Knowing Stories That Matter: Learning for Effective Safety Decision Making

Monday, July 14, 2014: 3:30 PM
Room: 423
Oral Presentation
Jan HAYES , School of Sociology, Australian National University, Australia
Sarah MASLEN , School of Sociology, The Australian National University, Acton, ACT, Australia
Ongoing safe operation of complex, tightly coupled technologies such as hydrocarbon production and transportation, air traffic control and nuclear power generation depends on effective decision making by those in key positions. Safety studies often focus on the extent to which actions of operational personnel in particular are dictated by procedures or rules and hence reinforce the need for compliance to ensure the best outcomes. This paper directs attention to a different area – the judgements made by experts in the cases that are not covered by rules and, in particular, the key role of stories and storytelling.

This ethnographic research draws on literature related to high reliability theory, organisational learning and naturalistic decision making to examine how experts working in diverse critical contexts use stories to share and make sense of their own experiences. It argues that these stories are vital to effective decision making as a result of both the general and specific lessons that they embody. Our analysis shows that experts use stories as parables to nurture their safety imagination. Stories are also embedded in work practices to support decision making in the moment. Finally, stories are strongly linked to organisational learning for experts and their less experienced colleagues.

We argue that the increased focus on incident reporting systems in hazardous industries, which is driven at least in part by a consideration of organisational learning, could be improved to better facilitate story-based learning. Finally, we report early findings of our current research regarding how best to integrate story-based learning with other formal systems for professional development and reporting.