All human activity, along with associated emergent problematic situations and opportunities, is embedded in context. The ‘context’ is, however, a a melange of different contexts. In our attempts at understanding and intervening, rarely do we spend much time trying to understand context, especially as it applies to the current situation, and how history has influenced where we are. Instead, we tend to: a) make assumptions about context, but not make these explicit, resulting in different unspoken and untested assumptions; b) limit contextual analysis to proximal, ‘obvious’ or uncontroversial aspects; or c) jump to a potential solution (or a way to realise an opportunity), shortly followed by planning for this intervention (which has the important function of helping us to feel in control, thus relieving our anxiety – at least temporarily).
An approach that I have found useful is to spend time considering contextual influences (e.g., on decision making, at multiple levels of organisations) on problematic situations or potential solutions, more explicitly. This should done with those who have relevant field expertise, in an interview or workshop setting, virtually or in-person, supported by secondary sources (e.g., research publications, policy and regulatory documents). In doing this, the various contextual aspects of a given activity, problem or opportunity become clearer.
Understanding the system boundary
Before embarking on this activity, it is important first to consider, and define, the system boundary of interest. This is not a hard or objective boundary, but one that we choose for our own reasons, which might be pragmatic (relating to our sphere of influence with regards to intervention) or opportunistic (access to participants and information), for instance. A system boundary is therefore a deliberate choice, but one that should be made clear, along with the reasoning for this choice. It could be anything at the micro, meso or macro scales. It could be a workstation, a room, a centre, an organisation, a sector of industrial activity, etc. The system boundary of interest may change over time for the same sorts of reasons as it was chosen in the first place, and so is not necessarily fixed, and can be expanded, contracted or shifted as required..
Understanding the problems and opportunities of interest
Once the system boundary has initially been delineated, it is important to discuss perspectives on the problems or opportunities of interest. These will differ depending on the person or group (though each person or group may not be fully aware of this). So it can be useful to try to get multiple perspectives from the points of view of different people in the system, for instance at the levels of:
- Regulatory bodies
- Senior management
- Middle management
- Service users
The task here is to understand how each stakeholder frames and conceives of the problems or opportunities of interest. (Each stakeholder may conceive of several, more or less interconnected, but in any case there will always be several, and even the same basic problem will be framed differently.)
Understanding the context
For each problem or opportunity, context can be considered in many different ways, but here are 10 aspects of context relevant to problems and opportunities in organisations. Each can usefully be the topic of a conversion.
- Legal and regulatory
- Organisational and institutional
- Social and cultural
- Physical and environmental
Each of these will be more or less relevant to a given problem or opportunity. Some could be combined and others could be added, but these are ones that I have found useful. I’ll not attempt to define each of them. I prefer for people to use the keywords to trigger their own meanings, but some expansion of terms may be useful. For instance, ‘social’ may refer to family, friendships, communities, associations, and social networks. ‘Physical and environmental’ may refer to the designed and natural environment. ‘Personal’ may refer to one’s unique personal context, including values, beliefs, habits, health, and so on.
The point is to spend some time thinking and talking about each chosen aspect of context in relation to the problem or opportunity of interest. The bi-directional nature of influence means that at least the following questions might be considered:
a) How does/did/could this aspect of context affect the problem or opportunity?
b) How does/did/could this problem or opportunity affect this aspect of context?
By spending some time talking about each pertinent aspect of context, we can gain a better understanding before going on to think about intervention. The conversations act as a buffer and a bridge between our detection of a perceived problem (or opportunity), and our urge to resolve (or realise) it.
The conversations about context could end there, having resulted in valuable insights on a problem or opportunity. To take understanding a step further, one might want to look at interactions. The question here might be:
How do aspects of context interact to affect the problem or opportunity?
This essentially involves drawing influence diagrams for contextual influences, but these need not be giant spaghetti diagrams. Rather, we might look at aspects of context of interest from the previous exercise, and see if any of them influence or are influenced by other aspects of context. For example, aspects of context at the political level (e.g., performance targets) will usually not exert direct influence, but rather via other aspects of context. Similarly, organisational aspects of context may exert influence via physical aspects (e.g., workplace design), informational aspects (e.g., feedback), temporal aspects (e.g., production pressure), etc.
Understanding leverage points for intervention
When it comes to intervention, we can use the same aspects of context to have more conversations by seeing each as a leverage point, in conjunction with approaches from relevant disciplines (e.g., systems engineering, human factors and ergonomics, resilience engineering, improvement science). The question then might be:
How might we intervene to help address the problem situation or manage the opportunity in a way that improves the situation?
The exercise as a is not a precise method, but does help to uncover aspects of context that have previously not been considered thoroughly, or at all, and can be combined with methods to inform analysis of human work, and associated problems and opportunities.