Forbidden City

by Matthew Stollak on Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A new feature on True Faith HR for 2011: Research Wednesday.  Each Wednesday, I will take a recent HR article from an academic journal and attempt to provide the real world HR implications

As with change, surprise is part of our daily organizational lives.  Your day planner may be filled, but an unexpected crisis arises that cause those plans to be thrown out the window.  In their April 2011 Academy of Management Journal article, " Expecting the Unexpected?  How SWAT Officers and Film Crews Handle Surprises," Beth A. Bechky and Gerardo A. Okhuysen explore how individuals respond to unexpected events that allow work to continue.

To assess surprise, Becky and Okhuysen looked at 18 members of a SWAT team, ranging in tenure from one month to 17 years, with 12 members having more than five years of experience.  In addition to observation over a number of briefing and training sessions, members of the SWAT team engaged in semi-structured interviewers ranging from 45 minutes to three hours.  Similarly, four different film sets, ranging from small, short-term productions such as shooting a commercial or a music video to sets for full-length movies.

Both groups had commonalities, such as time pressure as well as pervasive uncertainty (i.e., weather or bystanders).  There were, however, differences.  The negative consequences of surprise for a film project might be reshooting a scene or lack of group continuity from set to set, while surprise for a SWAT team may very well mean significant physical harm.  However, both groups worked in environments where surprises were pervasive.

1.  The increasing use of organizational bricolage.

In there 2005 Administrative Science Quarterly article, Blake and Nelson define bricolage as"making do by applying combinations of the resources at hand to new problems and opportunities" (p. 331).  Both film crews and SWAT teams became bricoleurs in three ways.  One such way is through role shifting.  For example, a SWAT team found more suspects than anticipated when breaking into a location.  As a result, the role changed from "trying to reach the furthest corner of the location to covering areas and suspects as they advanced."  This had a ripple effect as officers in the back had to change their mission as well.   A second way was to reorganize routines.  Workers had to change their approach to work.  For example, a marksman fires at a suspect and misses signaling to the suspect that he is under attack. "Recognizing the changed situation, the waiting break-in team executed a 'dynamic entry,' a well-rehearsed routine, without taking time for conversation."  A third way is through "reordering the work."  For film crews, this might mean shooting scenes in different order.

2.  Resources for bricolage

Two sociological resources were relied upon by both groups in response to surprises: a) Shared task knowledge - multiple members held process knowledge regarding how to complete a certain task, such as camera operators could respond quickly to the absence of one of the team members; b) common work flow expectations - a shared understanding of how events follow one another, such as prioritizing  arresting a suspect and engaging in a dynamic entry if a noisy floorboard signals the SWAT team's presence.

3.  Developing resources for bricolage

To develop resources, organizations rely on three approaches.  One approach is to draft agreement on the work.  Early on in shooting, a production designer or art director may have already scouted locations and would anticipate what would be needed for a set.  A second approach is to reinforce and elaborate task activities.  For a SWAT team, this might mean a trainee might have to take off and put on a bulletproof vest several times to identify the appropriate way to dress,  A third approach is to build cross-member expertise.  A paramedic might never need to use a gun, but it might be helpful to know how a gun works.

Implications for HR
1.  Prepare for the unexpected.  Build contingency plans and communicate their importance to all relevant parties.  Harken back to the days of fire alarm drills.
2.  Build in opportunities at work for routinization of some tasks; turn unprogrammed decision-making into programmed decision-making
3.  Engage in shared knowledge building, which may involve simple day-to-day interactions between team members.

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