Systems Serve Humans not Humans Serve Systems

by Dr Rob Long on March 17, 2017

in Robert Long,Safety systems



Systems Serve Humans not Humans Serve Systems

imageThere is nothing wrong with having systems or checklists, nor technology to assist such (see “Who Said We Don’t Need Systems”). However, when those systems and checklists become an ‘end’ in themselves they take on a ‘force’ and ‘energy’ of their own. When systems become ‘ends’ in themselves we forget the ‘means’ of the system. We then allow systems to extend way beyond the design and purpose of the system itself. When we frame safety through the lens of systems rather than through the lens of people we forget the fundamental ethical principle of the ‘ends justifies the means’.

I read a few papers recently circulating in the safety journals about safety systems, including the mandatory mechanistic ideologies (but undisclosed) embedded in systems. After reading a few papers it became clear that people/humans were not an issue in the safety landscape. In every paper the notion that humans were even part of systems was missing. Systems were discussed as an archetype, as something that had a life on its own, regardless of the humans in that system. The real issue was about ‘system failure’ and ‘system design’ not about people nor the nature of how people respond to and are ‘framed’ by systems. Each asserted that there was such a thing as ‘systems thinking’ as if the system had its own ‘mind’. Amazing how we justify something by anthropomophesizing it. It is incredible that such assumptions and ideology are just accepted in the safety industry without challenge nor critical interrogation.

I often hear the comment in safety that ‘you can’t change people, you can only change situations’. What an amazing statement, and could someone please tell me about a situation of relevance/significance that has no humans present??? What a strange belief that we would think that a change in systems will simply meet with a change of the people in it??? The whole History of revolutions and dissent contradicts such a belief. Again, more mythology to support the ideology of objects over subjects.

I wonder if safety has ever heard of the concept of ‘conversion’? The reality is, risk, safety and security people are really in the conversion business. To use secular language, risk and safety people are there to assist people to make a ‘sea change’ about risk. The reason for the use of the word ‘conversion’ in this discussion is because so much of risk concerns ‘life and death’ decision making and in relation to this, so much of the discourse in risk and safety is religious, even fundamentalist (discussed in my first book – Risk Makes Sense).

Conversion is never a neutral act. Conversion is about monumental change and even its discussion provokes controversy, confusion, curiosity, fascination, skepticism, and enthusiasm. Everyone has a theory about why people change. For many, conversion is a transcendent experience; for others, it comes at the cost of being shunned by the families and the religious communities that once nurtured them. There is one thing that seems to be present in all conversion: Cognitive Dissonance. Many underrate the nature of cognitive dissonance, labeling it just a moment of discomfort. This doesn’t even come close to its real meaning as discovered by Festinger in 1956. I have written about this in previous books and have a video on line that also helps explain this phenomena using my Cognitve Dissonance model (https://vimeo.com/202589604 ). You can download a copy of Festinger’s original research here: https://archive.org/details/pdfy-eDNpDzTy_dR1b0iB . Cognitive Dissonance and related conversion is about a total upheaval in worldview. It is not just about changing ideas or mind but the pain and suffering associated with conversion in worldview (ideology).

Conversion is about a revolution in thinking, being, doing, feeling, purpose and ‘mentalitie’. It is a change in personhood with regard to risk. We can learn a lot about humans from studies in conversion. Perhaps the first psychological studies of conversion were undertaken by William James, (1902) in The Varieties of Religious Experience and Nock (1933) Conversion, The Old and New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo. The most recent study is the brilliant publication: Rambo, L., and Farhadian, C., (eds.) (2014) Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion. Oxford, London. You can download William James here: https://csrs.nd.edu/assets/59930/williams_1902.pdf  and Noke here: https://ia802608.us.archive.org/14/items/Nock1933Conversion/Nock%201933%20Conversion.pdf . I have a copy of Ferm (1959) The Psychology of Christian Conversion, who undertakes a neat historical account of progress in the study of conversion, but it would be very difficult to purchase a copy.

