worlds in which professional learning is embedded are becoming more extensive and complex … students are presented with knowledge and ways of thinking that are linked with dynamic and geographically dispersed ecologies of knowledge. These wider worlds contribute to defining relevant knowledge and competencies … we cannot take for granted that practitioners’ engagement with knowledge is bounded to given sites.” (Nerland & Jensen, 2014, 612)

As we have said, professional capability has long been associated with a mix of specialist, abstract codified knowledge (gained largely in the university) and tacit, experiential knowledge of processes, rules, cases and practices (gained largely in workplaces). The ability to use specialist codified knowledge in the dynamic, complex circumstances of practice is not the only requirement in contemporary work sites. As Jens-Christian Smeby puts it:

“Theoretical knowledge, therefore, is not just a basis for professional problem-solving; professionals also have to provide scientifically based arguments to defend their diagnoses and decisions to a greater extent than previously. Thus the manner in which professional knowledge is developed in higher education is at the very heart of professionalism” (Smeby, 2012, 49)

Social expectations about professional accountability are thereby placing extra knowledge burdens on those training for the professions.

On top of this, the dynamics of professional work situations are such that professionals have not only to work with knowledge, and use knowledge to justify their action; they also need to be adept at practices of creating and testing new, applicable knowledge. In this sense, professional cultures are taking on more of the qualities and practices of epistemic cultures – they are having to become more knowledgeable about knowledge (Nerland, 2012; Nerland & Jensen, 2014). This includes developing strategies for creating new knowledge, of relevance to professional problems, and also strategies for redesigning ways of working – for example, to get the best out of working with other professional specialist, in new combinations, on new projects.

Source: These are extracts from Chapter 2 of Markauskaite, L., & Goodyear, P. (forthcoming, 2015). Epistemic fluency and professional education: innovation, knowledgeable action and actionable knowledge. Dordrecht: Springer. This is a close-to-final draft. Please check the final published version if you are going to quote it. The book  is available from Springer’s e-shop.

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