The ED as a social construction, and some personal notes

I’m interested in sense-making and cross-silo collaboration in complex environments. Despite these topics simmering inside of me for about a decade, it took time to articulate these interests into a short coherent sentence. The seeds were planted in 2006, whilst working on an oil platform as a medic, and it kept growing as I continued reading, experiencing and learning e.g. doing an MBA and a BTech Management. Eventually, it culminated into one study a PhD allowing me the opportunity to explore sense-making and operational decision-making in Emergency Centres (EC) as complex environments.

I chose a few public hospital ECs, all situated in Cape Town. The study was divided into two main parts, first a description of the ECs detailing and comparing policy, procedure and daily happenings.  After that, I explored how people make sense of their complex environment e.g. how and when they share of information, level of collaboration, trust, communication and beliefs regarding other disciplines and management.

The social constructionist stance

The research was approached from a social constructionist view; I argued that the EC staff create their own reality and that knowledge is generated and shared via social processes. Thus, social relationships shape how the team or workgroup experience their situation/reality. Management literature describes social networks to be a key determinant of resilience. In turn, resilience is a vital characteristic of high-reliability organisations (HROs).

Linking stories and culture

People interact by swapping stories and sharing their account of events.  Some of these accounts are repeated and in time it is accepted as truth, demonstrating how things happen ‘here’. In a way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – because people are more likely to see what they are scanning for whilst disregarding some other aspects in the environment. Newcomers are rapidly introduced into how things are done and what to notice and what not i.e. the culture of the workgroup. The culture is reinforced via daily rituals, communication, and anecdotes.

The underlying beliefs (and culture) determine vital interactions e.g. level of engagement, the ‘allowed’ social networks, level of transparency, trust and sharing between peers, other disciplines and those holding positional power (management).

For example, if the prevailing story is that management is ‘out to get people’ or that management cannot be trusted – the operational staff will protect themselves by withholding information and will not report minor mishaps, errors or events. For as long as the prevailing story sticks no progress will be made to introduce a safety culture, create transparency in relationships, etc. The grapevine and informal networks in the workplace are the gatekeepers of the culture.  And as mentioned earlier, these social relationships directly impact on the resilience and reliable functioning of the EC. Studies show that people are more likely to accept organisational stories by face value, favouring plausibility over accuracy.

As Nietzsche wrote:

Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.

The organisation is socially constructed

The EC is a social construction that is dynamically and collectively shaped by all working in the EC. Those holding positional or personal power have louder voices and are more influential than those with less voice. Those holding personal power may yield their influence to block change e.g. improvement projects that are driven from the top-down or hindering cross-silo communication.

Why it matters

Essentially sense-making is about how abnormality or fluctuation is noticed, whether this information is shared, and what happens next – the subsequent decisions and actions. Gaining insight into how sense-making occurs in the EC provides crucial knowledge about the more obscure factors that determine operational efficiency. It also provides information regarding team dynamics, communication methods, and cross-silo collaboration.

Exposing deeply held assumptions

Tapping into the underlying assumptions that inform sense-making is not straightforward; assumptions are accepted as regularly reinforced truths, and the dynamics are not obvious, not even to insiders.  These deep beliefs are a constraint to sense-making in the EC.  When it acts as an enabling constraint it ensures collective sense-making, effective decision-making, reliable operations, and social cohesion.  Alternatively, when deep beliefs act as limiting constraint, it results in failed collective sense-making, poor decision-making, operational failure, and strong silo mentalities.

Exploring sense-making

To recap: the people in the workplace hold deeply ingrained assumptions, that they are mostly unaware of.  These assumptions directly impact the level of collaboration, situation awareness and their ability to respond to variation in their environment.

So, how do we expose these assumptions? By exploiting the organisational stories told.

Language and stories are essential tools that shape how people understand the world (or workplace). The understanding created is reshared by sharing stories and knowledge, and by using specific words and phrases the storyteller can emphasize certain facts whilst ignoring others.

