Managing Knowledge to Improve Performance

Managing Knowledge to Improve Performance
With nearly two million screened in reports of child abuse and
neglect in 2004 (USDHHS, 2005), CPS agencies must manage
immense amounts of information and convert this information
into useable knowledge. With each open case comes the need to
collect, store, share, and use information to make decisions that
will affect the lives of many children and their parents. How this
information is converted into knowledge is a key question for
those who study organizational knowledge and knowledge management.
How organizations are then able to use this knowledge to
learn and adapt is a question of organizational learning. While
these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, Easterby-Smith
and Lyles (2003) argue that the concepts of organizational knowledge
and learning represent theoretical approaches to knowledge
and learning in organizational settings, while those who focus on
knowledge management and the learning organization tend to be
more practice-oriented and prescriptive.
The concepts of organizational learning and knowledge management
are particularly relevant to street-level bureaucracies
(SLBs). CPS agencies are SLBs because they employ a significant
number of frontline workers, and these frontline workers interact
directly with citizens in the course of their jobs, have
substantial discretion, deliver benefits and sanctions, and must
deal with clients’ personal reactions to decisions (Lipsky, 1980).
Because the decisions frontline workers in SLBs make effectively
become policy, the way information is used to create knowledge,
make decisions, and adapt to changing policies is of critical
importance in CPS agencies.
128 CHILD WELFARE • VOL. 87, #5
Knowledge management is a relatively new area of study that
emerged from information technology (IT) literature and has only
recently been integrated into the study of organizational learning,
which predates knowledge management by about a decade (Scarbrough
& Swan, 2003). Vera and Crossan (2003) argue, “Learning
is the process through which knowledge is created and developed.
Current knowledge impacts future learning” (p. 132), and they argue,
“Co-alignment between a firm’s learning/knowledge strategy
and its business strategy positively moderates the relationship
between learning/knowledge and performance” (p. 136). What
this means for social service agencies is that, if the knowledge that
is created and influences future learning is not in agreement with
the policy that is implemented, performance will not improve. The
CFSR process can help determine if practices are aligned with policy.
When an agency’s learning/knowledge strategy is directed
toward goal achievement, positive outcomes may be realized. PIPs
provide some insight into how organizations plan to realign practice
and policy when goals are not being met.
Choo (1998) conveys a similar sentiment in his model of the
knowing organization. He claims organizations use information to
create knowledge through “sensemaking” (Weick, 1995), knowledge
creation, and decision making. According to Choo, each of
these functions of information use has affective, cognitive, and
action-based aspects. Sensemaking is a function of the beliefs,
interpretations, and enactments of workers within the organization.
Sensemaking enables organization members to answer the
questions “who are we?” and “what do we do?” Through interaction
and dialogue, common understandings evolve over time. Cultural,
explicit, and tacit knowledge is built on these common understandings.
Cultural knowledge is the knowledge held in common
by organizational members, explicit knowledge is codified and
transmissible to everyone in the organization, and tacit knowledge
is held individually and represents the “knowing by doing” aspect
of work. Finally, this knowledge is used as a basis for decision making.
Organizational members express decision-making preferences,
organizations have decision-making rules, and workers develop
Mischen 129
decision-making routines. Goal-directed adaptive behavior results
when this process is influenced by administrators so future knowledge
creation and decision making are based on common understandings
about who we are and what we do.
In addition to the amount of information generated with each
intake, the CFSR process, as a performance measurement system,
created a great deal of information and knowledge. With respect
to implementing performance measurement in CPS agencies,
Courtney, Needell, and Wulczyn (2004) argue that agencies must
develop the capacity to use information generated by the CFSRs
at both state and federal levels. The authors note that although
states have made efforts to improve their data systems, they have
not put corresponding effort into the human resources and therefore
are not able to fully utilize the information gathered. Bridging
the organizational and individual levels of analysis using knowledge
management and organizational learning is important considering
the performance measures used do just that— they
aggregate the individual decisions and actions to paint a picture
of the agency as a whole.
