Inventing Tradition with your O&M Staff and Tenants

Blog | May 01, 2012 - 3:00 pm
By Susan Mazur-Stommen , Behavior program director

I will be speaking at the upcoming NCBC meeting in Nashville on May 15th.  The organizers and I decided to write a short blog with some ideas to help jump-start conversation and participation. In my keynote I will be talking about some of these ideas in more depth, in particular the idea of invented traditions. Today I thought I would stray a little bit into how we can create embodied traditions that work holistically (mind, body, and environment) to enhance memory and learning.

In order to permanently implement building commissioning practices that provide long-term savings, providers of commissioning services need to harness the processes of institutional culture change.  This requires an understanding of how people actually learn new practices.  A successful dialogue between the commissioning service provider and their client needs to take place within a space constructed for learning, one which takes into account the recursive nature of the information exchange and how information is processed and acted upon. 

One might refer to this as “education” but for the fact that “education” as a concept has come to mean a one-way transfer of information (for example, from me to you) delivered via media that favors visual-verbal learning styles (written directions) and with the responsibility for retention resting with the passive recipient (memorization). How do people learn? How do you learn? Do you remember everything that people tell you? Or do you find yourself referring to notes? Are there complex activities you conduct semi-automatically and precisely? What might those be and how did you acquire those habits?

Running a large building is analogous to running a large ship. Think of the sailing ships of the past, with their crews working together precisely.  Their work was embodied, automatic, and mostly learned kinesthetically.  Much of the information they deployed in their everyday activities (adjusting and controlling a complex system, responding to weather events and temperature changes) was also embedded in lore; but where did this lore come from? It was invented.  Someone, somewhere, encapsulated complicated sets of observations into pithy structures, like:

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight
Red sky at morn, sailor be warned.

Is there a scientific basis to this snippet? According to the Library of Congress there is. Many disciplines have built mnemonic devices (My Very Elegant Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies worked very well until “they” did away with Pluto!) and behavioral cues into how they transmit knowledge. Medical students famously learn mnemonics as a matter of course; there are pages and pages of them on the web. Are there appropriate mnemonics one could devise for O&M staff to help them retain solutions to problems as they are encountered? 

Ritual, something done repeatedly and automatically to bring about a desired result, is another way to bind memory into behavior.  Creating a physical routine that someone can act out without thinking through is how we drive a car. You don’t have to consciously run through a list of activities; instead you likely automatically scan the dashboard, looking to see if you have gas, if the oil light is on, before engaging gears and driving away.  Are there analogs to driving in the maintenance of a commissioned building? When there are system aspects of the building that need irregular oversight, you can tie them to other seasonal activities—“When the beer is green, check the screens.”

It may sound a bit silly, and it certainly won’t accumulate overnight, but using real insight into how people actually learn can help you change their organizational behavior and preserve the status of your commissioned building!