Learning Managerial Work : First-line Managers’ Learning in Everyday Work within Swedish Elderly Care

Abstract: This study’s overall aim is to contribute knowledge about first-line managers’ learning in everyday work within the context of elderly care. The study used a qualitative research approach and was carried out within four Swedish elderly care organisations. A total of 40 first-line managers were interviewed, 10 of whom kept time-use diaries. The theoretical framework is based on a workplace learning perspective originating from theory of situated learning. Situated learning theory includes the concepts of community of practice, legitimate peripheral participation, and membership, which serve as analytical tools to illuminate characteristics of learning from various angles. In addition, the concept of gender has been used to gain a deeper understanding for managers’ workplace learning in the female-dominated elderly care context.The findings showed that managers’ learning happened in a stream of varied tasks and interactions shaped by conditions in the workplace. The managers’ work was characterised by unpredictability and changing circumstances, which meant they continuously had to learn how to handle new situations and expand their repertoire of managerial practices. One common perception among themanagers was the importance of being able to make quick decisions with limited information, and assess the results afterwards. The managers learned how to deal with work situations by either maintaining and modifying current practices or inventing new ones. In addition to these three practices, their learning was affected by different conditions, particularly professional experience, work relationships and organisational conditions. The findings further showed that the managers had to learn to deal with expectations of how they should act in the managerial role based on their gender, and learn to navigate between gender ideals that permeated the female-dominated elderly care environment.Three conclusions were drawn from this study. The first was that managers took great responsibility for their own learning, including what they needed to know and how they would learn it. Despite the fact that they all had access to resources provided by the employer, managers often chose alternative ways to learn, usually by relying on informal networks and close personal relationships. As a result of this self-directed learning, they were able to make decisions that suited their learning needs, and effectively proceed in practice without having to confirm their chosen methods.The second conclusion was that work relationships played a central part in managers’ learning, within both the care work community and the first-line manager community. Work relationships with other first-line managers provided support for learning through, for example, knowledge exchange and joint discussions, as well as emotional support. Work relationships with subordinates were significant for learning, and could result in solutions to complex issues, which could have a direct effect on the daily operation of care work services. Due to the diverse mix of professions, varying interests, and formal positions of authority in the care work community, managers were required to devote considerable time and effort to facilitate collaboration and a shared repertoire. As a result, learning was seen as a stimulating and enjoyable experience, but was also demanding and sometimes boring.The third conclusion was that in the context of the female-dominated elderly care gender operated differently in two communities of practices. Male privilege was still prominent in the care work community, as men were accepted and perceived as legitimate leaders among their subordinates. Female managers instead had to navigate and balance the expectations associated with femininity and the managerial role in this community. However, the female-dominated elderly care context provided female managers with more opportunities to connect with equal peers and establish influential positions, whereas male managers could encounter challenges in gaining access to learning and participating in the first-line manager community.

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