Engineering, Expertise and Competence in Safety Culture

Originally posted on October 17, 2012 @ 10:31 PM

Engineering, Expertise and Competence in Safety Culture

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Well, it’s time to give my old mates the engineers a bit of a hit. I know this blog might make them defensive, but unless they are well studied in cognitive dissonance or reaction formation, it’s not likely they will understand their own emotional response anyway. If they do understand such things, they will know why these are the basis of my story.

If I get one more engineer lecturing me about safety culture and people skills I’m sure I will go crazy. Why is it that people who have expertise in one discipline think they can transfer such knowledge to everything? Since when did a human being become a technical machine of inputs and outputs? How can someone who has not studied human psychology, social psychology, survey design or anthropology think they can all of a sudden design a safety culture survey or be expert in people skills? Why is it that someone who has no training in education, learning, presentation and educational psychology think they can design learning events, inductions and training?

It seems if you know how to spell and pronounce the words ‘culture’, ‘risk’ and ‘learning’, you must be an expert in them. I find it fascinating when I hear engineers talk about ‘culture’, ‘learning’ and ‘risk’ when all they mean is systems and training.

It was Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers who proposed that expertise and competence is developed by at least 10,000 hours of study, contemplation, experience and dedication. Gladwell tells the story of The Beatles and their 10,000 hours in dingy ‘caverns’ and ‘kellers’ well before they became masters in music. Gladwell recounts how the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs spent well over 10,000 hours of dedication and study in home garages before they launched for success in computing and business.

When you look at what is on offer in an engineering degree, there’s not much on people skills, social psychology, culture, education and learning. Neither should there be, their core business is technical, design and making things. So why do some think that technical expertise entitles them to venture out into the world of people and culture with bold yet assertive ignorance?

When we need a surgeon, we want the best surgeon not the backyard guy for half the price. We want the doctor who has at least 7 years full time study at the best university and plenty of experience. We don’t want the self taught medical practitioner who somehow learned how to do medicine ‘on the job’. We don’t want the armchair expert who bought their degree off the internet or grabbed some certificate through some backdoor institute. Yet when it comes to things like learning, culture and risk in heavy industry, it appears no expertise is needed.

Every other week I see yet another ‘safety culture survey’ that doesn’t assess safety culture. I saw one yesterday that was put out by an engineering firm that will be proudly paraded at an up coming safety conference. A case of the club endorsing it’s own club. I watched a video promotion of the survey and am no longer surprised by this engineering approach to the non-measurement of safety culture. Another safety culture survey was passed to me today that originated from the UK. The survey questions were vacuous and showed no knowledge of culture. After reading a 31 page supposed methodology, it was clear that the designers knew nothing about surveying, safety culture, learning or methodology. The designers of the safety survey proudly boasted they were engineers. In the survey, culture was assumed to be systems and was not defined. The survey cost over half a million dollars to roll out. What is predictable about all this? Other technical types will purchase this survey, pay good money for the product and later wonder why there is no culture change. The reason why nothing will change is because it’s a case of ‘the blind leading the blind’.

The Competence Matrix was initially described as ‘Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill’ by Noel Burch of the Gordon Training International in the 1970s. It has also been wrongly attributed to Abraham Maslow. The Competence Matrix helps explain where the engineer is when it comes to people skills, culture, risk and learning. Unless somewhere on their way they have picked up an additional 10,000 hours in these fields, it’s not likely they have expertise in any of these areas.

Figure 1. The Competence Matrix


I get surprised that many of the surveys marketed as safety culture measures that don’t assess any of the following:

· Implicit knowledge

· Risk discourse

· Level of double speak

· Normalised cynicism and scepticism

· Cognitive dissonance

· Risk arrogance or hubris

· Institutionalised risk deviance

· Normalized risk and safety stereotypes

· Risk myth believability

· Risk attribution

· Risk perception

· Leadership trust, belief consistency

· Vision cohesion

· Understanding of risk

· Prevailing heuristics

· Internal integration

· Organic alignment

· External adaptation

· Social validation

· Risk culture micro rules

· Ethical congruity

· Learning motivations

· Risk habits embedded in symbols, artefacts and history

· Absolutist and perfectionist goal setting

· Calculative mindset

· The risk thinking and language of gatekeepers

· Fear and anxiety about reporting

· Absence of learning prioritisation

· Dominant social influences

· Levels of confusion about enactment

These are some of the safety culture indicators that should be measured rather than the many ‘motherhood’ and meaningless questions in supposed safety culture surveys that simply endorse ‘more of the same’. It is these cultural factors that show up in the evidence as cultural causes of risk and safety events.

If we were to learn more about these safety culture factors we might get to the fundamentals of safety culture reform. But if you want a systems survey, just get the engineers to do it.

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