For part two of my research, we captured the stories that the people in the EC tell about their daily experience, hearing all voices equally. This was done by using the SenseMaker® tool – proprietary to Cognitive Edge to capture the stories.

Capturing stories

Using SenseMaker®, after telling us a story, the participants answered a series of questions based on the theoretical basis from the fields of collective and organisational sense-making, especially those that explored catastrophe, crises, ambiguity and time-critical decision-making.

This allowed for a comprehensive data set via a novel way of combining stories (qualitative data) with self-analysis (quantitative data). The data was then visually displayed allowing easy visualisation of patterns or clusters of responses.

What I liked most about using SenseMaker® is the self-analysis – participants provided information regarding the meaning of their story, distancing the researcher from the initial analysis.

Utilising the stories to effect change

Roughly, the stories can be divided into two extremes: those stories that promote sense-making and collaboration and those that don’t.  By shaping the daily stories in the direction of those that promote sense-making, the underlying beliefs and assumptions can shift, creating a new reality or situation. In time this may lead to a different experience of the workplace, (hopefully) improving relationships, decision-making, and cross-silo collaboration. This can be continuously tracked by using SenseMaker® as a monitoring and evaluation tool.

Personal impact

I plan on journeying more into sense-making, narrative methods, and complexity. I have a special interest in the gaps and overlaps between disciplines and cross-silo work as I deem it the space presenting the greatest potential to disproportionately improve systems and processes. By impacting the level of social cohesion between disciplines, the ability to continue functioning despite major flux or challenge is immediately improved, leading to resilience.

I intend on discussing my PhD learnings and its applications to the health industry, yet the unintended personal consequence is that I realise that I cannot limit myself to working only within Emergency Care or even healthcare. It’s time to spread my wings a bit wider, and in future blogs, the focus will shift a more towards complexity, culture, team, collective sense-making, communication, and management.

I’m in the process of revamping my blog site to be more aligned with these topics, and I hope that you (the reader) will continue supporting the new angle.  I thought it apt to end with the words of Winston Churchill. Even though WW2 only ended in three years later, the battle of Alamein in 1942 marked the turning point in the war and it was after this battle that Churchill spoke these wise words.

Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

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Sense-making in Emergency Centres

Interruptions, incessant multi-tasking, mobile equipment thus continuous reconfiguration of the physical space, noise, people, flux….

How do people that work in emergency centres know what’s going on? 

How do they make sense of what’s happening, who do they talk to and then what happens? 

How does the formal processes e.g. policies and procedure enable (or disable) them from responding to expected and unexpected challenges? 

Exploring the above has consumed me for the past few years.  Using a multi-layered research design, I’ve studied five large busy government emergency centres in Cape Town.  First was an ethnographic study, and it was utterly fascinating to take an outsider stance, observing and ask naive questions about what’s happening and why things are done in specific ways.

To understand the formal systems doctor and nurse policies, procedures and rules was studied, and the managers was interviewed separately.  External managers e.g. human resources, finance, risk, bed flow was also interviewed.  This part of the project was largely influenced by Karl von Holdt’s work on South African government bureaucracies; Schein’s on culture, Weick and Sutcliffe’s high reliability organizations and Klein’s naturalistic decision-making and macrocognition.

This was followed with a SenseMaker® study.  EC doctors and nurses were invited to share a story; after telling it, they answered a set of specially designed questions.  The questions were based on a fusion of two sense-making theories; Karl Weick’s process of collective sense-making in organizations and Gary Klein’s data/frame model of sense-making.

The SenseMaker® tool provided me with a double set of data, the questions are quantified and visually displayed so that we can easily search for patterns and then a narrative analysis will add the final layer of insights.  For this part of the study I extensively relied on David Snowden’s methods, both the SenseMaker® tool and conceptual Cynefin framework was developed by him.

I’m planning a series of blogs discussing my work of the past few years, watch this space for more regular blogs from now on!

