Monday, September 8, 2008

Investigating the intake experience

Here's my overall framework for investigation. There's big blanks, as I'm getting the big thoughts down before I lose them. In order to improve the intake experience, I've got to understand a few things.

  1. What is the psychology that drives the experience...that makes it either unpleasant and demeaning, or significant and helpful?
  2. The first contact (receptionist) and the intake worker must be empowered. There's no point in fixing the mechanics of intake, if the people responsible for finalizing the action are miserable.
  3. Reviewing the process itself. How many handoffs are there? How much work is put in to verifying, keying? What is the optimum intake criteria for the action? Are we asking too much, too little? Auditors, what do they want to see?

For the rest of this entry, I'll talk about issue one - the primal psychology. These are just ideas. I would like to confirm them against behavioral research. I am coming to realize the way we react to various situtations in our civilized world, has more to do with how our stone-age ancestors would have reacted in an equivalent situation. We aren't so far away from our ancestors as we would like to believe. It's like civilization has given us a veneer, but we are the same primitive construction beneath. So what did drive our ancestors? From Pinker's list, he suggests that we are hard-wired for complex social interactions. We've always been social beings. It seems to me we would have always had the need to negotiate a needed service from a stranger. It becomes a problem if we have nothing to barter. If we have nothing to offer, we beg.

The image that comes to mind of begging is a subservient wolf grovelling with the alpha dog. He'll crawl on his belly, mewling, puppy-like. He'll lick the lips of the alpha. In every way he will try to appear harmless. How does the alpha dog react to this behavior? It seems the successful alpha will be benevolent most of the time. He won't make the subservient dog grovel for extended periods of time.

Getting back to people, what happens to us if we are required to grovel for extended periods of time? Does resentment build? Is there a breaking point, where the subservient stops trying, and becomes a hostile threat to the group?

Another analogy that comes to mind is the petition to the king. It seems that the same behavior applies as described above. Success may depend on the petitioner's ability to appeal to the benevolence of the leader. A complicating factor might be an intermediary, or a gate-keeper, who decides who gets access to the King. Biblical examples are Haman in the book of Ruth, and Absalom who undermined his own father-King when petitioners came to see him (2 Samuel 15:2-6).

And finally, besides the application of complex social interactions, the queue, or line, appears to trigger our primal instinct to protect our "territory" or earned space in line. It is deeply offensive to jump the line. The entire line may jump on a line-breaker, exerting extreme social pressure to conform. I am sure you can think of dozens of examples.

Besides line-jumping, the whole experience of waiting in line for an indeterminate period is stressful. The line-holder has very little status other than his placement in the line. Very often the receptionist or intake worker has no status in the organization either. Both may fiercely maintain any dignity that is offered him. The intake worker's greatest power comes from their near godlike ability to accept or reject based on the rules. The worker's intimate knowledge of the rules, (and the line-holder's ignorance of them) results in a social dance that, for the ignorant, can be humiliating and highly discouraging.

Could this result in the socially inept being denied services they rightfully deserve? Aren't these same people the ones who most desperately need the help? How do we break through the process to allow status to all the participants - intake workers and petitioners alike - so that they can meet on common ground?

The social dynamics of human-to-human contact is so much better. Meeting and conversing with a friend, having them understand you, and receiving needed help, isn't that so much more satisfying than the dynamics of petitioner-granter? It seems to me that the status of both the petitioner and the intake worker has to be raised and acknowledged first, before we can have this kind of significant dialogue.