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The emergence of shared understanding during unexpected events: An example from 9/11

Feb 24, 2012

Room 1N05 (1:00-2:30) in the Ivey building (main UWO campus).

Marlys Christianson (University of Toronto)

As work becomes more complex and fast-paced, there is a renewed focus on examining how teams manage unexpected events. During an unexpected event, one of the difficulties that teams face is developing a shared understanding of the situation – specifically, they must collectively make sense of what is happening and continue to update their understanding of the event as it evolves over time. Current research on shared understanding tends to focus on static aspects of understanding – for instance, the content and structure of understanding in teams – but we know much less about the dynamic process of how shared understanding in teams emerges over time. By definition, unexpected events cannot be anticipated, which makes them difficult to study. In this project, I use a unique dataset to gain greater insight into how shared understanding evolves during an unexpected event: audiotapes of real-time conversations between the civilian and military personnel involved in controlling and protecting United States airspace on Sept 11, 2001. In order to answer my research questions – “How does understanding of an unexpected event develop and change over time within a team?” and “How do teams navigate transitions in understanding?” – I use an inductive grounded theory approach to analyze conversations between the Northeastern Air Defense Sector team (a group of military officers, air-traffic controllers, and air-surveillance and communications technicians) and other civilian and military personnel, including air-traffic controllers and pilots. I find that the development of shared understanding is much more varied and heterogeneous than often presumed: understanding evolves in a non-linear fashion over time as team members work to make sense of the unfolding situation by actively managing the flow of information, determining what information is legitimate, and attempting to reconcile conflicting accounts.

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