And on Thursday I’ll be presenting a teaser of the SenseMaker findings at the 4th African Conference on Emergency Medicine in Rwanda #AFCEM or http://www.afcem2018.com/

 

Making sense…learning about sense-making

Remember the movie ‘Back to the future’ where Marty (Michael J. Fox) travels through time, whilst figuring out what is happening and how to influence the future whilst simultaneously dealing with the current situation?

It reminds me of sense-making. Sense-making is about how we give meaning to a situation. Sense-making is based in our decisions and beliefs and it is influenced by aspects such as power relations, hierarchy, autonomy, linguistics, temporalization (focus on now, the past or the future), justification, culture and traditional society, equality, bargaining power, locus of control, openness to change. Sense-making is done individually or collectively in organizations and communities.  Capturing these underlying nuances in our perceptions allows deeper insights into why an organization or community are angry, failing, succeeding, innovating, etc.

Brenda Dervin, Gary Klein, Karl Weick and David Snowden are a few of the contributors to sense-making. They all describe their own theory about sense-making either as individual or collective activity.  Snowden combined several sense-making theories into one tool.  For my studies I am using his tool to capture community perspectives regarding cost as a barrier to access emergency care. 

Today I’m sharing my understanding of Brenda Dervin’s metaphor for sense-making.  Dervin sees sense-making as the individual activity of information seeking, processing, recreating and application. Information is described as a tool designed by humans whilst making sense of reality.  Methods of communication and the application of information (knowledge) are key aspects of sense-making.

The metaphor 

timespace

It starts in a time-space milieu, implying constant energy and movement. This environment is never static and time-space energy propels us forward or pulls us back, always fluctuating and never stable.

Moving through time-space we have Mr. Squiggly.  Humans are depicted as squiggly because we are caught between certainty and uncertainty.  Thus there is a constant flux within the person (internal) and between the person and the environment (external).  Mr. Squiggly carries an umbrella, symbolizing mind-set, perceived constraints and enablers. (I feel that it should be a backpack – demonstrating our baggage).

Mr Squiggly.png

Whilst moving through time-space, a gap or barrier is encountered. For the purposes of my work, the gap is a life-threatening injury or illness requiring urgent care. The gap can however be any barrier or difficulty in daily life (in an organization it could be new policies, a new boss etc.). The gap forces Mr. Squiggly to stop until a way has been found to ‘bridge’ the gap and reach an outcome.

The outcome depends on how the gap is bridged.  Some potential outcomes are not obvious in the beginning and it may only become apparent retrospectively, influencing future decisions and beliefs.

Moving from situation to outcome requires a bridge. The building blocks used to build the bridge consists of different types of blocks.  One being the individual mind-set, during a life-threatening emergency it would include individual beliefs about health, healthcare, medication, culture. Building blocks also include inputs from others, the stories within the community about a time that something similar happened to someone else, financial hardships suffered, patient outcome etc.  Mr. Squiggly consciously and unconsciously use all the information in the form of building blocks to create the bridge.

Once the bridge is built, Mr. Squiggly can leap across the bridge to the outcome; this is aptly called gap-bridging.  The building blocks of information is now applied, thus knowledge are created. Dervin use the term ‘verbing’ as an important gap-bridging and sense-making tool.  Everyday examples of verbing include the use of words for example emailing, googling or ubering. Verbing thus occurs when a noun is turned into a verb, creating action or experience.  It certainly fits a methodology where knowledge is seen as a context-specific sense-making activity in a specific point in time and space.

 teh gap.png

I’m using sense-making to capture the various roles within a community perceive gaps, bridge gaps and view the outcomes during a life-threatening injury or illness. Perceptions will be captured using a type of narrative enquiry, where the participant is asked to tell a descriptive story.  After telling the story, the storyteller explains the meaning of their own story by indexing it onto a predesigned framework.  This is very different from ‘traditional’ research where the investigator assigns meaning to the stories. Neutral questioning is used to guide the indexing.  Questions are framed in such a way to capture the nuanced aspects of hierarchy, autonomy, equality etc.  After capturing, the data are combined and the software allows for it to be visually displayed, enabling easy identification of patterns and trends.  More details on the software are a story for another day.

