Sensemaking for organisational and professional learning

Learning From Incidents

Our research on Learning From Incidents is impacting at an international level on how industry plans and implements learning interventions for health and safety. This research builds on a programme of work funded by the Energy Institute, Shell, BP and the Economic and Social research Council (ESRC). Large scale accidents such as Chernobyl and Deepwater Horizon can become valuable opportunities for companies to learn from the past to create a safer future. For incidents to trigger individual and organisational learning, insights must be shared and used by a wide range of people, including those not involved in the original event. Our early research identified the phases of Learning From Incidents activity as reporting, incident analysis, production of learning materials and dissemination of these materials (Littlejohn, Margaryan, Vojt & Lukic, 2017). Our research identified that two other critical phases of learning were neglected: sensemaking, where each individual relates incident information to his or her role, and change in practice or processes (Lukic, Littlejohn & Margaryan, 2012). An LFI Toolkit was developed to encourage sensemaking and learning. The Energy Institute has made the LFI Toolkit available to its member organisations worldwide and there have been trials of the Tools in the Energy and Health Sectors.

Current research on Learning From Incidents and Implementing Action is funded by the Energy Institute (Sept 2016 - 2019) Working with the Energy Institute and several multinational energy companies, we are investigating how teams and networks share safety materials, how individuals use these materials and how organisations can measure whether people have learned from incidents.

Learning in Uncertainty

Professional learning is a critical component of ongoing improvement and innovation and the adoption of new practices in the workplace. Professional learning is often achieved through learning embedded in everyday work tasks. Our previous research has identified how finance professionals self-regulate their learning through day-to-day work. This work identified that a key characteristic of good self-regulation is viewing learning as a form of long-term, personalised self-improvement, proving a foundation for planning continual professional development in organisations.

Recent social and political uncertainty has accentuated the need to understand the gaps in professional knowledge, the learning processes professionals undertake to address those gaps, and their epistemic frames they use for evaluating their choices – for example what are the industry standard procedures or organisational cultures that are best suited for uncertain situations. A Leverhulme-funded PhD study, in partnership with the University of Regensburg, Germany, and the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investments in London, UK, is investigating three questions: What are the states of uncertainty that finance professionals work within; How do professionals self-regulate their learning in these states: What type of intervention can help professionals to learn in uncertain situations.

Results from the first phase of this study indicate five different types of uncertainties: Environmental changes, Structural Changes, Political decisions, Financial crisis, and Technological advancements. The second phase of the study is investigating whether professionals use diverse strategies to learn in these five different situations. It is possible that professionals operate within different epistemic frames, depending on the type of uncertainty and this hypothesis will be investigated in the third phase of the study. We will introduce a technology–based intervention designed as a set of simulated learning activities that capture the learning strategies of finance professionals as they work in uncertain situations. Based on the data collected from the simulated learning activity, we will build cognitive epistemic networks of how professionals draw on their knowledge, skills, and previous experience to learn.

Fleming Fund: Improving professional practice around AMR

The World Health Organization (WHO) developed the Global Anti Microbial Resistance (AMR) Surveillance System (GLASS) to be adopted by countries through national action plans. However, lower-middle income countries (LMICs) are unlikely to have the resources or capacity to implement GLASS. To address this, the Fleming Fund has developed a guideline that is aligned to the GLASS procedures, written specifically for implementation in low- and middle income countries. The aim of this research is to ensure good use of these guidelines to support professionals in LMICs in learning and adopting these procedures urgently required to reduce Anti-Microbial Resistance. We are carrying out research and development on online learning events to meet the identified pedagogic and subject needs and, in parallel, tracing out a longer-term approach to identify topics, methods and modes of delivery of online blended learning for AMR in low to middle income countries.

From our research on Learning From Incidents (see above) we know that access to learning resources alone is unlikely to result in a change in work practice (eg Littlejohn, Lukic & Margaryan, 2011). Practices tend to be passed down through generations. They become systemic and associated with ‘being’ a practitioner. When newcomers come into a workplace they try to fit in and become ‘enculturated’ into systemic practices and ways of doing things associated with expertise. Known ‘ways of doing’ are engendered in generations of practice and, whether good or bad, tend to endure as a template of ‘how it is to be’ a practitioner. It can be very difficult to change these practices, even when they become so outdated that they no longer work well. Any challenge to entrenched practices not only has to be sound and well argued, but also has to be aligned with or change the work culture. Entrenched poor practice leads to AMR. This can be in terms of use of antibiotics in agriculture, unregulated medicines, poor prescribing, poor manufacturing and also in terms of the spread of bacteria and genetic material.