People can change, people do reframe beliefs, people do learn, there is conversion. Why is safety so preoccupied with systems and know so little about people and conversion? If people cannot change, why do so many people go to counselling? What is the point of ‘advising’? We should call it safety ‘telling’ not ‘advising’. Perhaps the reason why human change is avoided by those in the risk and safety industry is because they are not educated about conversion, learning and the social psychology of risk (https://www.safetyrisk.net/isnt-it-time-we-reformed-the-whs-curriculum/?doing_wp_cron=1489725209.6472389698028564453125 ).

WHS training and publications focus on objects not subjects. It’s all about systems not humans. No wonder the risk and safety industry avoids learning about learning and the conversion of subjects. No wonder it is preoccupied with systems. No wonder it has lost sight of ‘ends and means’. No wonder it believes that: Humans Serve Systems not Systems Serve Humans.

See also:

Who Decides What is Ugly? • SafetyRisk.net

When life, and work, is focused on systems and process (control), people … piece where animal and human were as one, we noticed that mounted on …. but more about whether systems serve people or people serve systems.

https://safetyrisk.net/who-decides-what-is-ugly/

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.
  • Rob Sams

    Thanks for sharing Rob, it has helped me better understand conversion.

    I particularly like the note on Cognitive Dissonance. It is so much more than simply ‘mental gymnastics’ that I’ve heard it described as before, including by me!

    Is it only when our whole world is turned on it’s head, only when our questions go mostly unanswered, or at best answered with other questions (which presupposes that we have questions), and only when we recognise that the path that we are on is a seductive path of objects, things and self, that dissonance really begins?

    • Rob Long

      Good question Rob. It is hard for us to maintain coherence and yet at the same time not know the future. At best we act each day as-if the future is certain. We have faith that the randomness of the world will suit us and are surprised when it does not. It is at such times that we face dissonance in the moment and often decide that death and suffering, pain and struggle don’t make sense. We can have heaps of mental gymnastics and never really face the challenge of the big questions. The rest seems to be an existence in denial of big questions for a variety of material pettiness. We take confidence in all our predictions and forget the times our plans and strategies never eventuated. In reality, we learn to adapt when predictions fail, when our worldview construct doesn’t help, when the principle of efficiency doesn’t match reality, or when people preach zero after a fatality. There are no questions in the binary worldview, where polar opposites give comfort in extremes, where black and white suppress cognitive dissonance. In this worldview there is no ’emergence’, no mystery, no movement and no learning.

  • Rob Sams

    Thanks for sharing Rob, it has helped me better understand conversion.

    I particularly like the note on Cognitive Dissonance. It is so much more than simply ‘mental gymnastics’ that I’ve heard it described as before, including by me!

    Is it only when our whole world is turned on it’s head, only when our questions go mostly unanswered, or at best answered with other questions (which presupposes that we have questions), and only when we recognise that the path that we are on is a seductive path of objects, things and self, that dissonance really begins?

  • Bernard Corden

    The real problem is not whether machines think but whether people do.

    • Rob long

      The word really cannot be applied to machines, just as the notion of learning can’t.

  • Thanks Rob – “Systems are Meant To Serve Humans Not The Other Way Around” was one of the first things I heard you say many years ago and, for me, has turned out to be one of the most profound! They don’t call a computer network drive a “server” for nothing!

  • Thanks Rob – “Systems are Meant To Serve Humans Not The Other Way Around” was one of the first things I heard you say many years ago and, for me, has turned out to be one of the most profound! They don’t call a computer network drive a “server” for nothing!

  • Thanks Rob – “Systems are Meant To Serve Humans Not The Other Way Around” was one of the first things I heard you say many years ago and, for me, has turned out to be one of the most profound! They don’t call a computer network drive a “server” for nothing!

    • Rob Long

      Dave, I find it fascinating that we accept that systems ‘think’ and have a mind, and archetype. That the markets ‘decide’ and yet baulk at the idea of Safety being an archetype and a force unto itself. Strange when we allow systems and objects to have preeminence over humans.

      • Dave collins

        I think deep down that most people know that systems are the only thing they will ever have any hope of controlling – even that is difficult in a rapidly changing world – many just haven’t or cant accept it

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