Multiple Intelligence – Part IV

This is Part Four of my project to explore different examples of multiple intelligence that I’ve encountered and how these incidences affected my approach to everything from customer service to working with colleagues. Read Part One, Part Two & Part Three.

I spent a few years in my mid-20s working in the records room of a healthcare organization. When I started there, they were still using paper records and physical file folders for their data storage and retrieval. One of my co-workers was a lady in her early 70s, who had been working full-time, in one job or another, since she was 14 years old. She’d never gone to college – come to think of it, I’m not sure she ever even graduated high school.

She had created the organizational system of this records room on her own over the years and it put many newly graduated health information management professionals to shame! Everything from the process workflows to the physical shelving of patient records was a model of efficiency and ease of use. Such an accomplishment, despite the fact that she had no college education and no certification in health information management. She was a mere a file clerk.

While I was there, the company went through reorganization and they hired a new manager for the records department. One of the first things this new manager did was to convert us to 100% electronic record keeping. The organizational underpinnings of the new e-records system were based on the physical system that we already had – the one that had been created and maintained by my co-worker. The new manager used her organizational structure to build the online database, and then added many cross-reference and data analysis features that can only be accomplished in an electronic records system. It was a wonderful thing!

My co-worker had an extremely difficult time adapting to it.

She had no experience using computers – literally. She had never used any computer before, ever. But the problem for her wasn’t just the lack of requisite skill sets (she didn’t know how to use a mouse!) – she couldn’t make sense of how the new electronic records system was organized. Despite the fact that it was based on her own system, she couldn’t understand how the database was put together, or how to get it to output the needed information.

She just couldn’t see that it was still her system. Her system was a physical paper environment but the e-records were on a computer. That simple change in situation was all it took to make her own creation completely unrecognizable to her. She couldn’t translate it into an environment with which she was entirely unfamiliar.

I hope that it’s abundantly clear from the opening of this post that this woman wasn’t dumb, and she was capable of astounding organizational accomplishments, even without much formal education.

It fell to me to try and teach her this new electronic system. As we spent time familiarizing her with the physical operation of a computer terminal (in case you’re interested – the best way to teach someone how to use a mouse is to have them play lots of solitaire: clicking, double-clicking, click-and-drag…) we also spoke about the history of her filing system. It turns out that the whole thing was developed by her, not based on any organizational principles, but in response to eminently physical needs – the need to easily access and circulate folders and files to staff in other departments; the need to sort and file hundreds of pieces of paper per day without piles of paper being scattered everywhere; the need to lift and carry boxes of records; etc. Everything she did was to minimize the difficulty of these tasks. It was all about the handling procedure – she had never considered her own system from a holistic organizational standpoint.

It’s no wonder she couldn’t see her own creation in the new electronic system! There wasn’t anything in the e-records to physically handle. The specific by-hand tasks she’d worked to try and make less strenuous were all gone.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but I concluded that the best way to teach her how to use the new computer records system was to walk away from the computer. To delve into the physical organization of the records room in the holistic way that she never had. To teach her own system to her, not as a series of handling procedures, but as an overall organizational method.

I can’t say that I was entirely successful in this. As well as I came to understand how she related to her own records system, I’m so familiar with computers that I never could sufficiently relate to her complete lack of familiarity with them. I never could get far enough away from my innate comfort with electronic data systems to meet her halfway in her complete discomfort.

This was the first time in my life that I was so aware of having to directly face such a massive chasm between my understanding and someone else’s. Our two personal brands of intelligence didn’t have quite enough common ground for us to relate to one another as completely as I wanted. Whenever I talk about multiple intelligences and the need to try and see things from the other person’s perspective – this is the story that I think about. It’s always prominent at the back of my mind.


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