The focus of this research is on the professional practice of a wide range of individuals with a variety of skills, backgrounds and interests, including surveillance staff, public health professionals, policy makers, clinicians, vets, and pharmacists. There is a need for professionals to learn about best practices associated with AMR on a mass scale with accessible materials to change professional practice. To raise awareness about AMR and generate impact on professional practices in LMICs, the project team is engaging with key stakeholders at three levels: i. Cross-Country/International Level; ii. Country/National Level and iii. Workplace/Local level.

Learning to be researchers and research organisations

Research careers (including practices, identities and organisational structures/processes) in the UK are in flux. Pressures to demonstrate the value of research through ‘impact’ combine with heightened competition for scant resources and increased precarity, particularly amongst Early Career Researchers (ECRs). At the same time, traditional academic research is being forced to justify its worth in relation to the rise of alternative ‘knowledge actors’ from public sector think tanks, private sector consultancy firms, the media and civil society. This has compounded by the rise in ‘post-truth politics’ and the backlash in defence of a single authoritative ‘scientific truth’. Against this backdrop, our research has explored the experience of ‘becoming’ a researcher and research organisation within and outside of academia.

Previous research funded by the Society of Research into Higher Education (SRHE): Becoming Academic in the Digital Age: Negotiations of identity in the daily practices of Early Career Researchers’ (2013-14), explored the professional identity-building practices of ECRs as mediated by digital practices and artefacts. The study generated three complementary datasets: first, semi-structured interviews with ECRs’ from three British universities (a traditional research-teaching university, a research-focused university and a teaching-focused university); second, longitudinal data based on multimodal journaling through iPod Touches by six ECRs to chart their academic identity-building practices over a 3-6 month period; and third, multimodal discourse analysis of the blogs, websites and staff profile pages of the six ECRs as well as a selection of staff profile pages from a random sample of UK-based universities to explore the representational affordances of these resources in framing academic identity.

A second study funded by The Leverhulme Trust (Engaging Research for Practice: Research engagement in the UK’s international NGO sector - 2014-18) explores the ‘research engagement’ practices of International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) as they access, adapt, use, commission, collaborate in and conduct research. The study involved three phases: i) a ‘conceptual metasynthesis’ of understandings of ‘research engagement’ which compared practices across four UK-based fields of study and sectors of practice (cultural heritage, public health, science and technology and international development); ii) institutional case studies of INGOs in the international development sectors; and iii) multimodal participatory journaling with 8 INGO researchers.

Both studies contributed to the development of the framework for understanding research identity as an emergent assemblage of personal, social, institutional, material and discursive elements. They also have implications for improving researcher development and support systems, for reconceptualising ‘impact’ and for reimagining research practice beyond the boundaries of higher education institutions.

Read the original research

Littlejohn, Allison; Margaryan, Anoush; Vojt, Gabriele and Lukic, Dane (2017). Learning from Incidents Questionnaire (LFIQ): The validation of an instrument designed to measure the quality of learning from incidents in organisations. Safety Science, 99(A) pp. 80–93.

Lukic, Dane; Littlejohn, Allison and Margaryan, Anoush (2012). Learning from incidents. Petroleum Review, 66(790) pp. 36–37.

Littlejohn, Allison; Milligan, Colin; Fontana, Rosa Pia and Margaryan, Anoush (2016). Professional Learning Through Everyday Work: How Finance Professionals Self-Regulate Their Learning. Vocations and Learning: Studies in Vocational and Professional Education, 9(2) pp. 207–226.

Littlejohn, Allison (2017). Learning and Work: Professional Learning Analytics. In: Lang, Charles; Siemens, George; Wise, Alyssa and Gasevic, Dragan eds. Handbook of Learning Analytics. Society for Learning Analytics Research, pp. 269–277.

Fransman, J. (forthcoming) 'Understanding ‘Research Engagement’ in the UK-context: Navigating the conceptual landscape’ Research for All: Universities and Society.