AIM: This paper is a description of the development and processes of the critical incident technique and its applicability to nursing research, using a recently-conducted study of the Australian nursing workforce as an exemplar. Issues are raised for consideration prior to the technique being put into practice. BACKGROUND: Since 1954, the critical incident technique has been used to study people's activities in a variety of professions. This five-step technique can be modified for specific settings and research questions. The fruitfulness of a study using the technique relies on gaining three important pieces of information. First, participants' complete and rich descriptions of the situation or event to be explored; secondly, the specific actions of the person/s involved in the event to aid understanding of why certain decisions were made; thirdly, the outcome of the event, to ascertain the effectiveness of the behaviour. As in other qualitative methodologies, an inductive analysis process can be used with the critical incident technique. FINDINGS: Rich contextual information can be obtained using this technique. It generates information and uncovers tacit knowledge through assisting participants to describe their thought processes and actions during the event. Use of probing questions that determine how participants take part in certain events, or act in the ways they do, greatly enhances the outcome. A full interpretation of the event can only occur when all its aspects are provided. CONCLUSION: The critical incident technique is a practical method that allows researchers to understand complexities of the nursing role and function, and the interactions between nurses and other clinicians.
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