In today’s world employees often must deal with tasks and problems that require much more that simply following a predetermined step by step procedure – the problems require the exercise of judgment. Judgment is needed when we are faced with thorny questions about which there are no right or wrong answers. When asked one of those thorny questions we often say, “Well, it’s a matter of judgment.” Soldiers, for example, face many situations in which one correct course in not clear, as in this example from one of the US Army on-line communities, PlatoonLeader.
“We were headed out to a pretty easy mission. My front truck reports that there’s a dead body under a car in the middle of the road. He was on the ground. He had been in his car and he had been shot. At that point, the gunner from my lead truck noticed a double-decker bus that had stopped. And there was a guy up on the top deck who appeared to have a blue video camera, and he was just hanging out the window video-taping us. Our rules of engagement permitted us to engage anybody video-taping an attack. I looked down my sight and noticed the same thing. The gunner looked through binos and noticed the same thing. He asked me, “Hey sir, can I go ahead and shoot him?”
In the above example the Platoon sergeant must figure out if the video-taping implies an ambush or if it is just some guy video taping a strange scene.
Weick provides an example in which a nurse in a neonatal unit must make two judgment calls.
“I took care of a 900-gram baby who was about 26 or 27 weeks many years ago who had been doing well for about two weeks. He had an open ductus that day. The difference between the way he looked at 9 a.m. and the way he looked at 11 a.m. was very dramatic. I was at that point really concerned about what was going to happen next. There are a lot of complications of the patent ductus, not just in itself, but the fact that it causes a lot of other things. I was really concerned that the baby was starting to show symptoms of all of them.”
You look at this kid because you know this kid, and you know what he looked like two hours ago. It is a dramatic difference to you, but it’s hard to describe that to someone in words. You go to the resident and say: “Look, I’m really worried about X, Y, Z,” and they go: “OK.” Then you wait one half hour to 40 minutes, then you go to the Fellow (the teaching physician supervising the resident) and say: “You know, I am really worried about X, Y, Z.” They say: “We’ll talk about it on rounds.”
The nurse faces two situations that require judgment, the first is to recognize that the baby is in trouble and the second is how to convey that information to a physician in a way will cause him to turn his attention to the infant.
Such situations occur more and more frequently, not only in the military and hospitals but in much of the work we think of as knowledge work, everything from an architect thinking about a design for a steeply sloping site, to an intelligence analyst determining whether the troop build up on a border signals a threat, to a manager faced with how to implement a change initiative.
In order to respond to these kinds of situations, employees need more than the skills they learn in training, more than what is provided in a manual of regulations, and even more than what can be picked up through reading the best practice of others. There is no way to anticipate all the possible situations a knowledge worker could face during their daily work, and therefore no way to provide sufficient procedures or directions. Rather knowledge workers need to continuously read the situation in front of them and then, based on that interpretation, determine the appropriate next action to take - in other words, to use their judgment.
In Talking About Machines, Julian Orr describes the lunch meetings that copy repair technicians hold to solve the difficult problems they face fixing copy machines. He notes that much of their talk is telling stories about the machines they have been working on. The stories serve to make sense of diagnoses confronting them, but also to reaffirm what it means to be a “competent” repair technician in terms of work habits, what clothing is worn to a client site, how a repair technician approaches a problem, how one works with colleagues and a host of other values and norms that turns a person into an effective repair technician.
In contrast to these informal lunch meetings, Orr describes the view of the corporation about how repair problems are solved, that is, that problems are solved by using the documentation issued to the repair technicians. “The diagnostic procedures prescribe a series of tests, with each action defined in considerable detail, and each branching condition presented as a simple Yes/No choice. Such documentation is based on the scientific management principle that if instructions are detailed and complete, the organization can hire cheaper employees, with less skill, who can do the job by following the instructions contained in the documentation. However, to the technicians the actual question to which they are asked to respond Yes or No is often extremely convoluted… The technicians are quite philosophical about the shortcomings of the documentation, saying that, ‘the machine is far too complex to anticipate correctly all of the possible failures.’ ... They view the documentation as a useful resource to consult when their own expertise cannot solve the machine’s problem.” But it is in the conversations where they learn to deal with the tricky problems that never show up in the documentation.
The corporate view, as reported by the copy repair technicians, is that knowledge and skill are a matter of individual competence, which is gained by attending training, reading journals, and/or listening to lectures. The underlying assumptions of that view are that, 1) there are individuals with expertise who can provide the knowledge required to be effective, through documents or lecture, and 2) that the required knowledge is relatively stable, it changes little over time.
As more and more of the workforce is populated by knowledge workers our premise about of how people develop the judgment to be effective is changing. The newer view holds that:
1. complex knowledge and skills are distributed across the practitioners who use that skill, with no one individual knowing all that the group knows, and
2. knowledge is continually changing as the group of practitioners learn from the act of practicing their craft. Ideas are not fixed and elements of thought are formed and reformed through experience. Knowledge then is not stable, but is ever changing.
The newer view takes into account the difference between “know what” and “know how.” For example, it is possible, to learn the “know what” of negotiation strategies by reading the books about negotiation. But books cannot make a person a skilled negotiator. To be an effective negotiator, requires “know how” or what I have earlier called judgment.
How then do people learn to make judgments? There are three elements involved in developing judgment:
• The most fundamental element is the individual taking action and observing the results – in other words experience. Experience is gained, not through one occurrence, but over enough occurrences that a pattern begins to emerge across all of the actions taken. This implies the liberty to experiment, to try new things and, of course, to fail. Edmondson calls this “intelligent failures at the frontier.” Judgment cannot be learned in the absence of failure because the breadth of experience would be too narrow. If an organization punishes failure or if employees feel the need to hide failure, there is little opportunity to develop judgment.
• The second element is reflection on those actions and patterns. Reflection requires thinking back on the actions taken, the reasoning behind the choice of action, the context in which the action took place, and the outcomes that resulted from the actions, many of which are unintentional. While experience is inevitable, learning is not. To learn from requires deliberate reflection. Reflection is most effective when it is done in the company of others who are involved in the same kind of work. When we summarize what happened for someone else, we begin to understand it better ourselves. We learn when we talk. Each practitioner functions within a somewhat different context, responding a bit differently. Consequently the learning of each practitioner is unique. When those practitioners reflect together on their actions, “creative abrasion” occurs, which leads to greater understanding in those engaged in the conversation. There are a number of processes to choose from that are both conversational and systematic in nature, for example Action Learning, Knowledge Café, Anecdote circles collective sensemaking, coaching ourselves.
• The third element is associating oneself with a community of practitioners and thereby understanding the work and it’s talk from the inside.” One learns to be an effective nurse, copy repair technician, or soldier by talking with others about their work. Such talk develops not only the necessary understanding of technique, but also of values held, norms of behavior and how to think like a practitioner in that field. In other words, how “to be.”
These elements, to a great or lesser degree, are present in the informal interaction among people doing the same work, as we saw in the copy repair example. But in a world where the community of practitioners is spread across the globe, and many practitioners work at locations out of the office, the development of judgment cannot not be left to chance and proximity. It must be designed and supported by the organization including: 1) experimentation that leads to learning, 2) treating failure as an opportunity for learning, 3) establishing a systematic process through which reflective conversation occurs about both team and individual actions, 4) and promoting communities of practice.