Data and Methods
A random sample of 10 states was used for analysis: Alabama,
Alaska, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah,
Vermont, and Washington. Random sampling was used to prevent
bias that could result from the choice of selection criteria. States were
added to the sample until little additional information was gained by
the addition of another state. While quantity of data may have been
sacrificed by this method of selection, it allowed for a more careful
and deliberate reading of the cases chosen. The states in the final
sample represent some of the best and worst performers on six
national standards indicators: repeat maltreatment, maltreatment in
foster care, foster care reentries, length of time to achieve reunification,
length of time to achieve adoption, and stability of foster care
placements. For each state the CFSR and the PIP were used as data.
130 CHILD WELFARE • VOL. 87, #5
Using the knowledge management literature as a research
frame (Stoecker, 1991), I chose an interpretive process to conduct
the analysis. First, I conducted an inductive, qualitative analysis
using Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) method of grounded theory over
the first 37 of the 45 items evaluated in the CFSRs and the narrative
portions of the PIPs. The process involved microcoding an initial
state’s CFSR to identify common themes and a more focused
coding and categorization of the remaining nine states in the sample.
Because of this process, central categories emerged and were
used as the basis of comparison. The result of the analysis was an
amalgamated picture of what these agencies looked like before the
performance measures influenced organizational processes, as
well as an idealized “after” picture that most agencies were striving
for. Additionally, I was able to discover what the agencies
viewed as their most challenging problems and promising strategies.
These results were then interpreted in terms of the SLB and
knowledge management literature.
The analysis of state CFSRs and PIPs indicates that each state has
its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Many recurring
themes emerged in the CFSRs, however, both in terms of the
underlying reasons for why each agency was not meeting the standards
set for the indicators of child safety, permanency, and wellbeing,
as well as strategies that seemed to be working well. The
strategies that were working well reoccurred in the PIPs as agencies
planned to achieve the goals set.
Patterns of Practice
Four dominant patterns of practice emerged from the CFSRs:
inconsistency, workers’ perceptions/assumptions guiding behavior,
a client-processing mentality, and inadequate documentation.
Inconsistency best describes the overall functioning of child
welfare agencies. It took three main forms: inconsistency between
Mischen 131
sites reviewed within states, between frontline worker actions and
agency policies, and between cases. Inconsistency between cases
was identified when it appeared as though no agency policy was
guiding practice, resulting in different interpretations and actions
by workers for similar cases. Inconsistency between cases was also
noted when different populations such as adolescents or members
of Native American tribes were treated differently than the rest of
the client population. All 10 states exhibited at least one of these
forms of inconsistency. Underlying causes of this inconsistency
were not offered in the CFSRs.
In addition to inconsistency in implementation, in many states,
worker assumptions and perceptions clearly guided knowledge
creation and decision making. For instance, several perceptions
were noted as problematic in Maine:
• Stability in a good foster home is the equivalent of
per manency.
• Children need to be “fixed” before a family will adopt them.
• Relatives have the same parenting issues as biological
While workers in Maine were less likely to place children with
relatives because of their perceptions, workers in New Jersey were
likely to place children with relatives “without considering the
best interest of the child . . . [because] relative placements work
better than foster homes because there is already a bond between
the caretakers and the child” (USDHHS, 2004a, p. 54). In both
Alaska and Oregon, worker perceptions of what the courts might
decide affected worker decisions regarding removal of the child
from home and decisions regarding permanency goals for the
child, respectively.
In some cases, differences between agency policy and worker
perceptions were conscious choices of workers, which resulted in
conflict between workers and agency goals. In Maine, there was
active resistance to the concept of concurrent planning (the process
of working both reunification and adoption goals at once) with
some social workers expressing concern about its value and others
132 CHILD WELFARE • VOL. 87, #5
feeling “they are being pressured into using this practice when
they do not believe it is appropriate” (USDHHS, 2003b, p. 17). In
Washington, several stakeholders noted that some social workers
“have not embraced” family group conferencing or family team
meetings (FTMs) despite the fact that they were encouraged to do
so (USDHHS, 2004e, p. 65). In Massachusetts, some “question the
efficacy of adoption for older youth and for some special needs
children, especially those needing residential treatment for periods
of time” (USDHHS, 2001, p. 14).
