‘The unknown becomes the known’: collective learning and change in primary care teams

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Abstract

CONTEXT

The growing emphasis on teamwork within the National Health Service (NHS) has made it a priority to understand how health care teams learn together and cope with change.

OBJECTIVES

This study aimed to explore how collective learning and change happen in primary care teams and how the process varies across the disciplines of general medical practice, pharmacy and dentistry.

METHODS

This study reports on qualitative data gathered from 10 primary care teams over 1 year, by means of observational visits and 38 semi-structured interviews.

RESULTS

Informal collective learning is a powerful team coping mechanism that develops through experiential, evolving and implicit learning processes. These processes are predominantly relational in that they rely on the extent to which team members know and understand one another as people. This makes shared learning an effective but ‘messy’ dynamic, the motivation for which is internally generated by the team itself. Teams report that if they cannot learn together, they cannot meet patient needs.

CONCLUSIONS

These findings demonstrate that teams share their knowledge because they believe it has value, not because they are driven by external incentives or are monitored. This challenges the prevailing assumption that, to be effective, interprofessional learning should be externally managed. As health care develops, it will become increasingly important to consider how to support the internal learning processes of care teams as they navigate complex organisational changes and the shared learning experiences that characterise those changes. Those who support learning and development within the NHS should therefore focus on how relational processes, as well as educational content, contribute to a team's collective learning capability and the quality of care its members provide.

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