Synergistic Theory of Organisational Career Development

Kerry Bernes 1999


Bernes’ primary goal was “to design a model of organizational career development that allows for the balancing of individual and organizational needs and goals” (Bernes, 2000, p.50). Like other models such as Work Adjustment Theory, Bernes’ model is in the first place a transactional model, which means that it is focused on the transactional nature of the relationship between employee and organisation.

His model is primarily conceived as a response to the changing labour market where, similar to the recognition of this in theories such as Protean Career and Boundaryless Career, the employee takes more responsibility for their career management and the organisation has a less tight connection to its employees, causing more fluidity but also more need for a negotiated relationship between the two. Bernes’ model was also a response to available practices at the time, within organisations. Bernes (2000, p.49) critiqued existing theories and practices arguing that “services designed to benefit the organization (career management services) outweigh services designed to meet individual needs (career planning services)”. The rings denote a movement from the broad to the specific practical needs (Bernes, 2000, p.53):

  • The philosophical level – dream – broad vision for individual and organisation
  • The strategic level – plan – strategic plan for putting broad vision in place
  • The practical level – perform – the need for the acquisition and demonstration of certain competencies

The representation of the philosophical level as the core is to indicate their central role in organising the other systems. The practical level then feeds back the needs of the world of work (staying employable/staying competitive) to the core to ensure that external realities are monitored in the vision and ‘dreams’ underpinning influence planning and action.(Adapted from Bernes, 2000, p. 53)

In more detail…

Bernes then goes on to describe and explore each of the different elements (Bernes, 2000, p. 54 – 73) of which this is a summary:

The Employee:

  • Philosophical level – Personal Vision
    • Idealistic view on work and life: in the best of all worlds, what would like to wish for your life and career?
    • This question firmly places this theory, or at least this section, within the field of constructivism.
    • It provides empowerment, responsibility and agency – in contrast to the traditional view of career and work where the organisation is at the centre.
    • This agency helps prevent employees staying in their jobs in spite of increasing disillusionment and dissatisfaction. It prevents someone else running our life.
    • Consider the links with Super and Schein’s theories.
    • The role of the practitioner is obvious at this level: to help clients establish a personal vision of what the want their career and life be like. Note the contrast with Trait and Factor theory.
    • What is important to an individual varies per person and it gets away from any stereotypes of work and life. The techniques to engender that vision in and with the client may be the same or similar.
  • Strategic level – personal career management plan
    • How is the client going to implement their vision? – comparison between ‘what ought to be’ and ‘what is’, which creates a gap to bridge.
    • The client recognises what needs to happen and what can’t (compromise) and creates a list of priorities.
    • A plan is put in place to achieve their envisioned future.
    • This plan will incorporate the effects of any internal or external factors that will affect the client’s possibility for realising their envisioned future.
    • The plan ‘provides a road map of how to utilise one’s strengths to obtain what one desires) (Bernes, 2000, p.59)
  • Practical Level: Acquisition and Demonstration of Specific Competencies
    • Exploring and breaking down the client’s career management plan to identify the different competencies required to achieve short and long term goals.
    • These are the knowledge, skills and attitudes and beliefs to perform well in a certain role.
    • This includes for the client to become knowledgeable about the world of work and what organisations need to increase sustained employability.
    • Clients need to learn the skills and attitudes needed to deal with change and the potential stress linked to change and changes.
    • Ongoing learning, including CPD and self-reflection are critical in developing and maintaining employability.
    • Focus on competencies help clarify expectations and engender a contribution based mentality and individual accountability in achieving organisational goals.
    • Clients are actively encouraged to explore employability (roles at different levels, job/skills fit) within their organisation as well as outside their organisation (flexibility and adaptability to change in the world of work).
  • Interrelationships Among the Three Levels
    • Interrelationship between dream/imagine – plan – perform.
    • As mentioned above and as illustrated below, there is a constant movement and feedback loop between the three levels.
    • The personal vision becomes the self-organizing, self-regulating system through which plans and competencies are formulated (Bernes, 2000, p.62).
    • The practical level is in direct contact with the environment (see middle section in grey in the illustration below) providing feedback to the individual who then can plan at the philosophical level, starting a new cycle of ongoing assessment and learning. The client recognises the changes in the world of work or organisation, as well as the changing need for different skills.

The way this works for the organisation may appear to be less important for us as career professionals. However, I would like to offer a brief summary as and understanding of how this works can be crucial in understanding the theory and how it can be applied with your clients.

The organisational part of the theory works in a similar way, but to ensure the need to stay competitive is fulfilled.

