Relational expertise as a prerequisite for effective multi-professional collaboration on ESL

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Kaja Šepec , Maša Vidmar

Relational expertise is the ability to recognise and respond to other professionals’ standpoints, while at the same time utilising the knowledge that underpins one’s own practice. This deepens professionals’ understanding of a certain problem and enriches practice, making it an ideal way to help improve the ways multi-professional teams tackling ESL operate.

Appointed by the European Commission, the Thematic Working Group on Early School Leaving identified multi-professional teams as the key entity for successfully combatting ESL (European Commission, 2013). It is crucial to promote effective cooperation among professionals from various fields. One element seen as vital to fostering cooperation amongst professionals is Edwards’ (2005) concept of relational expertise. For this article’s purposes, we conducted a scientific review of literature on the topic of relational expertise, with the aim to identify its components, role in multi-professional team cooperation and potential for addressing ESL. Relational expertise is described as a skill that complements one’s existing knowledge by properly acknowledging other professionals’ standpoints, thereby developing the capacity to work with others on solving complex problems like ESL. For example, relational expertise helps in coordinating the responses of different practices (e.g. the teacher downplays the demands made in the curriculum so as to accommodate the social worker’s support). Three key components of relational expertise have been identified: relational expertise, relational agency and common knowledge. All hold the potential to promote cooperation among multi-professional team members and be used as tools to prevent ESL. Moreover, relational expertise can be learnt as part of addressing the challenges of multi-agency professional learning (e.g. developing new processes for sharing knowledge and new pathways for practice) and parallel to encouraging the various professionals to change their working practices (e.g. such as developing better material and tools, and being more responsive to other professionals and clients).


Multi-professional teams operating at the school or community level are seen as an essential tool in the struggle against ESL. Such partnership practices are already well established in some European countries, while in others they are still being developed (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Many different ideas have emerged on how to enhance the way they work with each other and which factors or competencies are required to achieve that. As the European Commission noted (2013, p. 15), one important element of such inter-professional cooperation is the need for members to possess “relational expertise, which enables professionals to recognise and work with the expertise of others”.

Those who participate in teams are individuals with a wide range of professional backgrounds, entailing differences in knowledge, mindsets (concerning ESL, but also more generally), vocabulary, main concepts, perspectives etc. The challenge is how to ensure efficient communication among them that is supportive of the individual – communication not in terms of structure (when, how often, where), but content (what). This is what Edwards (2010) refers to as the “relational turn in expertise”, defining relational agency as the capacity to work with others to resolve complex problems. The core of this relational expertise is acknowledging and responding to other professionals’ standpoints, while also utilising the knowledge that underpins one’s own practice. Although the term “relational agency” is more often used in the literature, in this article we decided to use “relational expertise” as an umbrella term, since that is the term the European Commission (2013) uses.

The aim of this article is to review the literature on the relatively new concept of relational expertise (Edwards, 2005), its possible role in fostering multi-professional team cooperation and potential use in the fight against ESL. Findings that refer to relational expertise training are also highlighted.


To conduct this literature review, five academic databases were searched; namely MEDLINE, CINHAL with Full Text, ERIC, PsycARTICLES and Science Direct (Elsevier). The search was confined to relevant English-language articles covering psychology, education and social science topics published between January 1990 and September 2017 using combinations of the following keywords: “relational expertise” and “relational agency”. In total, 143 records that were available were identified and, after preliminary abstract screening, 137 articles were excluded for irrelevance, leaving 5 articles that passed full-text screening.

In addition, according to Google Scholar, resources citing two initial literature sources on relational expertise (Edwards, 2005, 2010) were identified and exposed to the same selection process. Out of 620 articles, 589 articles were excluded following preliminary abstract screening due to their irrelevance, leaving 31 articles to be assessed for eligibility. As part of that, full-text screening was conducted, leading to a further 16 articles being eliminated after concluding the concepts they used are incompatible with relational expertise. These 15 articles were combined with the 2 articles from step one above (3 of these were then excluded due to duplication). The final sample consisted of 17 articles. Reports and documents for/by the European Commission linking relational expertise with ESL were also considered.

Team competencies

Team competencies have been identified as the primary factor influencing the performance of a team (Cannon-Bowers et al., 1995). If a multi-professional team working on ESL is to be successful, it must possess different team competencies. Team competencies are widely researched in the fields of organisational psychology, medicine and information technology, while evidence from educational settings is lagging behind. With such a great variety of fields and researchers, there are also many different conceptions about what team competencies actually are – some researchers focus on individual competencies, while others, in their attempt to frame them all, take different approaches.

