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Crisis Management Down Under November 8, 2018

Posted by stuffilikenet in Brilliant words, Geek Stuff, Science.
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"Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?" is an age old question in the workplace. In an article in the BMJ [not concerned with scatology, but British Medicine] from 2005, researchers at the Burnet Institute in Australia attempt to measure the phenomenon of teaspoon loss and its effect on office life. They purchased and discreetly numbered 70 stainless steel teaspoons (54 of standard quality and 16 of higher quality). The teaspoons were placed in tearooms around the institute and were counted weekly over five months. After five months, staff were told about the research project and asked to complete a brief anonymous questionnaire about their attitudes towards and knowledge of teaspoons and teaspoon theft.

During the study, 56 (80%) of the 70 teaspoons disappeared. The half life of the teaspoons was 81 days (that is, half had disappeared permanently after that time). The half life of teaspoons in communal tearooms (42 days) was significantly shorter than those in rooms linked to particular research groups (77 days). The rate of loss was not influenced by the teaspoons’ value and the overall incidence of teaspoon loss was 360.62 per 100 teaspoon years. At this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a workable population of 70 teaspoons, say the authors.

The questionnaire showed that most employees (73%) were dissatisfied with teaspoon coverage in the institute, suggesting that teaspoons are an essential part of office life. The rapid rate of teaspoon loss shows that their availability (and therefore office life) is under constant assault.

One possible explanation for the phenomenon is resistentialism (the theory that inanimate objects have a natural aversion to humans), they write. This is supported by the fact that people have little or no control over teaspoon migration.

Given the widely applicable nature of these results, they suggest that the development of effective control measures against the loss of teaspoons should be a research priority

Hilarious. But wait; there’s more.

Exasperated by the disappearance, the scientists decided they would measure the phenomenon. Do the teaspoons really disappear over time? The answer was a resounding yes: spoons in research institute tearooms seem to have legs. While good fun, the research is a good example of a study design referred to as "longitudinal".

A longitudinal study uses continuous or repeated measures to follow particular individuals – in this case, teaspoons – over prolonged periods of time. The studies are generally observational in nature: the scientists simply watch and collect data over time. Typically, no external influence is applied during the course of the study. Beyond just working out where all the teaspoons have gone, this study type is also useful for evaluating the relationship between risk factors and the development of disease (for example, heart disease), and the outcomes of treatments over different lengths of time. In this study, the main questions posed by our researchers were to determine the overall rate of loss of teaspoons, and to work out how long it took for teaspoons to go missing.

They purchased 70 teaspoons (16 of which were of higher quality), each one discretely numbered and then distributed throughout the institute. Counts of the teaspoons were carried out weekly for two months, then fortnightly for a further three months. Desktops and other immediately visible surfaces were also scanned for "misplaced" spoons. After five months of covert research, the study was revealed to the institute, and staff were asked to return or anonymously report any marked teaspoons which may have found their way into desk draws or homes.

Good study design

This type of data collection provides a simple example of what makes a good longitudinal study. If we break it down, a longitudinal study needs to:

  • take place over a prolonged period (this study was done over 5 months)
  • be observational in nature (teaspoons were observed and counted, there was no intervention)
  • conducted without external influences (teaspoon users/thieves were not aware they were being studied until the conclusion of the study itself).

Results

 

The results show that 56 (80%) of the 70 teaspoons disappeared during the study, and that the half life of the teaspoons was 81 days (that is, half had disappeared permanently after that time). The study also showed the half life of teaspoons in communal tearooms (42 days) was significantly shorter than for those in research group specific tearooms (77 days). The rate of loss was not influenced by the teaspoons’ value. All of these pieces of information directly answer the main question posed by the researchers.

Conclusions

A longitudinal study is terrific at following individuals or teaspoons over a period of time and observing outcomes. But, by definition, the design means there can be no intervention (as we are just observing a phenomenon). The researchers could not employ a tool or an intervention to prevent spoons from being "misplaced", and the researchers could only report a spoon missing. As the study is observational only, there is no way of finding out what has happened to the spoon, just that it is lost. The authors were able to conclude that the loss of workplace teaspoons was rapid, and their availability in the tearoom was constantly under threat.

Homework: Megan S C Lim et al. The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute, BMJ (2005). DOI: 10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1498

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