Using Escaped Fire Reviews to Improve Organizational Learning
Recognizing the need to enhance learning from escaped prescribed fires, the Rocky Mountain Research Station analyzed current review processes in Using Escaped Prescribed Fire Reviews to Improve Organizational Learning (Joint Fire Science Program project #10-1-05-1, http://www.firescience.gov/JFSP_Search_ProjectID_Results.cfm). Station scientists collected data through a series of five regional, interagency dialogue sessions. These two-day workshops were held in Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City, Tucson and Tallahassee. All drew participants from the interagency fire community, and spanned the full spectrum of positions from ground operations to national policy makers.
Preliminary results suggest tremendous individual learning is occurring, but that the content of lessons varies by position and hierarchical level. For instance, those involved in the burn operation often gain insight during an event or during the informal unit-level After Action Reviews, but rarely from formal review processes. These latter are more likely to generate anxiety and defensiveness - the antithesis of an effective learning environment. First-line managers find the reports generated by a formal review somewhat more useful, particularly for developing materials for Burn Boss refresher courses. Review Team members report gaining valuable insight into their own practices while reviewing those of others. Transfer of lessons occurs most vividly through personal contacts, particularly when combined with an emotional/experiential interaction, such as presentations at Burn Boss refresher courses and exercises that put the participant in the shoes of operational personnel. Managers in regional and national positions use reviews to demonstrate due diligence, help explain events to outside audiences, and to identify trends and patterns across units. These are practices upon which to build to further improve learning.
Preliminary results also reveal barriers that currently inhibit learning. There is a tendency for the review processes to feel like interrogations aimed at finding blame rather than opportunities to facilitate participant learning. Consequently, key information for improving future performance is driven underground. A key barrier to transfer of local learning to others is confusion about who is the target audience for the review process and the resulting products. Workshop dialogues revealed several audiences, each with different and relevant needs. The current one-process-and-one-report structure may meet the needs of higher management by capturing a story for accountability purposes, but inhibits ground-level learning and operational resiliency. Two major gaps were identified: the lack of a swift and comprehensive distribution system for getting review results to the field, and lack of a process to turn written reports into more useful learning products for the field. Re-thinking and re-crafting the post-event reflection process to ensure that local and peer learning occurs should enhance organizational learning and result in a more robust system that accomplishes strategic, operational, and real-time learning.
Results of the project, Using Escaped Prescribed Fire Reviews to Improve Organizational Learning, include a series of 6 short video podcasts identifying tips and techniques to improve learning drawn from the workshops, and a formal analysis and synthesis of workshop discussions, all available at http://www.firescience.gov/JFSP_Search_ProjectID_Results.cfm.