Critical incident technique: what it is and how is it used

The Critical Incident Technique (ICT, for its acronym) is a qualitative research method which has been in use since the first half of the 20th century. It is a tool currently used to assess experiences and behaviors in different fields, ranging from marketing to dentistry to nursing.

Specifically, the critical incident technique has been useful in evaluating service delivery. In this article, we will see what the critical incident technique is, how it came about and how it can be applied.

    What is the critical incident technique?

    As a qualitative investigative technique, the critical incident technique seeks to understand and represent the experiences and actions of people in their own environment, In situations that occur in everyday life. That is to say that beyond hypothesis testing, the qualitative technique consists in exploring a research problem, which will ultimately allow hypotheses to be formulated.

    It is a tool for collecting anecdotal evidence that has been systematized in important ways for building scientific knowledge.

      his origins

      As a research technique, ICT was first described in 1954 by American psychologist John C. Flanagan. The latter defined it as a set of procedures for collecting direct observations of human behavior, the aim being to enhance the potential of these observations for problem solving.

      In other words, according to Flanagan, qualitative research based on anecdotal observations and records can be systematized in a way that helps understand a phenomenon and provide answers to possible problems.

      The first time the critical incident technique was used systematically was in the United States Air Force in the context of World War II. More precisely, it was used to evaluate the activity of the pilots.

      Reports produced using ICT gave a much more complete picture on the effective and ineffective behavior of pilots. More precisely, the technique made it possible to analyze the events which determined the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the behaviors (the events which marked a difference between its effectiveness or not). These events have been called “critical incidents”.

      After World War II, this technique developed to assess the services and activities of many other types.

      The 5 steps of the critical incident technique

      Flanagan has developed five necessary steps when using the Critical Incident technique. These steps are those that are generally used in many qualitative research techniques based on observation and anecdotal data; the difference is that ICT pays special attention incidents that are considered decisive for a specific situation, behavior or phenomenon to occur.

      The five stages defined by Flanagan are as follows.

      1. Identify the main objectives

      The first is ask a research question, Hence the main objectives of the observation. For example, an objective may be to analyze the needs of travelers based on knowledge of their tasks and activities. Or, to know the critical incidents to generate socialization and adaptability of the company in a specific work environment.

      2. Generate a procedure

      The specific action steps should be considered below. In principle, it is a question of determining which concrete situations will be observed. Also recognize that incidents can be positive or negative and that it is necessary to determine which ones will be evaluated. Likewise, define who and how many observers and informants will be, We generally try to be people familiar with the environment to be observed.

      3. Collect data

      Data can be collected in different ways. For example, they can collect through group or individual interviews, questionnaires, surveys or opinion forms. If it is a direct observation, it is necessary to report all observed incidents as early as possible to ensure that it is reliable and accurate. A collection of about 100 critical incidents is generally considered significant.

      4. Analyze the data

      Once the data has been collected, the next step is to analyze it. It means describing and translating them in such a way that we can use them to solve problems. The data can be analyzed against a theoretical framework related to the observed environment and the objectives of the observation, or it can be presented through different categories that identify different problems and solutions.

      5. Interpret and report the results

      Finally, the data having been analyzed and organized in a coherence linked to the objectives of the observation, it is necessary identify the potentialities and also the imitations of research.

      This last step consists in generating a general report whose language is adapted to the audience to which it is addressed, highlighting the parts which allow the use of the data to understand a particular phenomenon and to propose solutions to their problems. It is very important for ICT to maintain transparency and clarity when communicating the results and conclusions obtained.

      Bibliographical references:

      • FritzGerald, K., Dent, B., MFD et al. (2008). The critical incident technique: a useful tool for conducting qualitative research. Journal of Dental Education. 27 (3): 299-304.

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