Skip to content

The Common Base of Social Work Practice


While today we might recognize the role of the social work profession, that wasn’t the case in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  That’s why The Common Base of Social Work Practice was so important.  It helped to explain what social work meant and what the gaps are towards becoming a profession.  It might be easy to dismiss such a work either because one isn’t particularly interested in social work or because social work is so well understood.  However, it’s an interesting exposé about how professions are formed and what the resulting challenges are.  While other professions have come to their own since social work, none that I’m aware of have a seminal work that so expertly exposes the transformation.

Throughout this review, I’ll be connecting what social work was going through fifty years ago with the kinds of challenges facing change management today – because I believe every profession goes through similar cycles.


In the primordial soup of a profession, there are numerous competing hypotheses.  There are different perspectives and views that must be reconciled to reduce the options to a manageable number.  It’s not necessary that every profession subscribe to a single model.  It is important, however, that the profession settle into a set of relatively compatible hypotheses that can work in concert with one another.

But that means there have to be competing hypotheses that can be tried and tested.  It also means there needs to be enough of them that their relative merits and weaknesses can be exposed.  Images of Organization explains that, even in understanding organizations, there are multiple models that make it easier to understand some aspects and more difficult to understand others.  Professions are no different.  These views, as they evolve, must be numerous enough to cover the space that the profession intends to cover.  Without enough models, there’s no room for testing.  In The Evolution of Cooperation, we learned how Robert Axelrod’s second run of the test for programs to win the prisoner’s dilemma resulted in sixty-two entries.  In change management, there are easily that many models – many of which are covered in the Change Model Library.

Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene coined the term “meme.”  It was conceived as an idea that self-replicates and becomes popular within an environment – not necessarily to the exclusion of other ideas.  Healthy hypotheses have a meme-like quality in that they replicate between minds – and ultimately mutate and join forces with other ideas to form something new.

The obvious question – which doesn’t have a clean answer – is when the refinement process is done enough to form a profession.  No one knows.  Eventually, someone makes a statement so profound that it resonates enough to gather people behind it.

Knowledge Building

On of the threads of my world has been knowledge management, which is and of itself is a bit of a misnomer.  Knowledge management is, in part, about knowledge building – the terminology used in The Common Base of Social Work Practice – meaning that there needs to be a consistent set of knowledge that everyone in the field has.  This has an inherent problem that one must first agree to what that common knowledge that everyone should have is – and that problem is harder than it might first appear.

There’s an irony about knowledge management in that it has no association to coordinate activities and develop it into a profession, and there is no common base of knowledge (or awareness) that every knowledge management professional must have.  It suffers from a lack of clarity about what should be inside and what should be outside the circle of knowledge management.

Basic Elements

A tension exists between the need to be able to communicate across disciplines and the need to have a language and approach specific to the profession.  There’s the need to define the basic elements that are inside the circle and those elements that touch the circle from the outside.  One of the observations was that social work was taking its cues from the psychology field – which, in turn, was built on the medical model.

Social work has largely settled on an approach that addresses the person in their environment, recognizing Lewin’s formula that behavior is a function of both person and environment.  (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality.)  While awareness of psychology is expected, social workers focus more on the way that the person interacts with their environment.

Theoretical Knowledge

It’s tricky.  In learning anything, you want to know how to use what you’re learning.  It’s important that there’s an application aspect that allows you to clearly understand how you’ll use the information.  (See The Adult Learner.)  However, we also know from The Art of Explanation that we need explain the overall landscape before delving into the details, so that learners have a way to connect what they’re learning.  That overall view requires a committing to some model for understanding the landscape – and ideally multiple models to avoid limitations in any one model.  (See Images of Organization for more.)

Ultimately, we’re concerned with the idea of “far transfer,” which is the application of learning well beyond the time and space that it was learned in.  (See Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation for more.)  Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives might also look at this from an application or synthesis level when the components of learning can be combined with others in different situations to yield new and useful results.  (See Efficiency in Learning for more.)

Ultimately, the knowledge that social workers learn should be such that it can be applied to a variety of unpredictable situations.

Knowledge and Values

A profession is more than just knowledge.  While knowledge forms the foundation, professionals agree to a set of values that are consistent across the profession.  For instance, social workers explicitly agree in the need for dignity and respect of every individual.  They also believe that each culture has its own unique nuances and that cultural sensitivity is key.

Underlying every profession are a set of ethical standards.  It’s not just social norms.  It’s the challenges that Kidder describes in How Good People Make Tough Choices and the often competing foundations of morality that Jonathan Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind.

Occupation or Profession

The interesting question becomes when does an occupation or a career become a profession?  The defining characteristics of a profession seem to be a code of ethics, advanced or specialized education, and the perception of a higher level of skill or expertise.  I’d add to this definition that there must be a relevant problem that is being solved.  In Professional Learning x2, I explained that sometimes learning isn’t the point – sometimes the “paper” is.  When it comes to professions, we need solutions – not just the certification or license saying the person should be included in the profession.

The tricky part In the transition from occupation to profession – and the prestige that it conveys – is how to identify the skills and solutions that the profession will offer and what knowledge and training will be necessary to achieve that end.  Does every social worker need to be able to do individual-, group-, and community-level work?  Maybe – but maybe not.

Individual, Group, or Community

Social work broadly falls into three categories: individual, group, and community work.  Individual work is one-on-one with people who need help navigating and adapting to their environments.  Group work involves small groups of people who are being supported in growing their skills for adapting to their environment.  Community-level skills are trying to change the community as a whole.  Individual and group work is most similar to the work of psychologists, where community-level work requires a different set of skills.

Community-level skills effectively require an ability to see in systems.  Donella Meadow’s excellent work Thinking in Systems exposes the ways that stocks, flows, and loops create results in complex environments.  She explains how it’s possible to generate large impacts based on small inputs by knowing how the system functions and intervening in the right space.  Observationally, I’ll say I’ve seen a lot of social workers who are simply checking the boxes, doing the tasks, and have little or no understanding of systems or complex interactions.  (See Cynefin for more about different problem types.)  Too few have ever studied how to motivate people, how innovations are adopted, or the skills necessary to leverage a broader understanding to efficacy.  (See Diffusion of Innovations for more about adoption.)

In advanced practice nursing, there are two different kinds of roles: a nurse practitioner, who is an extender that allows medical doctors to see more patients; and a clinical nurse specialist, who helps change the relationship between the system, patient, and provider in ways that are more effective and efficient.  (I know I’m neglecting several other variants of advanced practice nursing in the service of simplicity.)  Both are advanced practice nurses, and both are trained with 80% or so of the same content, but their specialties are focused in different areas.  It’s possible that social workers need to have similar focus on whether they’re supporting individuals or systems.

Effective Helping

At the end of the day, the skill of a social worker is effective helping of people – whether they do it at an individual level or a community level.  It’s the effective assistance provided by a social worker that is the skill that justifies considering social work a true profession.  That builds on The Common Base of Social Work Practice.