Fuzzy Workplace Problems and Teachable Moments

In Everyday Problem Solving in Engineering, Jonassen, Strobel, and Lee observe:

“Practicing engineers are hired, retained, and rewarded for solving problems…. Workplace engineering problems are substantively different from the kinds of problems that engineering students most often solve in the classroom…. Workplace problems are ill-structured and complex because they possess conflicting goals, multiple solution methods, non-engineering success standards, non-engineering constraints, unanticipated problems, distributed knowledge, collaborative activity systems, the importance of experience, and multiple forms of problem representation.”

They also highlight that when learning to solve story problems in engineering, students learn to translate relationships about unknowns into equations, solve the equations to find the value of the unknowns, and check the values found to see if they satisfy the original problem. This linear process implies that solving problems is a procedure to be memorised, practiced, and habituated. A case study approach emphasises getting answers over making meaning.

Learning to solve ‘story’ problems or well-structured problems in engineering classes does not translate to solving complex and ill-structured workplace problems.

For Steven Villachica, these ill-structured or fuzzy workplace problems lend themselves to critical incident analysis.  He suggests this technique finds a good fit when:

Exemplary performance is fuzzy

No one knows what a ‘good one’ looks like

Managers and clients don’t know how work gets done

There are no functional descriptions of workplace activities

Job descriptions don’t match workplace tasks

What the organisation says it values doesn’t equal what the organisation REALLY values

Villachica uses critical incident analysis to identify and resolve gaps in the understanding and performance of new career engineers, or Freshouts, against the expectations of their managers and more experienced colleagues.  Results are analysed, categorised, and leveraged as teachable moments for onboarding, and in development programs.  Here are his tools for capturing these problematic incidents: