But how far has this changed the experiences and perceptions of front-line adult social care staff in relation to research mindedness and professional development in its broadest sense? What are the aspirations of social care staff, and how can employers and managers encourage and support the development of a learning culture within their organisations?
A recent on-line survey of one local authority adult social care workforce highlighted some key issues. This was followed up by two focus groups where a mix of staff from different services discussed the issues raised by the survey in more depth.
Making use of internet resources
The use of the internet was clearly seen as an invaluable source of information for social workers and social care staff – almost equal to training in importance. However knowledge about what’s available via the internet was very variable, and staff didn’t feel supported to spend time exploring this medium. Even in computer dependent field work settings, surfing the net can be seen as a diversion from ‘real’ work. Management fears about social workers accessing Facebook or Ebay instead of completing on-line client records may be one factor. It was also suggested that peer pressure discouraged the use of the internet, especially in direct social care services where access to computers is more limited and culturally there’s a premium on time spent with service users as against office based working.
Discussion in the focus groups highlighted the huge potential for making use of internet resources – if only this could be filtered for relevance so that front-line staff could be directed to information of value as and when they needed it. Certain websites were recommended for easy access to the information needed, whereas others were found to be frustrating to navigate and not particularly helpful. There was a sense that greater access to internet research helped broaden people’s perspectives and increased their focus on outcomes rather than process – surely a critical factor in progress towards personalisation.
Whole team learning
There were a range of ideas about how to focus in on ‘whole team’ learning, rather than the ‘scattergun approach’ to sending individual workers off on training courses.
“Staggered training causes problems with agency cover and it could take a year to have all staff trained on for instance Mental Capacity Act so we are not all working to the same agenda.”
Allocating research and learning tasks within the team were also seen as a positive way forward, with team members presenting information as a basis for team discussions at regular intervals. This would also help to challenge the culture of not being ‘allowed’ to be seen to do internet research.
Another suggestion was that a greater emphasis on the learning and development of team managers would set a tone within the organisation which valued professional progression and training for all staff. Other ideas included the use of ‘information champions’ and more use of external training opportunities.
“I think it would help if we had information champions, people who could be freed up from their work duties to spend time researching specific subjects to pass on to colleagues so that a more thorough overview could be cascaded to work teams”
“I think seminars/workshops would be good. Funding is an issue, but we need to consider external courses to develop staff.”
Of those responding to the on-line survey and attending the focus groups, most were clearly committed to learning and professional development, and there was a high level of interest in doing research. However there was a lack of knowledge about research done by colleagues, and little understanding of developments such as the Research Governance Framework introduced to local authorities some two years ago.
While there were individual stories about the role of research evidence helping to inform policies, strategies and direct work with service users, the idea that this was now the cultural norm within social care remained unconvincing.
“Research is generally done by managers, practitioners are too caught up with the day to day … behind the advice and discussion there is research knowledge – I’m guessing here ….”
The Continuing Professional Development strategy and framework developed by Skills for Care, the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) and other partner agencies is intended to mean changes on the frontline of service delivery. Some very practical steps need to be found to effectively integrate the three critical areas of internet resources, whole team learning and research mindedness identified in this study. This will only be possible when underpinned by determination to support the growth of organisational learning cultures in the arena of professional social care.
About the author Carolyn Barber, BSc (Hons), CQSW, is an independent consultant specialising in research, team development and management skills. Carolyn has over 25 years experience in social care as practitioner, trainer, researcher and manager, working across public, voluntary and independent sectors. For more information, go to www.wayfinderassociates.co.uk .