Curating Decision-Making Environments

There are countless analogies between decision-making and water. When considering how to navigate the waters of decision-making as it relates to information requirements,  4 characteristics of information can help differentiate between how organizations think decision-making environments are made and the actual environments humans face when making those decisions.

Michael Hartley is the Managing Director of IK Mining & Energy. Michael's 20+ year career as a risk and performance professional has spanned 6 continents, multiple complex sectors (e.g. mining, oil & gas, construction and manufacturing) and various organization levels (operations to executive/board level). It is his mission to make risk and performance information accessible and useful for internal decision makers as well as external stakeholders.

Human beings need to make roughly 35 000 (yes, thousand) decisions per day. Over 2000 per waking hour. While the vast majority of those decisions are trivial, day-to-day ones that are managed by our subconscious (e.g. brushing our teeth, micro course corrections when walking etc.), a much smaller number of those decisions are worthy of our time and consideration (e.g. what to wear to a meeting, crossing a busy intersection, purchasing choices etc.). Sitting above those tranches of decisions is a group that is significantly more important and requires more than our time and attention. These decisions require an environment that enables us to consider the risks and rewards, the inputs and the consequences of getting these decisions incorrect. Many such decisions will take place at work and the difference between how we imagine the environment in which those decisions take place versus the actual decision-making environments can be stark.

In large complex organizations in the mining and energy sectors, there will be additional consideration given to the safety-related consequences of decisions. For decades, these sectors have sought to eliminate injuries of all forms (from the simple medical treatment injuries all the way up to the fatal/disabling types). Investment in the work environment to support the dramatic fall in these numbers has been vast. Safer, more reliable equipment, the removal of passive hazards and a six-sigma approach to containing active hazards are all examples of such investment.

However, when considering large catastrophic events (defined as those with a material impact on mission, assets and people), resourcing the work environment alone misses many opportunities to scale safe, repeatable and sustainable operations. We must consider all decisions an organization takes managing these events across the operational lifecycle and lift a page from the devotion to ‘safe work environments’ to curate decision-making environments that set up decision-makers for success. Specifically, we need to consider the information requirements for critical tasks across an organization to better service those individuals charged with delivering a resilient operation that creates and sustains value for its stakeholders.

There are countless analogies between decision-making and water. For example, drinking from a firehose or altering the sails to adjust to the changing winds. It is easy for many to relate to the perils of decision-making using nautical language. Therefore, when considering how to navigate the waters of decision-making as it relates to information requirements, we will continue this theme and contrast how 4 characteristics of information can vary between how organizations think decision-making environments are made and the actual environments humans face when making those decisions.

All Organizational Information

Today, mining and energy companies are awash with data.  They are not alone.  An oft-quoted statistic is that 90% of all data that has been captured over time immemorial has been captured in the last 3 years[1]. The challenge is that in order to serve decision-makers with information, these data need to be analyzed.  We will leave this challenge aside for now. However, considering the vast quantities of data and the analytics capabilities we can draw a safe analogy between the volume of information within an organization to an ocean.

The passive assumption of many organizations is that the information they generate is high quality, comes from data sources that are well structured and is reliable and valid for the array of decisions that are required daily. The equivalent of the oceans portrayed in children’s literature – calm, welcoming and complete with mermaids, dolphins and whales. These are hefty assumptions. When pushed however, many will concede there are gaps in the data, the data lakes (another aqueous analogy) are messy and that information sources are disparate, disconnected, and incomplete. The children’s story book is now reading more like a suspense novel where the lone sailor is facing darkening skies, unconscionable waves and the mast is starting creek.  This is the contrasted fantasy-to-reality of information in organizations.

Available to Decision-Maker

Organizations, recognizing the perils of their information repositories, do their upmost to hire competent, qualified and experienced people.  It will be these sailors who can navigate the ship the correct decision time and time again.  So support that organizations, and to err on the side of caution, point their decision makers to vast bays of information from the ocean within their control. What is promised as simple fishing trip on a well-stocked lake becomes a battle against a rocky, unwelcoming shore. The vessels provided are taking on water, the automated tools of navigation are faulty and the line of the fishing rod has just snapped.

The systematic failure is that decision-makers lack the tools and systems to decipher what information they need based on the context of the decision at hand. This is where many individuals rely on what they have always done or put in extraordinary effort to source the right information. Behavioural economists call this ‘friction’. If there is too much friction in the system, users simply won’t engage.

Appropriate for Decision

Information for a specific decision needs to be relevant, timely and context-rich. Again, contrasting the organization’s view of what this looks like is a nice warm bath. It is inviting and requires little effort. The reality is much different. The analogy of drinking from a firehose is what the reality is like. Individuals with 200+ pages of information are expected to extract the relevant 3-4 nuggets to support the multimillion dollar decision that is in front of them. When we think about setting people up to succeed the difference between imagined and reality boundaries professional neglect.  

Accessible by Decision-Maker

Finally, we must consider how decision-makers access this information. The recurring themes of ‘friction’, effort and timeliness are all elements that contribute to accessibility. Decision-makers, who are looking for a nice glass of water, are offered what seems to be a dirty syringe. The volume of information is insufficient, and the vessel of communication is of poor quality and cannot be relied upon. This is where the lack of empathy when of servicing decision-makers is most keenly felt.  It is at the sharp end of the process - where all the latent failures that bog down ineffective and slow systems are felt.

If organizations are to better serve their people – often referred to as an organization’s most valuable assets – then three things must take place:

1.    Determine what the critical decisions are that relate to mission, assets and people

2.    Define the stakeholders and their decision-making needs so to fully understand how best to serve timely, relevant and context-rich information

3.    Provide a strong visualized information that enables them to take those critical decisions with confidence over time and allows the organization to learn and improve

Organizations need to better sympathize with those making critical decision on their behalf. Considering the volume of information humans will be asked to manage the least organizations can do is consider the three points above.   

How is any organization supposed to trust decisions made, when decision-makers cannot trust the systems in which they are working?

[1] This stat has been making the rounds for the last 4-5 years so may not be accurate but is close

iK's Mining & Energy Blog

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