At times, assumptions and perceptions clearly became biases.
As mentioned earlier, biases against relatives in Maine affected
whether relatives would be sought out for potential placement of
children. More commonly, biases against fathers and paternal relatives
were in evidence. In particular, fathers and paternal relatives
were thought to be not as involved as mothers and maternal
relatives. In Massachusetts, parents perceived that a general lack of
respect toward them affected their level of involvement in cases.
While worker perceptions, conflict and bias are concepts that
involve differences between workers and agencies, another phenomenon
arose in three states which seemed to indicate that the
focus of the agencies themselves was not directed appropriately.
Vermont workers tended to focus on children’s needs rather than
families’ needs. In Alaska, stakeholders noted a general lack of
focus on the needs of children and families resulting in too few
family-centered services. The problem in Illinois, however, was that
the agencies contracted to provide services were not focused on
the goal of reunification. In each of these cases, patterns of practice
seemed to emerge from a lack of clear agency focus and guidance.
The patterns of worker perceptions, conflict, bias, and misplaced
focus are related in that they concern how workers view
clients and, in some cases, policies. Looking at these concepts
alone, these sensemaking activities were evidently affecting workers’
actions. Looking more closely at what workers do— or do not
do— the data showed that a client-processing mentality dominated
in these agencies. Specifically, a lack of communication between
Mischen 133
workers and clients (i.e., biological parents, relatives, foster parents,
and children), case planning without parental involvement,
inadequate case planning, the use of cookie-cutter plans, and a
lack of follow-up on cases existed. What these behaviors have in
common is that each works to expedite the processing of cases.
Communication and parental involvement, individualized planning,
and follow-up on cases take time that workers could not, or
were not willing to, invest.
Another result of the client-processing mentality— questionable
decision making— was found in some form in all 10 states. Most
commonly noted (nine states) was concern about how permanency
goals were decided and revisited. Too often, permanency goals
were set without consideration of all options that might be available
to the child. Additionally, permanency goals were rarely
revisited when children’s circumstances changed. Once a decision
was made about the permanency goals, workers seemed to be
reluctant to change it. An underlying theme noted in three states
was that decisions were often made too quickly and without adequate
knowledge or evidence. Another area of concern with respect
to poor decision making was matching children with appropriate
foster homes; this concern existed in six of the sample states.
Finally, inadequate documentation may also be related to lack
of time on the part of caseworkers as was mentioned in half of the
states in the sample. Much of what case workers do as a part of
their job description involves assessment, referral, and documentation.
Since most services are not provided in-house and many
service providers may be involved with one child or family, adequate
case worker documentation is essential.
The Underlying Problems
Looking at the problems identified in the sample states, it is easy
to see why these patterns of practice emerged. The most common
information/knowledge related problems were as follows:
• A lack of clear policies/guidelines
• Inadequate assessment tools
134 CHILD WELFARE • VOL. 87, #5
• Data problems
• Insufficient monitoring
• Insufficient training
Using Choo (1998) to frame this analysis, I focused on only knowledge/
information problems. Numerous other problems related to
resources, courts, availability of services, and interagency collaboration
also have significant impact outcomes.
All 10 states exhibited a lack of clear policies and guidelines.
The most commonly cited aspects of confusing or inadequate
policy were those relating to timeliness of initiating investigations
of reports of child maltreatment and the assessment of risk
of harm to the child (four states each). Confusion about developing
permanency goals for the child, the provision of independent
living services, worker visits with child, worker visits with parents,
family involvement in the development of the case plan,
and permanency hearings for children in foster care was also
mentioned more than once.
Confusion about policy was exacerbated when workers did
not feel they had adequate tools to assess issues of risk and services
needed. Nine states indicated inadequate risk or safety assessments,
which most often affected states’ performance on the
repeat maltreatment and risk of harm to child indicators (five
states each). Additionally, nine states indicated existing assessments
were not adequate to assess needed services. In five states,
this resulted in a lack of services provided to families for children
to remain at home. In two cases, inadequate needs/services
assessments were related to the agency’s ability to reduce the risk
of harm to the child.
Six states noted problems with the way data were recorded.