In our review, we follow the classification of team competencies by Cannon-Bowers et al. (1995). They divide team competencies into knowledge, skills and attitude competencies – KSA. Team knowledge competencies are made up of mental models containing information about how and when to use teamwork skills (Baker et al., 2005). This means that team members consider the value of different behavioural responses and align them with what is required in the current situation. Team skill competencies can be defined as the “capacity to interact with other team members” (Baker et al., 2005), with studies showing they promote team effectiveness (Cannon-Bowers et al., 1995). Eight teamwork skill dimensions that contribute to effectiveness have been identified: adaptability, shared situational awareness, performance monitoring and feedback, leadership/team management, interpersonal relations, coordination, communication and decision-making. Attitude competencies are related to the motivational aspect, composed of “the belief that teamwork is critical for successful performance of team tasks” and the “desire to be a part of a team” (Baker et al., 2005, p. 239).

Stevens and Champion (1999) attempted to identify which specific knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) of individual team members are key to effective teamwork. They highlight the factors that enable team members to work together effectively rather than those that facilitate more effective task-related work. Klein, De Ruin and Salas, (2012) lean in the same direction, promoting the importance of interpersonal skills such as communication skills, interpersonal relationship skills etc. for teams to perform effectively. Moreover, research conducted on multi- and inter-professional teams in hospital, psychiatry and educational settings established that inter-professional communication skills (Goh & Di, Prospero, 2017; Hayes & Omodei, 2011; Nancarrow et al., 2013; Patel Guantalo et al., 2017; Ralew et al., 2016) and interpersonal skills (Hayes & Omodei, 2011) are critical team competencies for ensuring successful team cooperation. In addition, Leggat (2007) believes team management competencies like leadership, respect for others and commitment to working collaboratively are essential for producing positive team outcomes. An emphasis on interpersonal skills as being key competencies for successful teamwork is clearly visible from the aforementioned studies and, when combined with the call to develop collaborative competency (Manilall & Rowe, 2016), it nicely taps into Edwards’ (2010) relational perception of competency and concept of relational expertise. Her focus is therefore on the relational aspect of competence, where the individual competence of one practitioner is inherently bound to the competence of other practitioners (Bing-Johnson et al., 2016).

Relational expertise

Edwards (2005) coined the term relational expertise. She sees it as the ability to recognise and respond to the standpoints of other professionals, while at the same time utilising the knowledge that underpins one’s own practice. The development of this concept is the result of the relational turn in expertise, shifting from an analytical focus on the behaviour of individual professionals to observing their actions while working with others (Edwards, 2005). This changes the perspective from seeing professionals as the sole repositories of exclusive sets of knowledge, working within well-established practices and procedures, to the ‘modern age’ professional who is required to work across the boundaries of their own expertise on complex problems with practitioners from other fields or with clients, beyond the safety and comfort of the bureaucratic procedures used by their own organisations. This then forces them, instead of following pre-established organisational procedures, to rely on their own specialist knowledge and expertise while working with others to negotiate common means to accomplish their group tasks. Professional expertise is thus no longer so closely aligned with one’s social position, but is something that must be negotiated while working on shared problems. For these negotiations to happen, the expertise of each professional needs to be made visible to others (Edwards, 2010).

The results of various studies Edwards (2005, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016) conducted in the fields of education and social care point to: (1) relational expertise; (2) common knowledge; and (3) relational agency as being “three (interdependent) gardening tools” needed for successful inter-professional work. The gardening metaphor stems from a re-interpretation of professional cross-boundary work whereby professionals are no longer seen as operating like engineers or architects but more like gardeners. Together, these three tools facilitate fluidity, responsiveness and horizontal boundary crossing across diverse areas of expertise (Edwards, 2011).

Relational expertise

Relational expertise is the first tool needed to develop the professional expertise that is crucial for successful collaboration among members of inter-professional teams (e.g. Edwards, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016; Edwards & Daniels, 2012; Hoopwood & Edwards, 2017; Ness & Reise, 2015). It is defined as expertise that complements existing knowledge through the recognition of other professionals’ standpoints (Edwards, 2005). All stakeholders bring their own resources and perspectives into the aforementioned interactions that, if properly acknowledged and incorporated, can enhance understanding of the problem for all involved, leading to more successful responses. Therefore, professionals must attain additional expertise that enables them to collaborate with others. This expertise includes professionals’ ability to recognise their own specialist expertise and respond to the resources others have to offer. To achieve that, there must be a willingness to get to know each other as a professional, especially when the professionals come from dissimilar professional fields or work in different services (Edwards, 2010). Professionals who possess strong relational expertise are sensitive to the cultural landscape of inter-professional settings, allowing them to strategise which aspects of their core expertise should be brought into play at different times with different people. At the same time, they are capable of showing respect for the core expertise of others, develop opportunities for them to apply that expertise, and are ready to work cooperatively through creative engagement to expand the object on which they are working (Edwards, 2012). In that way, the employment of relational expertise leads to a coordinated response of different practices; e.g. in ESL multi-professional teams the teacher downplays the demands made in the curriculum in order to accommodate the support of the social worker.

