Monday, May 14, 2007

Fighting from a Hole

The first day keynote address at the ISCRAM conference in Delft was from Erik Hollnagel of the École des Mines de Paris. In his talk, Hollnagel incorporated information theory, behavioral psychology, and systems analysis to make an interdisciplinary argument against linear models for crisis management. As a close reader of governmental and organizational communications, I was interested to hear Hollnagel's criticism of negative reporting models and the tendency for government employees and others with responsibility for public safety not to give information when there isn’t an obvious change in state to announce. He compared the crisis management mindset that produces this autopilot behavior to choosing to fight from a hole rather than fight from a hill, in that all decisions when things go wrong are purely reactive. At a time when policy makers have pontificated about "known knowns," "known unknowns," and "unknown unknowns," while ignoring what Slavoj Žižek calls "unknown knowns," Hollnagel's attention to how human beings can be irrational decision-makers, particularly when information overload or information overload is at issue, is worth keeping in mind. Although his extended analysis of fatal yet avoidable incidents looked abroad, to the Fukuchiyama Line accident and the July 7th attacks on London transport, faulty American disaster prediction during September 11th and Hurricane Katrina also appeared in his ruminations. Notably, Hollnagel pointed out America's role in the space program and how a mission control paradigm produces both successful moon landings and Apollo 13 disasters.

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