  • Organisational vision & its mission statement – the organisation starts taking charge of its own future.
    • This also includes envisioning and creating awareness of why and how it exists in a world of competitors.
    • Obtaining employee input, communicating its vision with its employees and having an open environment where employees can contribute are crucial.
  • Organisational strategy – its business plan and how it’s going to achieve its goals and mission statement.
    • Recognition of weaknesses, threats and how to overcome these. Recognising and planning how it’s going to respond to competitors and changes in the world around it.
    • Strategy also includes a strategy for human resources which is at the direct interface with the employee/clients career management structure and plan.
    • Here too, this is by exploring the gap between its desired future and the resources and human resources it has available.
    • Planning for organisations too needs to include planning for the unexpected and having ability to adapt to this.
    • Having the right people in the right place is crucial for success. So linking human resources to strategic plans is key.
  • Practical Level: alignment of employee competencies to the required organizational competencies.
    • Sharing its needs with employees to utilise their skills, competencies etc, to maximise company competencies.
    • Recognising and communicating competencies at the micro level (individual job) and the macro level (company level).
    • Putting a road map for training employees and communicating needs.
  • Interrelationships Among the Three Levels
    • Companies are aiming to align staff competencies with the vision, plans and competencies it needs for success (process of aligning staff and company competencies).
    • Here too, the outer ring is in constant contact with it’s external environment feeding back to the inner ring/the philosophical level.
    • The organisation will also get feedback from its employees on skills, expectations and requirements to make it function and adapt to new employee realities. This will ensure the organisation maintains an effective body of staff that is motivated and works towards the organisation achieving its goals.

The goal of the balancing/interactive processes is to bring employee and business/employer closer together, thereby avoiding treating career development and organisational development as separate entities (Bernes, 2000, p.75).

In practice…

In his work, Bernes’ suggests and approach which may be useful for us as career practitioners. These crystalise around the 3 different levels:

  • Philosophical level: exploring the client’s dreams and hopes for the future/for their career
  • Strategic level: finding what is missing by exploring ‘where they are now’ to ‘where they would like to be’. From this, it may become useful to devise a plan and priorities
  • Practical level: exploring and confirming practical steps to achieve their ‘dreams’.

This, however, may make it look like quite a few other models out there. I think the strength of Bernes’ theory, when applied consciously to an intervention, can lie in that the career professional is prompted to draw into the discussion the 3 same aspects on the employer side, which can draw out additional considerations from the client which may be useful in conceptualising ‘what and where next’.

Bernes’ has an entire chapter in his book (Bernes, 2000, p. 82 – 97) about how his model can be applied in practice, but this focuses more on the using this in a corporate context. It has some useful sections within it which are worth consideration. If you have specific clients who struggle with their career management when they are in a job and when they have difficulty with their employer or employment circumstances it may be useful to visit this and extract useful strategies.

The key concept to take away from this chapter can be methods to balance both employee and company needs and requirements.


Bernes theory is strongly focused on the individual as an employee, rather than as a client in a career guidance appointment. However, the theory has a lot to offer and has a clear focus on ‘career’ as it’s conceived in connection with ‘work’ or ‘employment’. This doesn’t need to be a disadvantage in my view in the sense that it leaves the door wide open to draw in other aspects of life. There is enough scope, at the philosophical level of the theory or model, to ask questions and ‘dream’ about life in general, including that part of the ‘dream’ which is work. Even at the level of strategy, there is space for drawing in other life issues, dreams, ideas alongside those of the career as a narrower subject. Obviously, these aspects will then also filter through into the practical level, where Bernes recognises that aspects such as family needs, can easily be drawn into the tools as well as competencies needed to function well and to full satisfaction in the workplace.

To me, it was also useful to see the Organisation aspects to the theory verbalised and conceptualised because it offers an additional and expansive understanding of how ‘the company’ interacts with the individual in the workplace (or indeed, outside the workplace). It does rework other theories (according to Bernes it takes the positive aspects of most (Bernes, 2000, p.80) and it is very reminiscent of Work Adjustment Theory) and Bernes recognises this. However, Work Adjustment Theory appears very ‘mechanical’ and leaves out the aspect of people’s ‘dreams’ for themselves, which Bernes has integrated in a very efficient way. In that sense the model works well. In fact, it arguably works better in practice just because of that integration. It’s in my view easier to conceptualise as a tool for working with clients.

If you can get your hands on it (see link below), for this theory especially, it may be useful to have a look at Bernes’ original work as there is a lot in there, including a critique of some of the standard theories from the perspective of the Synergistic Theory of Organisational Career Development.

Over to you… how well does it fare in your mind (and practice) and with your client group?

  • Does it work well with young people who haven’t had experience of work, or who haven’t got the same awareness of the world of work, or indeed what they want from life?
  • On the other hand, is it a useful theory for challenging clients’ unrealistic (as in not fitting in with the reality of the real world of work out there) dreams?

Useful links

References and Further Reading:

  • Bernes, K. B., 2000. A Synergistic Model of Organizational Career Development: Bridging the Gap Between Employees. University of Lethbridge Research Repository.