Common knowledge

Edwards (2010, 2011) argues that, at the boundaries where practices meet, resources and perspectives from different practices are brought together to expand the understanding of the problem being worked on – this refers to the second tool – common knowledge. It is through cooperation that professionals become aware of the motivations that other professionals or clients (Hoopwood & Edwards, 2017) bring to situation while working on a problem and it is through this that common knowledge is built. The process of learning in these spaces is not about learning ‘how to do the work’ of others but more to do with learning about ‘what matters’ for others. The key to collaboration among different practices is to understand each practice’s motivations and to direct professionals in their professional actions (Edwards, 2010, 2011, 2012). However, it is easier to build common knowledge when the new ideas are not so distant from the established specialist knowledge in practice because, as soon as this distance grows, even greater effort in understanding the perspectives that shape each practice is required to build common knowledge. Edwards establishes her definition of common knowledge on the cultural/historical framework of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) and the work of Vygotsky and Leontev who see common knowledge as a resource mediating people’s responses and the nature of their collaboration in inter-professional work settings (see Edwards, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016). She argues that knowledge about what others, namely those with whom one is working, hold as their motivations and perspectives facilitates understanding of the reasons for their actions, evaluation processes and responses in different situations (Edwards, 2012, 2016; Edwards & Daniels, 2012). Building common knowledge is evidence of relational expertise and at the same time a foundation and mediator in the development of relational agency.

Relational agency

Relational agency is the third and final tool that completes the toolbox by utilising resources from both of the previous tools (Edwards, 2011). It is defined as the capacity to work with others to develop purposeful responses to complex problems (Edwards, 2005, 2011). Relational agency is a two-stage dynamic process that is co-produced in spaces between people through dialogue and social interaction (Chateris & Smardon, 2017). The first stage concerns cooperation with others to expand on the problem or task related to the work topic, entailing the recognition of the motivations and resources each participant brings to the process. The second stage involves taking this newly acquired knowledge about the motivations and response of others working on the same problem and aligning them with one’s own position (Edwards, 2005, 2010). It can be said that is based on a pre-existing or newly formed understanding of specific motivations of others and identified differences and complementary strengths that all stakeholders bring to the table that lead to the incorporation of a wider set of interpretations of the problem. Through cooperation with others, individuals’ ability to engage with the world is enhanced (Hoopwood & Edwards, 2017). Another manifestation of this social practice is willingness to explain the reasons for one’s choices and decisions with the intention to persuade other team members to also adopt them (Edwards & Daniels, 2012). Relational agency is learnable and may be seen as some sort of ‘safety net’, providing the right balance of expertise to accomplish the desired goals for professionals who feel vulnerable and alone without the protection of their usual procedures when acting responsively on tasks and projects (Edwards, Lunt & Stamou, 2010). In practice, relational agency can become visible when participants build and implement a professional strategy or action that is connected to the specific problem they are working on (Duhn, Fleer & Harrison, 2016).

To develop these concepts successfully, professional practitioners are required to provide quality core expertise as a basis (Edwards, 2010), they need to display openness, curiosity and respect towards the motivations and perspectives of others (Ness & Reise, 2015) and to feel a sense of ownership to the problem, specific practice or local community at hand (Duhn et al., 2016).

The role of relational expertise in tackling ESL

Based on research conducted by Edwards (2005, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016) in the fields of education and social care, we can identify three tools as being necessary for successful inter-professional work in these areas. In her research, she highlights the need to build relational links among different professionals and services to ensure the creation of child-centred systems oriented to good outcomes for children, young people and their families (Edwards, 2012). Relational tools have also proven to bring positive outcomes for inter-professional collaboration among professionals in many other fields, such as the hospital setting (Nuttall, 2013), participatory design setting (Dindler & Iversen, 2014), rural advisory setting (Phillipson, Proctor, Emery & Lowe, 2016), innovation processes (Ness & Reise, 2015), trainee teacher education (Kidd, 2012; McIntosh 2015) and in the generation of new learning environments (Chateris & Smardon, 2017).

