Safety and the Spin of Disruption

“There are no trends in safety at present that give any inkling that disruption is even a possibility. The Regulation, Act, systems and standards are certainly not shrinking nor changing.”

Strategy ObstructionJust Because You Speak it, Doesn’t Make It So

Safety and the Spin of ‘Disruption’.

One of the benefits of living in Canberra is keeping one’s ear to the ‘spin’ and discourse of trends and language in government. The latest spin to do the rounds is that of ‘disruption’. The idea of disruption comes from Clayton M. Christensen introduced in his article Disruptive Technologies, Catching the Wave, which he co-wrote with Joseph Bower. The idea of disruption initially applied just to technology but has since been adopted by trendsetters to imply any sense of innovation, agility and creativity. The source of this discourse comes from the Prime Minister’s language about agility and innovation (http://www.businessinsider.com.au/malcolm-turnbull-disruption-is-our-friend-2015-9). Pretty soon everyone has been spruiking disruption like Coca-Cola yo-yos. (https://www.hostworks.com.au/south-australia-get-ready-disruption/, https://innovation.govspace.gov.au/events/innovation-month-2016-disrupt-develop-display/). Of course jumping on the bandwagon not far behind has been the safety industry (https://sia.org.au/events/calendar/sia-national-safety-convention-2016.html). You do a disruption readiness test (http://resilientfutures.com/services/disruption-readiness-test/) or buy the book (http://disruptedthebook.com/ ). All in echo of Toffler’s Future Shock of 1970, the great disruption is either upon us or is coming.

Christensen describes disruption as something far more than just change, disruption has to be about radical revolution. You can read more about the theory of disruption here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/01/economist-explains-15, and here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disruptive_innovation

The trouble with the theory of disruption is that all the forces of conservativism that are prevalent in our society, the fundamental structures of organizing and the human quest for safety and security work against any force of disruption in society. It is hard to comprehend that the executives and leaders who rise to positions of power through the dynamics and systems of obedience and conformity would then want to disrupt the very structures and systems that sustain their power. Similarly, a safety industry with so much sunk cost in conservative, conformity-centred thinking would want to welcome the real meaning of disruption.

There are no trends in safety at present that give any inkling that disruption is even a possibility. The Regulation, Act, systems and standards are certainly not shrinking nor changing.

Lepore (2014 – The Annals of Enterprise: The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation gets Wrong, The New Yorker) questions whether the theory of disruption has been oversold and misapplied, as if it were able to explain everything in every sphere of life, including not just business but education and public institutions. Similarly Weeks (2015 – Is disruption theory wearing new clothes or just naked? Analyzing recent critiques of disruptive innovation theory, Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice 17:4, 417-428) questions all the smoke and mirrors associated with disruption discourse. Even Christensen comments: “Despite broad dissemination, the theory’s core concepts have been widely misunderstood and its basic tenets frequently misapplied.” (http://fortune.com/2015/11/17/uber-disruption-christensen/). In some ways the theory of disruption innovation has fallen victim to its own rhetoric.

One of the essentials for disruption is risk. There is no innovation, no creativity nor learning, without risk. So why is the safety industry, the lovers of risk aversion spruiking the language of disruption??? There is no great trend away from zero in safety, the lovers of zero are the lovers of data and any risk in change to the data is apparently a sign of un-safety. So, where is the radical change??? There is no trend away from data, counting LTIs, TRIFR rates. If anything, the conservativism and calculative love of compliance and bureaucracy is growing exponentially. Where is the disruption from peak bodies in safety??? There is no discourse about reforming curriculum, no tools nor strategies from the peaks, to help reform the current malaise in safety. Where are the strategic plans that indicate that disruption in safety is on the way? IF there is to be disruption it certainly won’t come from orthodox sources. The very dynamics that are required to establish peak bodies, government instrumentalities and institutionalized forms of stability are hardly going to give way and welcome disruption. I think Weber, Berger, Kuhn and others have demonstrated clearly how the dynamics of institutionalization, bureaucratization, systematization, ideology and organization work. No organization wants disruptors, mavericks are not welcome inside organisations where questioning is limited to manageable boundaries and marketing as disruptive is threatening to all that drives humans for stability and certainty. That’s why humans organize. Christensen confirms this and makes clear that disruption can never come from inside or from orthodoxy. There is plenty of evidence in social history and social politics to show what happens to disruptions.

So we see, the very dynamics of the institutionalization of safety and the discourse of zero (and associated absolutes) must drive the safety industry to deeper conservativism and compliance, fully obedient to the Archetype of innocence and yearning for paradise (infallibility). Yet again, we have another spin word and fad that will do the circles and fade just as quick as it came in. We all know that the Prime Minister speaks the words of disruption but must bow to the conservative voices of his own party (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-12/turnbull-defends-george-christensen-comments/7407788 ). The conservative wagons are circling in a winding frenzy (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-04/matthewson-turnbull-is-a-leader-besieged-on-all-sides/7566960). The capitulations are real (http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2016/09/14/malcolm-turnbulls-super-backdown-is-an-incredible-capitulation/) whilst the talk is ‘disruption’.

Just because someone speaks it, doesn’t make it so.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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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.

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