Occupational knowledge

Dimensions of knowledge deployed and developed further through work

This knowledge comprises both: (i) canonical occupational knowledge and (ii) knowledge required for situational performance.

Importantly, there is no such thing as an occupational expert, per se. Competence is also shaped by the circumstances of practice and practitioners response to it.

Propositional or conceptual knowledge

Propositional knowledge, or knowledge ‘that’, is also known as declarative knowledge, because it can be stated. It comprises facts, information, propositions, assertions and concepts. Levels of conceptual knowledge of increasing complexity differentiate propositional knowledge. These levels range from simple factual knowledge (e.g. names of pieces of equipment, tools or workplace procedures) through to deeper levels of conceptual knowledge, such as understanding about workings of a process at work, set of procedures or pieces of equipment, or rich knowledge about the vocation. The complexity of propositional knowledge is characterised in terms of its depth. However, depth of understanding is premised on links and associations among concepts that comprise propositions. Understanding how changes to one part of a production or information processing system will impact on other areas is an example of depth of understanding. This level of understanding can assist the completion of a new work task, its monitoring and judgments about the effectiveness of what has have been done. For instance, hairdressers’ understanding of hair structures informs them of the dangers of repeated use of chemicals in treating clients’ hair. Also, their knowledge of chemical and heat treatments, supplemented by local knowledge about the client’s likely care of hair from past treatments, will influence recommendations to clients. When undertaking a new task (non-routine activity) the problem-solver is often required to go beyond the surface features of the task to access its deep features. The photocopier technician may use an understanding of the components of the machine to problem-solve by examining the components most likely to fail. So, within a particular occupational practice, deep conceptual knowledge enables complex problem-solving tasks through an understanding of the likely nature of the problem and its associations with other, related considerations. Examples here include motor mechanics diagnosing faults in cars, doctors engaging in clinical reasoning and differential diagnoses and construction workers adapting plans to achieve specific kinds of outcomes. Depth of understanding within an occupational domain is probably limitless. This is because the factors that influence performance are interrelated in such complex ways as to ultimately be beyond human comprehension (i.e. the human capacity of information processing). Also, given the changing nature of occupational practice, what constitutes depth is constantly evolving.

Procedural knowledge or ‘knowledge how’

The knowledge that we use to engage in the processes of thinking and acting is referred to as procedural knowledge or ‘knowledge how’. Procedural knowledge comprises techniques, skills and the ability to secure goals. It is also classifiable into levels or orders. First-order or specific procedures are employed to achieve particular goals or tasks. Specific procedures are those we use without recourse to conscious thought. Examples might include an, experienced electrician wiring of a power point, clothing machinists threading their sewing machines, the use of save and filing functions in word processing, the changing of gears in a car, the placement of curling rods in clients’ hair by an experienced hairdresser, etc. However, being specific to particular tasks, these procedures are not the kind that can address new workplace tasks as they arise. Being able to hammer a nail does not permit a carpenter to consider what kind of nail would best be used for fastening a particular kind of new material (e.g. fibreboard). In these situations, second-order procedures — those that monitor and evaluate strategy selection — are invoked. These procedures can break work activity down into a series of sub-tasks or engage in ‘means-end’ analysis — ‘to consider and decide- to decide which approach to take to the job. Such a process means working out ahead of time what is required and what steps have to be taken to achieve the task. Hence, the aircraft technician may work out the most efficient means to access a particular component to avoid dismantling a section of the plane simply to access it. These first- and second-order procedures are postulated as being managed by a third or higher order of procedural knowledge which monitors and organises activities, and is strategic in its applications. So, to understand the kind of procedural capacities required for occupational performance means capturing the range of concepts, propositions and also the kinds problem-solving activities that practitioners engage in.


Concepts and procedures associated with occupational practice are useful in the ways described above. However, some parts of performance requirements cannot be explained fully by procedural and conceptual categories of knowledge. For instance, how can being pleasant to customers in a retail or restaurant setting, or the appropriateness of the level of checking and self-monitoring required of a motor mechanic, be categorised? These elements of performance, probably best conceptualised as dispositions, comprise attitudes, values, affect, interests and identity associated with work. Dispositions are regarded as individuals’ tendencies to put their capabilities into action. Dispositions determine whether individuals value a work task enough to engage in the effortful process required to learn that knowledge. This consideration extends to their goals for participating in learning. For instance, students or workers may determine whether participation in an activity will result in them ‘looking smart’ (i.e. superficial measures of performance). This is quite a different tendency from those who seek to determine what they will learn from a work activity before participating. Dispositions determine more than the effort to be expended; they also impact on the organisation of what is or was being learnt. Workers will have preferences for particular work procedures based on what they have previously experienced from using different kinds of procedures and these comprise what they have come to value because of their utility to them. Added here, of course, is the degree of interests that individuals have in particular work task or role.

Although they have been referred to separately above, it is important to emphasise the interdependence of these three forms of knowledge. Together, conceptual, procedural and dispositional representations offer a basis for understanding the kinds of knowledge required for performance from the cognitive view. The deployment and development of each cannot be fully understood without reference to the others.