This concept differs from the practice of inadequate documentation
discussed earlier in that it refers to systemic problems regarding
the way data were recorded or the inability of systems to manage
data resources. Four of the states had data integrity problems
related to repeat maltreatment. Underestimation of repeat maltreatment
may occur when new instances of abuse or neglect are
Mischen 135
not recorded because the case is already open. On the other hand,
repeat maltreatment rates may be overestimated if maltreatment
that occurred before the case is opened is discovered but recorded
with the data entry date rather than with the occurrence date. Likewise,
three states indicated that the way foster care placements
were recorded may have been distorting their foster care reentry or
stability statistics. Insufficient monitoring is somewhat related to
data problems in that several states identified that a problem of the
IT systems themselves prohibited tracking cases. Overall, eight
states indicated that they experienced problems monitoring cases.
Finally, states’ initial and ongoing training efforts were evaluated.
Initial training was inadequate in four states; similarly, ongoing
training was inadequate in a different set of four states.
Lack of knowledge or inadequate training was referenced in the
CFSRs in several sections beyond those specifically dealing with
training in five states.
Promising Strategies
Despite the numerous problems that resulted in patterns of practice
that were not directed toward goal achievement, agencies
identified a number of strategies that were working well. These
strategies were nonexistent in some states, however, and all states
reported that problems outweighed the positive strategies. The
most common themes that emerged in the CFSRs contributing to
positive evaluations were the following:
• FTMs
• Comprehensive assessments
• Team approaches
• IT systems
• Training
• Clear policy/process directives
Many of these themes were identified as strategies for the future in
states that are not currently implementing them. A brief discussion
of each is presented here with a more thorough exploration of
these strategies in the following section.
136 CHILD WELFARE • VOL. 87, #5
FTMs occurred with regular frequency in only one of the sample
states (Oregon), but Vermont’s CFSR showed a high level of
parental involvement as well. Interestingly, while parental involvement
was often noted in Vermont, it was also frequently noted that
parents did not always understand the role they played when they
were involved.
Assessments were mentioned frequently as positive strategies
in seven of the sample states. This result, however, is somewhat
offset when one considers the number of states for which inadequate
assessments proved problematic. Assessments seemed particularly
advantageous when used in conjunction with team decision
making. Team approaches were identified in five states, with
Vermont standing out as the state that appeared to have incorporated
this strategy most effectively.
Although all of the sample states met the minimum requirements
for their statewide IT systems, states that were able to use
them to effectively communicate case progress reported that these
strategies helped them achieve positive evaluations in other areas.
For instance, using IT systems to track or monitor cases was identified
as a strength in five states.
Training seemed most effective when organizational values
and goals were clearly communicated. For instance, in Maine, a
new “reform initiative . . . [combined with] new focused assessment
skills of social work staff” (USDHHS, 2003b, p. 8) enabled
reduction in the occurrence of repeat maltreatment. That the skill
training was reinforced by the initiative seems to be one of the reasons
the change was effective.
The final category of strategies contributed to positive evaluations
was clear policy/process guidelines. While policies and pro –
cesses guide much of what frontline workers do, clear policies were
explicitly noted for many factors evaluated in the CFSR.
Of these strategies, FTMs and team approaches to assessment
are collaborative means of knowledge creation. They take the
information that can be accessed from conducting individual
assessments and extracted from IT systems and convert that
Mischen 137
information into knowledge about children and families. Training
and clear policy/ process directives also have implications for
knowledge management. Both aid in the sensemaking function
of information use, which directs the knowledge creation
process. That many of these promising strategies are carried over
into plans for the future underscores the importance of knowledge
management to CPS agencies.
Looking Forward
While the CFSRs provided some insight into the direction that CPS
agencies were heading, the PIPs were the primary source of data
for the effect that this review process has had on how organizations
used and shared information/knowledge. Although it is too
early to tell if the practices outlined in the PIPs will be realized, the
PIPs indicated which strategies agencies viewed as the most
effective in meeting the outcome measures. Four common themes
emerged as defining what these organizations could look like
should the PIPs be fully implemented:
• Agencies will try to clear up confusion with regard to policies
and goals.
