Being a manager, becoming a professional? A case study and interview-based exploration of the use of management knowledge across communities of practice in health-care organisations

Authors: Bresnen M, Hodgson D, Bailey S, Hyde P, Hassard J.

Journal: Health Services and Delivery Research Volume: 2 Issue: 14

Publication date: May 2014



Bresnen M, Hodgson D, Bailey S, Hyde P, Hassard J..Being a manager, becoming a professional? A case study and interview-based exploration of the use of management knowledge across communities of practice in health-care organisations. Health Serv Deliv Res 2014;2(14)

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Understanding how managers in the NHS access and use management knowledge to help improve organisational processes and promote better service delivery is of pressing importance in health-care research. While past research has examined in some depth how managers in the NHS perform their roles, we have only limited understanding of how they access management knowledge, interpret it and adapt and apply it to their own health-care settings.


This study aims to investigate how NHS middle managers encounter, adapt and apply management knowledge in their working practices and to examine the factors [particularly organisational context, career background and networks of practice (NoPs)/communities of practice (CoPs)] which may facilitate or impede the acceptance of new management knowledge and its integration with practice in health-care settings. Our research was structured around three questions: (1) How do occupational background and careers influence knowledge receptivity, knowledge sharing and learning among health-care managers? (2) How do relevant CoPs enable/obstruct knowledge sharing and learning? (3) What mechanisms are effective in supporting knowledge receptivity, knowledge sharing and learning/unlearning within and across such communities?

Design and setting

Three types of NHS trust were selected to provide variation in organisational context and the diversity of services provided: acute, care and specialist foundation trusts (FTs). It was expected that this variation would affect the knowledge requirements faced by managers and the networks likely to be available to them. To capture variation amongst managerial groups in each trust, a selection framework was developed that differentiated between three main cohorts of managers: clinical, general and functional.


After initial interviews with selected key informants and Advisory Group members, the main empirical phase consisted of semistructured interviews combined with ethnographic observation methods. A purposive, non-random sample of managers (68 in total) was generated for interview, drawn from across the three trusts and representing the three cohorts of managers. Interviews were semistructured and data was collated and analysed using NVivo 9 software (QSR International, Warrington, UK).

Main outcome measures

The analysis was structured around four thematic areas: context (institutional and trust), management (including leadership), knowledge and networks. The research underlines the challenges of overcoming fragmentation across a diffuse managerial CoP in health care, exacerbated by the effects of organisational complexity and differentiation. The research highlights the importance of specific training and development initiatives, and also the value of NoPs for knowledge sharing and support of managers.


The main findings of the research stress the heterogeneity of management and the highly diverse sources of knowledge, learning, experience and networks drawn upon by distinct management groups (clinical, general and functional); the particular challenges facing general managers in establishing a distinct professional identity based around a coherent managerial knowledge base; the strong tendency for managerial knowledge – particularly that harnessed by general managers – to be more ‘home grown’ (localised) and experiential (as opposed to abstract and codified); and the tendency for this to be reinforced through the difficulties facing general managers in accessing and being actively engaged in wider networks of professionals for knowledge sharing, learning and support.


Management in health care is a complex and variegated activity that does not map onto a clear, unitary and distinct CoP. Improving flows of knowledge and learning among health-care managers involves taking account not just of the distinctiveness of managerial groups, but also of a number of other features. These include the complex relationship between management and leadership, alternative ways of bridging the clinical–managerial interface, the importance of opportunities for managers to learn through reflection and not mainly through experience and the need to support managers – especially general managers – in developing their networks for knowledge sharing and support. Building on the model developed in this research to select managerial cohorts, future work might usefully extend the research to other types of trust and health-care organisation and to larger samples of health-care managers, which can be further stratified according to their distinct occupational groups and CoPs. There is also scope for further ethnographic research that broadens and deepens the investigation of management using a range of observation methods.


The National Institute for Health Research Health Service and Delivery Research programme.

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