This technique has been applied to monitor, evaluate, communicate, and create feedback loops in projects, organizations, communities and even broader society.

I am using sense-making because I’m passionate about the voice of the ‘voiceless’ in organizations and communities.  I feel that tacit knowledge is often overlooked.  Sense-making provides a tool to capture many voices, combine the different perspectives and seek common ground, emerging trends or underlying moods. This is powerful, whether in an organization, community or development project. It prevents the implementation of one perspective, ‘outside’ views or only top-down approaches. Inclusive sustainable implementation requires more than one story, one perspective and more than one type of knowledge.

 As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her powerful TED talk about the danger of a single story:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

References

I adapted the pictures from: Facing a gappy situation. Sense-making methodology: communicating communicatively with campaign audience.  Dervin, B. 2003.  In Dervin B, Foreman-Wernet L (Eds). Sense-making methodology reader: selected writings of Brenda Dervin, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press 2003.

http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en

The story of clinical facilities planning

For the past two months I have been working on a project involving clinical facilities planning.  This is still a very novel concept in South Africa. It involves planning the hospital’s flow during the design phase.

As far system strengthening is concerned the physical and spacial relationships within the system and the subsequent influence of each relationship on others impact on the full systems operation and efficiency.  Some of what we attempt when we implement improvement programs is to fix wrongly designed systems, physical structures that are outdated, outgrown and to accommodate new technology within the existing structure.   A way to truly fix a system is to rebuild it…correcting the old model.

It is very hard to simply action the rebuilding of an entire physical structure to resolve system issues.  Therefor physical structure is hardly considered a leverage point when improving a system.  It is only a leverage point if it is designed to suit the system’s needs.  Once built we can only manage constraints and inefficiencies with improvement programs to manage limitations, bottlenecks, matching demand and capacity or even work around system failures.

Hospitals are subject to rapid change and a clear operational concept and accurate scope of services is essential during design.  The ability to forecast trends and change requires clinical insight and not just architectural design capability.

Reading through international literature on clinical facility planning, I was amazed to read a statement that there are more than 600 studies demonstrating the impact of hospital design on outcome measures such as reduction in staff turnover, staff stress and even patient pain level perception.   This obviously implies a link between facility design, perceived quality of care, patient safety and error and nosocomial infection.  Some factors to consider are single versus multiple bed rooms, ability to observe patients, distance between beds, availability of hand wash facilities, slippery floors, and distance from nurse station to patient room.

Clinical oversights in facility design in units where I have worked include a unit where the sluice room had limited space to test urine and no cupboard space to store urine and pregnancy test containers.  The sluice room had only a tiny sink and could accommodate one person at a time.  This resulted in an overflowing messy sluice room during busy times, bottlenecks, running around to obtain pregnancy tests, urine sample bottles etc.  Another example is that it was decided to remove an electronic patient system as it was not effective.  In an independent study conducted afterwards, one of the main reasons given by nursing staff for the ineffectiveness was the location of electronic devices within the facility and its subsequent impact on flow and patient care. And then the steps at an emergency exit at a ward for bedridden patients, the mind boggles.

There is a fine balance in meeting the needs of the clinical facility user (patient) and facility management.   By marrying the financial aspects, clinical intent and the physical infrastructure design, a plan can be developed that appropriately balance the patient journey and operational efficiency.

I’m involved in a facility that is being rebuilt with a structured transition from old to new.  My role is to write the functional narrative, which is the expression of the intent and flow within all functional spaces such as patient rooms, utility rooms, medication rooms, nurse duty stations.   As we are hoping to impact a paradigm shift in culture during the transition the narrative is crucial, it is the story of the new facility after all.

I feel privileged to be part of the change process and I hope that it will result in safer patient care and improve access to care in the new facility.