• States are planning improvements in their statewide IT
• Assessments are being added and improved.
• FTMs are to be more strongly incorporated into the practice
of child welfare implementation.
The two strategies that have the potential to directly affect the
practice of frontline workers are the increased use of more comprehensive
and standardized assessment tools and the use of
FTMs. Figure 1 illustrates states’ current use of assessment tools
and FTMs during the CFSR period. The arrows indicate the direction
states claimed they were moving with respect to the use of
these tools in their PIPs. For example, Alaska and Maine have low
use of both FTMs and assessment tools. Alaska plans to increase
the use of assessment tools in the future, while Maine plans to
increase use of FTMs.
138 CHILD WELFARE • VOL. 87, #5
An increased emphasis on FTMs was found in the PIPs of
Maine, New Jersey, Washington, Illinois, and Massachusetts. In
Maine, FTMs were listed as one of five primary initiatives proposed
by the state. According to the state’s PIP, “A family team meeting
can create a number of benefits, such as increasing the variety of
potential solutions, preventing removal of a child from home, increasing
the chance of matching appropriate services to needs,
identifying kinship placement opportunities, increasing a family’s
capacity to overcome barriers, and creating a system of supports
that will sustain the family over time” (USDHHS, 2004d, p. 7).
The New Jersey PIP echoed that these meetings have the po tential
to increase the amount of knowledge available to workers: “These
Statesʼ Current and Projected Use of Assessment Tools and FTMs During CFSR
Period (2001– 2004)
Use of FTMs
Low Moderate High
Low Moderate High
Use of Assessment
New Jersey
Mischen 139
meetings bring together the wisdom, resources, and expertise of
family, friends, informal supports (neighbors, clergy, etc.) and formal
supports (counselors, health professional, etc.)” (USDHHS,
2004b, p. 9). In terms of implementing FTMs, Washington’s PIP
states that FTMs must be held as soon as possible and within the
first 72 hours of any removal and for all placements at risk of disruption.
While Maine, New Jersey, and Washington thought about
using FTMs very carefully, Massachusetts viewed FTMs as a potential
strategy in its move toward a more family-centered practice.
Finally, Illinois mentions using FTMs, but its mention was wrapped
up into the greater focus on increasing the use of assessments.
Illinois’s integrated assessment program was one of its two
primary initiatives identified in the state’s PIP. The integrated
assessment program “seeks to provide comprehensive screening
and assessment services to all clients entering into DCFS custody”
(USDHHS, 2004c, p. 8). The integrated assessment program was
designed to assess safety and risk, medical needs, home and commu –
nity functioning, access to support systems, emotional and devel –
op mental status, behavior, educational needs, and substance abuse.
Seven additional states also focused on increasing the quality
of their assessments: Massachusetts, Oregon, Alaska, Washington,
Alabama, New Jersey, and Vermont. New assessment tools figured
quite prominently in the PIP of Oregon as a part of its guided
assessment project. Massachusetts, Washington, and Alabama all
mentioned the improvement and development of assessment tools
as well. New Jersey, Vermont, and Alaska, however, were moving
toward structured decision-making (SDM) systems. In New Jersey,
an SDM system will contain “a set of eight web-based tools to
improve the quality and consistency of case practice with children
and families, both in-home and out-of-home, from initial screening
throughout the life of a case” (USDHHS, 2004b).
SDM systems can be viewed as enhanced assessment tools in
that they are “designed to give the worker tools to actively assess
and prioritize parental needs early in the case as they relate to the
safety of the child(ren)” (USDHHS, 2003a).
140 CHILD WELFARE • VOL. 87, #5
In addition to increasing the use of these promising strategies,
especially family team decision making and assessment tools,
agencies indicated in their PIPs that they were making efforts to
change the conditions of work that may have contributed to the
emergence of detrimental patterns of practice. Increasing staff to
decrease caseloads, making efforts to more clearly define and communicate
policies/goals, rethinking the mission statement of the
agency, and directing more efforts toward meeting the performance
measures established by the CFSR process were examples of
strategies mentioned by many states. In fact, both Alabama’s and
Utah’s PIP strategies were largely focused on increasing performance
evaluations through case reviews.

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