How well do most organisations in Australia generally fare when it comes to optimal human and organisational performance?

Understanding how Australian, or indeed international corporations fare with regards to Human and Organisational Performance (HOP), requires us to reflect upon both what we measure, and what optimal performance looks like.

The term Human and Organizational Performance describes the interactions and inter-dependencies of humans and organizations in the execution of work. Used within a professional practice context, it has come to be paradigmatic of a broad range of relativist and phenomenological thinking within business, focusing upon the understanding and improvement of relationships and interactions between the parts, as opposed to traditional componential analyses; taking a holistic approach, that recognizes systems as a whole drive behaviour, a view common among recent management, organisational, and safety research.

This perspective, in which performance emerges from the interactions and relationships between technology, people and management, referred herein as the Fourth Age of Safety (Borys et al, 2009), emphasises the importance of building upon our existing knowledge base through reflective acts, in light of growing evidence-based research. A perspective that views emerging safety philosophies not as genocidal acts upon traditional approaches; but instead, as more enlightened viewpoints borne of reflective processes; an act of integration (Hale & Hovden, 1998).

Determining a state of performance thus requires the measuring of these interactions and relationships; relationships which by their very nature are constantly changing in response to numerous environmental and cognitive conditions; giving rise to the key H.O.P principle that interconnected networks of conditions, or systems, drive behaviour.

Yet what is often measured is not these conditions, but the behaviours, as well as attitudes and beliefs of people within the system; the emergent phenomena of underlying interactions, void of the contextual conditions present at the time such phenomena are observed.

H.O.P, Safety II, and Safety Differently are perspectives, paradigms that promote a deeper and greater understanding of operational work conditions, a means of providing organisational intelligence, “not being a spy, but being someone who can understand the organisation, and hold up a mirror reflecting the organisation back to itself” (“Dr Drew Rae, School of Humanities | Griffith University”, 2016). The emphasis here being upon understanding as opposed to explanation, an important philosophical difference between the natural and social sciences (Hollis, 2011).

The WHS Act 2011 yields further insight into this philosophical debate, for the word “understanding” not “explanation” is used within the definition for due diligence; requiring Officers to “gain an understanding of the nature of the operations of the business or undertaking of the person conducting the business or undertaking and generally of the hazards and risks associated with those operations” (Work Health and Safety Act 2011, s 27).

The question of how corporations are faring, is thus dependent upon how management and people understand their own operations, through the interactions and interdependencies of their system components.

Understanding the vulnerabilities, the ‘messy’ interactions, workarounds, frustrations, and single points of failure within these operations, is one measure of this fourth age of integration. Yet, we are only now beginning to ask these types of questions, and in understanding the full spectrum of work irrespective of its outcome.

The only persons capable of answering the question posed therefore, are those from within the organisation. Benchmarking against others or providing a general account for how corporations are performing is both distorting and distracting; looking within, learning and understanding is what counts.

Our goal is thus to learn enough about our operations, that we realise, given the conditions our operators face, the information, tools and equipment they use, and the interdependent pressures they are under, that we ourselves would probably make the same decisions they do at any given time.

The question is not what your dashboards and intelligence gathering activities tell you about performance outcomes or activities but rather, what they tell you about the conditions of work at any given time.

Where are the most common gaps/challenges/issues for them in this regard? What are the organisational/OHS impacts of these?

Despite the polarising debate that emerges from the word bureaucracy, there is certainly a challenge in the amount and value elicited from its use. Greg Smith in his recent book “Paper Safe” captures this sensitive issue in a way few can argue with, in that “the problem with bureaucracy is that it has lost its connection with purpose” (2018). A hypothesis that is increasingly evidenced in case law, research (Rae & Provan, 2018), and in the decluttering experiments being undertaken at Australian Academic Institutions.

Reconnecting process with purpose, and measuring understanding over activity (Smith, 2018, p. 29) are a key challenges for organisations; yet the benefits of adopting this approach extend far beyond any safety outcome, providing insight into all manner of operational performance phenomena such as quality, wellbeing and production.

The issue we commonly see is the interpretation and application of safety being part of normal work, is in the adoption and completion of ever-increasing safety artefacts, artefacts with tenuous links between process and purpose.

 

What strategies/steps can they take to remedy the above?

Seeking to better understand, requires organisations to reframe what it means to understand. To rely solely on metrics and quantifiable data as a representation of peoples everyday work is clearly insufficient, yet it remains the primary tool for organisational intelligence.

Understanding requires us to engage with our people, to enter into dialogue and conversation, not discussion. To share stories as representations of how individuals and groups make sense of the conditions present in work. This means seeing people as the solution, the intelligence gatherers, the problem solvers and innovators that they are.

Creating opportunities to converse, co-create understanding and reflect together are key first steps, yet they require a broader organisational commitment to learning. Acknowledging the barriers to learning, such as the attribution of blame and absence of diversity, enables people to share without fear of judgement, eliciting a deeper and richer understanding of work conditions.

 

What are the implications/learnings for OHS professionals in this? Advice for them?

For us as professionals, these fresh perspectives provide an opportunity to reflect upon the efficacy of our own actions and work in a way that needn’t be judgemental or critical. But instead, that emphasises the things we ourselves are doing well, that add value to operational safety, and that connect process with purpose.

 

References

Borys, D., Else, D., & Leggett, S. (n.d.). The fifth age of safety: the adaptive age.

Dr Drew Rae, School of Humanities | Griffith University – YouTube. (n.d.). Retrieved 2 November 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7VlvpR34wk

Hale, A., & Hovden, J. (1998). Management and culture: the third age of safety. A review of approaches to organizational aspects of safety, health and environment. In A.-M. Feyer & A. Williamson (Eds.), Occupational Injury : Risk, Prevention And Intervention. London: CRC Press.

Hollis, M. (2011). The Philosophy of Social Science – An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rae, A., & Provan, D. (2018). Safety work versus the safety of

work

. Safety Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssci.2018.07.001

Smith, G. (2018). Paper Safe: The triumph of bureaucracy in safety management.

 

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