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Thinking About Situational Awareness Through the Lens of a Field Researcher

Learning how to learn is a skill that often separates the professionals from the novices in a professional field. In the fast-paced and constantly changing world we live in, those who can quickly learn what is happening in a situation, especially once it changes, have many advantages over their slower moving peers. But how do you develop that ability? Learning how to learn isn’t just about picking up on new skills. It’s also about learning how to size-up and make sense of a situation. How do you learn the “way they do things here?” How do you learn what makes the people in an area tick? Whether your goal is to blend in and avoid attention or to identify opportunities to pursue gains, it begins by being capable of building your own map for the areas and situations you encounter. For protectors, guardians and warriors operating in locations where your ability to quickly and accurately learn about the situation can be the difference between success and failure, and it turns out that there is a lot we can learn in this vein from professional field researchers.

According to David Danelo, a Marine Officer, Iraq War Veteran and author of the recently released book The Field Research Handbook: A Guide to the Art and Science of Professional Fieldwork, field research is a simplified process of collecting information outside of a laboratory. While academic research often produces quantifiable results that come from controlling a limited set of variables and clearly defined datasets, I meet many people in the military, law enforcement or security industries that often question the applicability of that research. While academic research can be interesting and enlightening, the very fact that it is done within the controlled environment of a laboratory often makes professional operators question how it will translate into the real world where variables abound, where control is hard to establish and where cause and effect are often difficult to tie together.

Field research is different in that it does reflect all of those real world truths. Field research is also something that you are already doing whether you are aware of it or not. The “collection of information” component to field research is already present in our field; we just use different names for it. In the military, we say thatEvery Marine is a Collector” and that “Every Soldier is a Sensor.” In law enforcement, we say that every police officer needs to “learn their beat.” In private security and executive/dignitary protection, we say that agents need to develop their protective intelligence as part of their surveillance detection efforts while conducting an advance. In his book, Danelo notes that novices are often told that the only way to learn the process of observing, interviewing, compiling, summarizing and presenting field research is to get out into the field. But like him, we absolutely disagree with the premise that you can’t begin learning how to become a better field researcher before you get to the field and before you’re expected to perform. You can begin to master the mechanics of observation and research today.

In addition to the techniques discussed in Danelo’s The Field Research Handbook, the baselining processes that we teach in our courses at The CP Journal can help an astute observer jump start the process of learning about an area in order to find where to focus their time. The hasty and deliberate searches to establish a baseline that we now teach, are the result of a multi-year process to establish, improve upon and provide the “simplified process” part of Danelo’s definition of field research. They provide the “how” to establish a baseline in the shortest and most effective way that we know. When it comes to the deliberate search and how it helps us learn about an area, there are three questions that we are often asked:

The first is, “What is the deliberate search?” The answer to that question is that the deliberate search is a discreet set of steps (highlighted in this flow chart) to establish a deeply defined norm for an area or a situation using a system.

  • It begins by creating a behavioral map of the area in order to find out where people are coming from, where they are going and how they will get there.
  • It continues by defining what needs people are getting filled by coming to this area and identifies the steps that a person will have to go through in order to accomplish their goal.
  • It concludes by identifying the observed behaviors that a person will likely display at each step of the process in order to have their need fulfilled in the easiest way possible.

The second question is, “Why do we teach a system and use a process for the deliberate search?” The answer to this question is because when an observer walks into a new area, there are typically two sources of uncertainty. There is uncertainty over what is actually happening in that area and there is uncertainty over the way you will make sense of what you are seeing. By teaching these mechanics of observation and having a step-by-step process to go through, you can begin reducing the amount of uncertainty that you face because how you aren’t going to be just winging it when you walk through the door. Because you have a system to establish a baseline, your attention doesn’t become split between what you are actually observing and what you have to do next. By having a repeatable process, you can self-assess which parts of the process are areas where you are strong, where you are weak and put in the work to become better. That simply isn’t possible when you establish a baseline for an area differently every single time you go somewhere new.

The third question is, “What are we learning as a result of the deliberate search?” As the deliberate search is designed to help you learn about an area, it is very reasonable to ask what am I learning as a result of putting in this effort. The short answer to the question is, you are learning whatever you need in order to be successful in your job. Once the deliberate search is completed, you now know who is in the area and why they came there. You know what people will be doing once they come in and have accounted for the wide variety of needs that a location or situation is offering people. As a result:

  • In the context of threat recognition, the deliberate search has taught you specifically what you are looking for to identify the four types of anomalies that may present themselves in this situation.
  • If you’re in customer service, the deliberate search has taught you the typical or baseline customer at each step so that you can quickly identify customers who will require extra attention in order to have a great experience.
  • If you’re an international traveler, the deliberate search helps to identify the similarities and differences between the experiences you’ve experienced domestically and those that you are now experiencing abroad.

The result of learning how to size up a situation is that you become empowered to do this on your own and not have to rely on someone else to provide this information for you. Because situations are constantly changing, having learned how to learn about a situation is a skill that allows you to identify those changes and adapt with them. Learning how to learn minimizes the amount of uncertainty you face in your job because you create a way to jump-start the process to make sense of the situation in the same way, every single time. Are there times when you won’t need to use the deliberate search because the information you are seeking will be readily apparent? Of course. But for the times when the solution isn’t clearly identifiable, the deliberate search process will get you going and get you collecting information that your world is providing you.

If you’re interested in learning more about why I recommend David Danelo’s book, The Field Research Handbook: A Guide to the Art and Science of Professional Fieldworkcheck it out on Amazon by clicking the link.