Relational expertise is seen in the European Commission report (2013) as a prerequisite for inter-professional cooperation that enables professionals to recognise and work with the expertise of others. They state that reducing ESL requires the active involvement of key representatives from various fields and policy areas such as teachers, students, parents, governmental officials, social workers, school psychologists and other experts. Each of these brings different and valuable perspectives that are needed to better understand the ESL process. They can all add value by developing solutions and addressing the different factors that lead to ESL. Cooperation is seen as a key active solution in second-chance education where learners require comprehensive support since they often face multiple problems inside and outside the learning process (European Commission, 2013). Concerning this issue in the EU, Edwards and Downes (2013) state in their NESET report it is important to enhance professional expertise in inter-professional work, which means for expert practitioners developing their relational expertise and, for those practitioners without the necessary knowledge base, undertaking additional training to meet the minimum qualifications entailed.

If we think back to the descriptions of common knowledge and relational agency, we could argue that, when combined with relational expertise, they form a set of conceptual resources that are vital for successful cross-boundary collaboration to occur (Hoopwood & Edwards, 2017). When professionals work on ESL while also applying their relational expertise, they dedicate their time to developing an understanding of the motivations, practices and knowledge of different professionals (e.g. teachers, counsellors, heads of ESL teams). Collaboration in inter-professional teams is optimal when practitioners understand what is important for others when working on ESL – meaning that via the interactions among them common knowledge emerges as a resource that mediates both their interpretations and responses to complex problems. Different professionals from different fields may entail many different viewpoints, which help expand understanding of the ESL problem at hand and a broader and more specialised set of responses to it are considered and put into action (Hoopwood & Edwards, 2016; Edwards, 2012). Based on aforementioned, we may argue that relational expertise plays a crucial role in inter-professional teams’ work on ESL.

How to develop relational expertise

Due to relational expertise’s valuable contribution to multi-professional work and the fact it can be learnt, it is extremely important that every professional is given opportunities to learn about and develop it. A great contribution in this sense was made by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme – TLRP (Smith et al., 2008) in Great Britain, which studied the professional learning process after the Children Act of 2004 called for practitioners from different backgrounds to work together on preventing social exclusion among children. It is one of very few programmes seeking to develop relational expertise to be conducted and evaluated. Based on their findings, conclusions on how to develop relational expertise have been developed and are presented below.

The TLRP established that the existing professional training does not equip practitioners with the tools and knowledge they need to work successfully outside of their established organisational practices. To work successfully in inter-professional teams for preventing social exclusion, practitioners need to acquire new forms of expertise. As their working environment changed from more institutionalised forms towards more cooperative ones under the Children Act 2004 initiative, they learned to become more responsive to all actors involved, present their purpose and be open to the ideas and alternatives of others, they learned they are allowed (to some extent) to bend the rules to meet the versatile requirements of situations and that they have to adapt existing materials, conceptual tools and develop processes for sharing knowledge since the old ones are outdated. But, most importantly, from the relational perspective, practitioners learned to identify their own values, develop fluency about the implications of a multi-agency environment for them, and learned how their expertise can contribute to their ability to question and enhance their practice in relation to other professionals. All of this learning emerged naturally as a by-product of the cross-boundary cooperation among the practitioners in this newly formed working environment, and can be used to develop tools to develop relational expertise among practitioners. Moreover, through various workshops the TLRP also identified key measures to adopt to develop this concept. In these sessions, professionals were confronted with contradictions in their everyday understandings of practice through an analysis of data researchers had gathered from them. The aim of the sessions was to address the challenges of multi-agency professional learning by identifying areas where a need to change the work practices arose. Those challenges could also be resolved by suggesting ways to re-conceptualise the efforts and resources professionals brought to bear concerning these tasks. Later on, through various sessions the research group established that relational expertise can also be developed by encouraging professionals to think about how to develop their working practices, about structural tensions and contradictions in their ongoing practice, and whether there are any new forms of practice that could support innovation in multi-agency working. According to that, relational expertise can also be developed by re-conceptualising the tasks and resources to overcome the challenges.

They also highlight the importance of a positive organisational climate for professional decision-making as a prerequisite for learning multi-agency work. Some of the already mentioned prerequisites for developing relational expertise are openness, curiosity, respect (Ness & Reise, 2015) and the sense of belonging among professionals (Duhn et al., 2016).


Relational expertise is a relatively new concept and holds the potential to promote cooperation among multi-professional team members. Moreover, it is a type of expertise that can be learnt through addressing the challenges of multi-agency professional learning (e.g. developing new processes for sharing knowledge and new pathways for practice) and encouraging the professionals involved to change their working practice (e.g. to develop better material and tools and be more responsive to other professionals and clients). As such, relational expertise can also be utilised as an important tool for improving the way multi-professional teams that deal with ESL function.

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