This chapter provides a reflective account of the studies in Part II of this volume, with a focus on discussing their empirical and methodological contributions to research on agency at work. Agency at work is a crucial component of how individuals engage with work and learning in a way that enables them to develop. Until recently, research on agency at work has had a distinct conceptual stance. These empirical chapters, therefore, provide an important contribution to the literature, by both employing different conceptualisations and examining agency at work in various contexts. In this chapter, we provide some descriptive and reflective accounts of the variety and nature of the empirical work and the methodologies employed based on a framework inspired by conceptual depictions of agency in the literature. Emirbayer and Mische’s (Am J Sociol 103(4):962–1023, 1998) framework that indicates three facets of agency—iterative, practical-evaluative, and projective—has been complemented by characteristics emerging from the analysed studies, indicating the relational versus transformative nature of agency at work. We engage in a discussion on the focus of these studies and operationalisations of agency, the units of analysis, analytical approaches and main findings. We then reflect upon the nature of agency at work and discuss the heterogeneity that is distinctly featured among the studies: Heterogeneity of terms of operationalisations and methodologies employed and also of findings considered defining for agency at work has stood out as an important characteristic of these empirical works. Based on this analysis and reflection, we delineate avenues that may drive the further consolidation of the field. Our reflective account highlights that the studies reviewed have provided an understanding of agency beyond disciplinary boundaries and beyond exclusively individual or collective actions. They reflect the complexity at the empirical level, where agency is expressed in heterogeneous ways and drives actions that trigger further learning processes.
Many kinds of workers need to both work and learn in socially isolated circumstances (i.e. in the absence of others who can provide guidance and support). Such circumstances require particular kinds of agency and agentic action by these worker-learners, and they might be described as requiring particularly agentic personal epistemologies. These epistemologies are essential for workers such as home care workers (HCWs), who, after a perfunctory classroom training, are expected to work alone in clients’ homes providing a range of support, such as mobility and hygiene assistance. This chapter draws on a recent investigation into the work and learning of a small cohort of such HCWs and maps how they exercise agency in their work practice, work-related learning and development. These workers deployed, in different ways, their past personal experiences (e.g. work, life, education), the classroom training provided, opportunities to engage with other HCWs and support from other informed sources in learning the requirements for their role. Moreover, these workers exercised agentic action by “personalising” their scaffolding or learning supports. That is, they constructed, engaged with and subsequently relinquished scaffolding as personally necessitated, rather than relying on “experts” to decide how and when these forms of learning support should be enacted and withdrawn. What is important here is how these workers’ subjectivities are found to include actions and monitoring of performance, not just ideas and dispositions. Through an account of how this particular cohort exercised agentic action, some conclusions are drawn and recommendations made for the best ways of progressing the learning and development of such socially isolated workers.
The meaning of professional agency in the context of professional learning, as well as in the development of working practices and work organisations, is pivotal. The role of creativity is also crucial for long-term economic growth in the current global environment, which is characterised by rapid changes in both technology and economy. Hence, it is important to study the relationship between professional agency and creativity. In this chapter, we explore professional agency and creativity within two Finnish information technology organisations. This study’s data include interviews with staff members and open-ended questionnaire responses to the question ‘What is creativity in your work?’. We conducted a qualitative data-driven thematic analysis and a theory-driven analysis. Based on the data, creativity was divided into five themes, with particular choices and decisions (i.e. manifestations of professional agency) being found to be linked to each of those themes. Based on the findings, it appears that creativity and agency are strongly related, although their manifestations depend on both the definition of creativity and the space and environment where the phenomena occur. On the one hand, agency manifests as a prerequisite for creativity, while on the other hand, it is an outcome of creativity. In addition, creativity and professional agency can also be seen as synonymous.
The concept of agency refers to individuals’ capacity to make choices and to act on these choices to exert control over their lives. Such notions of agency have become increasingly popular within discourses on professional learning and development over the last 10–20 years. Unfortunately, these discourses have been rather abstract in nature. In addition, the various research strands concerned with agency in the workplace and its relationship to learning have been insufficiently integrated. The present book thus aims to collect, integrate and discuss within a single volume the range of perspectives on agency at work and the empirical research generated by these perspectives. It is hoped that this book will advance a shared understanding of agency at work and its relationship with professional learning and development. This chapter introduces and summarises the chapters which follow.
The present volume has aimed to cover a broad range of approaches to agency at work, exploring its relationship with professional learning and development. Thus, the chapters included in this book have discussed the role of agency in learning and development, considering a variety of working life contexts and applying both conceptual and empirical perspectives. This final chapter provides an overview of both the conceptual approaches and the empirical implementations. We see the perspectives as complementary. From the content of the book, we discern the phenomena as falling on two main dimensions, clustering at opposite ends of these dimensions. Thus, the following contrasts are evidenced: (a) agency understood as a personal capacity, vs. agency as behaviour, and (b) agency as an individual phenomenon, vs. agency as a collective phenomenon. All the chapters emphasise that agency is needed for learning and development. However, they differ in how they view the relationships between the concepts. They also exhibit differences in the empirical decisions taken and the research strategies chosen. In this concluding chapter, we discuss the main similarities and differences emerging from the chapters. We also highlight avenues for future research on agency and its relationship with professional learning.
The role of workers’ agency and intentionality in mediating their work-life learning is key basis for understanding how that learning occurs through and across their working lives. This proposition arises, in part, from the realisation that much of individuals’ learning and development across working life required for effective work and employability occurs through workers’ engagement in everyday work activities and interactions, that is, outside of the circumstances of intentional education or training interludes and being taught, instructed or guided by co-workers. It is individuals’ agency and intentionality that mediates learning in these circumstances, as it also does in close interactions with others (i.e. more experienced workers, trainers, teachers). There is nothing particularly new here. Personal mediation has probably been the key means of learning across human history for most workers and across their working lives. Interactions with more informed others are, however, necessary for learning not able to be secured through individual discovery alone. Indeed, there are clear limits to what can be realised solely through this agency and intentionality. The mediation of other workers is often required for learning concepts to be understood, procedural capacities to be developed and when dispositional aspects of work practice require to be made accessible and appropriated. Co-working and learning, however, also requires individuals’ mediation of what they experience interpersonally. Rather than being the unidirectional passage of knowledge from the expert to novice, these processes are bidirectional and interdependent. Understanding how this interdependent means of learning might be supported through everyday co-working activities and interaction offers ways to promote the potency of work settings as learning environments. This chapter sets out how the development of occupational capacities can be supported in, through and across working lives through co-working. These processes are illuminated and discussed through considering how co-working between novice doctors and pharmacists promotes this learning. This illustrative example is used to offer some initial considerations about the kinds of practice curriculum and pedagogies that can support learning through co-working. Conceptual considerations are also advanced to capture and explain this process of learning as being agentic.