I wasn’t able to attend the Traction User Group this year, as usual – I’m not sure what the NHS would say to my request for funding for a trip to Rhode Island ;)  However, I did follow the TUG on Twitter, and Traction have now posted videos of many of the talks. I’ve only managed to watch one so far, so it had to be the keynote from Carmen Medina (Director of the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence). You can watch it here. It’s really interesting stuff. Carmen describes the various circumstances which led to the catastrophic failure of the electrical system in the north-eastern are of USA/Canada in 2003. She uses the lessons learned as a template for “diagnosing big goof-ups” in any system or organisation. Here’s her template:

  1. Strategic failure
  2. Lack of fundamental knowledge awareness
  3. “Some nutty technical issue”
  4. Lack of effective collaboration

She then goes on to break down the reasons for the lack of effective collaboration:

  1. Physical separation between teams
  2. No shared electronic spaces
  3. Inadequate handover briefing
  4. No training in emergency scenarios

As you can see, it starts to look rather relevant to the NHS. I was even more struck by her description of what she called “HR²” (i.e. HR squared) organisations. These are “high risk, high reliability”, categorised like so:

  1. Think about failure all the time, avoiding failure is critical
  2. Tend not to simplify problems too soon, are used to dealing with “messy” problems
  3. Designed for resilience
  4. Are operations/process-oriented, i.e. like predictable, reliable causal processes
  5. Emphasise expertise and experience over hierarchy/seniority

Doesn’t that sound like a description of the NHS, or at least what the NHS aspires to be? If you listen to the talk, you can hear why Carmen thinks social web technologies can help such organisations, both in the “business as usual” situations and also the positive effect the resulting networks of trust have on teams when they end up coping with an emergency. Finally, here are a couple of quotes which I thought were particularly relevant:

[On the subject of dealing with complexity] We still cling to the “failing assumption that individual control nodes can understand the complexity of a large system”


“[In regard to the younger, supposedly tech-expert generation] It’s not tech-savvy that matters, it’s individual [or group/communal] ownership of work”

P.S. If you watch till about 17 minutes from the end, she answers a question from me via Twitter! So bizarre to hear my own name and NHS Orkney mentioned. I asked how you deal with “lines of responsibility” when working collaboratively without the old hierarchies. Carmen answered well (once she understood my poorly-phrased question)  by giving the example of Cockpit Resource Management, i.e. when people work regularly in teams, they trust each other enough to make quick, collective, accurate decisions. I would counter that by asking “what if working with other people led you to trust them *less*…?”