Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Human Factor

Graham Greene’s novel describes an intelligence operative, married to a black African woman he spirited away whilst he was a field operative, who, in repulsion at the attitudes of his closeted commuterville, ends up a traitor.  The novel, one of Greene’s entertainments, the phrase he used to describe his lighter works where he plays to the chorus, focuses on the department’s hunt for their leak and a contrast between a logical, systematic approach and the irrational humanity of individuals:  the human factor.

Greene was probably trying to understand his friend and wartime mentor Kim Philby’s defection to the Russians.  Philby was one of the Cambridge Four and had risen to the upper echelons of British intelligence services despite working for the Soviets all along.  Greene, and indeed a large proportion of the country, was wondering what drives a human to act in such a way.

Much of the work I get paid to do – as opposed to this sort of work where I spend my time failing to make a living – centres around teaching an awareness of human factors amongst skilled professionals in stressful situations.  We look at human factors to mean non-technical skills, encompassing a wide range of issues from communication, leadership, situational awareness, bias judgement, a fixation on the wrong problem and how restrictions on our bandwidth, our capacity to process and understand information, is influenced by our environment.

For example, why don’t you watch the following video:


See what I mean?  The instruction says do one thing, so your wider context fails.  Human error, how we screw up: We can’t prevent it, so how do we cope with mistakes and how do others around us anticipate and compensate for them?

I’ve been using many of the human factor analogies as I teach my girlfriend to drive.  I’ve talked about making the motor skills of driving – changing gear, operating the windscreen wipers – automatic so that her bandwidth is freed up for more complex analytical processes, like whether that cyclist is going to jump the lights, or if the positioning of the 4x4 with the tinted windows and the system up means he’s likely to try and cut back into our lane.  Cognitive judgements made for the benefit of the team (other road users) – do you pull out or wait until the road is clear?  Keep the traffic flowing or get there thirty-two seconds quicker?  I’m not entirely sure it’s helping, but it beats answering every time she asks “why” with “because that’s what you do.”

What this analysis of the hows, whys and whereforths of human error doesn’t focus on is the confused instinct of the heart.  The emotional thoroughfare which can be even more irrational than stress.  It can overrule distractions and obliterate preconceptions.  The emotional surge takes decisions governed purely by what doesn’t even necessarily feel right, just warm and fuzzy.  Knowing you’re doing the wrong thing and still doing it anyway?  That’s probably what Greene was trying to comprehend.

My girlfriend and I are spending a lot of time being directed by our urges at the moment.  We are – despite my misgivings about betraying my principals – looking for a house to buy.  My concerns are twofold.  Firstly, my high minded adherence to the notion of all property being theft is, as you’ve probably guessed, a bluff designed to beat back those who “feel sorry” for me still renting in my thirties.  I don’t truly believe in a socialist utopia, although neither do I subscribe to the notion that rent money is “dead money.”  It’s a very fair exchange of services, I pay someone and they give me a place to live.  However, I do feel that my generation’s feverish desire to own a flat has caused a situation where – in London at least – property becomes less of a place to live and more some sort of investment.  The idea of paying off your mortgage to make your old age easier is no longer acceptable; instead you have to have gained a theoretical £100 grand every four years so you can laugh at those younger and poorer than yourself.  We don’t seem to have learnt the 2008 lessons that fragile greed can bring disaster.  By jumping on the bandwagon, battering aside the fellow at the wheel and driving the damn bus we’re perpetuating the problem.  Which seems hypocritical, but then it’s mainly her money so what do I know?

Secondly, in complete contrast to the above, we can’t actually afford what I would like.  Whilst my pretence at socialist ideals suggests I’d be happy in a one-bed council flat, because that’s all we technically need, in reality I want an SE4 Victorian or Georgian five bedroom townhouse replete with original features, an expansive lawn and fireplaces in every room.  Alas, a million pounds we do not have, fortunately for my soul, but being somewhere in-between two bed prettiness and bigger 1930s terraces is creating tough decisions and they’re almost to big for logic, the amounts of money involved too huge for rationality so we’re forced to be governed by our hearts.  We’re highly unlikely to find the stuff of our dreams and so with every property we weigh the pros and cons and if the former smother the later, we gee ourselves up into getting excited by it, flaws and all.  We’re evangelical about the good points and brush the failings aside to manipulate our hearts into that emotional rush and convince ourselves that a lifetime of debt won’t be so hard.

And then something goes wrong and we don’t get to buy it after all.  False heartbreak still knocks the breath out of you.

On Saturday, in-between further property wooing, we took to the streets in protest.  Following South London Healthcare’s financial implosion last year, advisors have submitted their recommendations to Jeremy Hunt, the new Health Secretary and former Murdoch lapdog.  A minister who has described his proudest achievement as an MP to be “saving his local A&E”, Hunt’s specialism seems to be looking after himself.  The proposals suggest breaking up SLH, which was only formed in 2010, back into separate hospitals and giving them to other, nearby NHS Trusts to manage.  Lewisham Hospital will take over the running of Woolwich Hospital, although to do so it must close its own A&E facility (which only opened last year following a £9million refit) and alongside it dependant services like the highly regarded maternity unit.

This is, by necessity of brevity, a condensation of the arguments and I recommend you toread the information yourself to make a decision, but essentially it reads like this:  functioning, financially stable Trust bails out neighbour at the cost of local services.

Lewisham management supports the merger, despite the risk of going down with the sinking ship, but not the cutting of service provision.  Depending on who you listen to, the numbers either make sense or they don’t.  Stats, you can make them say what you like.  Clinical leads suggest that it will lead to reduced provision for the local populace, which it almost certainly will, given that Woolwich is an hour away by a sequence of unreliable buses, but from our side of Lewisham you could always self-present to King’s in Camberwell and besides the national Medical Director, Sir Bruce Keogh, disagrees. 

It doesn’t really matter.  The point is, it just feels wrong.  It’s an emotional reaction, an – in many ways – irrational reaction but easily justifiable.  After all, there’s nothing more human than being concern about our health, is there?  And 25,000 other people thought so too as we tooted and whistled and brandished banners in the cool, bright afternoon air heading from Lewisham centre to Mountsfield Park.  Local children wore labels declaring them to be a Lewisham baby – some of the last.  It’s an emotive issue; it can’t help but be otherwise.  Hunt, however, appears immune to the human factor.  He rises above it, accepts the recommendations and passes them to the watchdog for approval and implementation.  With some minor tweaks the proposal will go through and thousands of people – me included – will fail to grasp or even care about the logic behind it because we all trust our heart above everything else. 

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