We were all issued with one of the most complex and powerful computers on the planet at birth: the class 1 human brain. It does not need updates, new operating systems, fire walls, it does not need to be changed for a new shinier model, in this year’s colours, despite the fact that the last one was working fine! To date, it has not been copied, and could be considered unique. Yes there are other powerful computers in use in our daily lives, take the “common” smart phone as an example, and also there are some very powerful ones that can carry out 93.01 petaflops per second* (petaflops answer at the end!), however they still require the human to decide what should be entered and then what to do with the output. Computers are very good at controlling processes, removing repetitive tasks and managing massive data sets, but what they are not so good at, yet, is joining up all the disparate information to make a coherent summary of, and arriving at, a conclusion about what to do about the situation and then taking action. Whereas the human brain struggles with a sea of data with no apparent structure, but, it is good at arriving at conclusions (good or bad) based on the information available at the time, partly based on previous events in their own memory.

So how do you build up your Corporate Memory? Everyone in your organisation is, during their time in the company, building up a history of what has happened, where things have gone wrong/right, how to deal with certain conditions, and more importantly, how to predict some events even before they happen. They do this by using their senses, especially the illusive 6th sense where something feels wrong but you are not sure why, it may be a simple as smell, temperature, vibration, noise or observations. They then store these conditions in their memory banks for future use, note that this is not a conscious decision. “It just happens”. They may also document it somewhere, but, it also exposes one of the fundamental flaws, that if you have not experienced an event before, you have to learn what drives good or bad outcomes. Take a risk assessment for example, you identify the risks and then the controls to make the job safe, but what if you don’t know the risks in the first place, because they are not in your internal memory bank of experiences?

So does your Company have a memory? The answer is probably yes, to some degree, as over time people create procedures, instructions, guidance, rules to help manage, but, the so called Corporate Memory is missing the flavour of all the subtle pieces of information that is stored in the heads of the employees. It is wrapped up in “the Culture” of the Company. How often have you heard that the procedure states to do something a particular way, but the operators have found over trial and error, a “more efficient way” of running the process. Why is this? Humans always look for the path of least resistance and try and find simpler ways of doing things, this can be great and improve efficiency, but can also lead to disaster. For example, years of work have gone into the design of a new facility. There were numerous studies carried out, at great cost, to make sure the plant would be safe, efficient, minimise environmental impact and would have sufficient controls in place to ensure that it will deliver as intended. But, does all this good work reach the operators in a style that they can use and understand, or does it reside in a Corporate Data Management system only to be referred to if something goes wrong? How many times after an Incident has occurred was one of the causes due to “procedure not followed”? Or is it that over time operators create their own memory of how to get the job done, and then this gets handed on to their replacements, only to be continually watered down over the years. So all the richness stored in the corporate system does not connect with the operators’ operational reality.

So to answer the previous question, yes you do have a Corporate Memory, but that is only a part of the story, as arguably, the bigger part of that memory is in the heads of the employees. Consider the recent global oil crisis, where due to low oil prices, the oil companies made hundreds of thousands redundant. So where is that corporate memory now? Playing golf? Fishing? Working for new employers? How do the ones who remain continue to operate safely and efficiently?

So how do we play to the strength of the human and harness the power in all these brains we still have walking about in our company? How do we equip employees for success? The answer, I think, lies in providing the right information at the right time to make the right decisions. We live in an information age – Industry 4.0 – where expectations have changed. So how can we provide information, based on both the corporate and employee memory so that we harness the power of the human brain to “connect the dots” and arrive at the right path forwards. The answer is by connecting decision systems with corporate and real-time data and with the employees’ local knowledge, so that all the key facts are available to make the right decisions at the right time. This then starts to expose the, “you don’t know what you don’t know” – which then prompts, “so how do we deal with this situation now that I know what the potential consequences may be”? Remember, we still have all the design studies that were carried out at the beginning of the plant’s life, stored in the corporate memory, and have not been consciously used since – because they were either too complicated, or difficult to retrieve during a busy operational shift!

Using the emerging Operational Excellence solutions in the marketplace, complex situations can be visualised, which plays into the strength of the human, so that all the necessary parties are involved in the decision-making process. Systems can pull together data from different systems and align them in a logical way. Information is pushed to the user rather than pulled. Lessons can be captured and used again, whether, it is as simple as what happened the last time for a particular activity, or providing the correct procedure, at the right time. This will hopefully result in better, more transparent decisions – thus making better use of the human memory AND the corporate memory!

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Share your thoughts for how human behaviours impact the reality of risk in hazardous industries. Take the 2018 Process Safety and Operational Risk Management survey.

RON BOYD joined Petrotechnics three years ago, after spending 33 years with Shell working in various roles including, Maintenance, Production Operations, Projects, and Health, Safety and Environment.

During this time he developed a good practical understanding of managing risk in Offshore and Onshore operations – learning why situations don’t always turn out as expected!

Ron is now using this experience to help develop the first Operational Excellence platform for Petrotechnics.

Read more Reality of Risk insights.

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