Technology’s advantages and risks affect us every day in ways that we could not have imagined at the millennium’s start. I’ve been thinking about this while watching Japan’s catastrophe unfold.
Two major technological forces are intersecting with the growth of global workplaces heightening the need and benefit of having some shared workplace behavioral standards. First, industrial advances allow us to accomplish such feats as:
- Drilling for oil far beneath the ocean’s surface finding petroleum to replenish our supplies, and
- Splitting atoms to generate electricity to power factories, light office buildings and keep our homes and multiple appliances running.
However, when these technologies fail, whatever the causes, the risks to all of us can rapidly spread beyond the boundaries of any nation or region.
Second, there have been natural and man-made disasters throughout the course of human history. What’s different now is not only the scope of harm and damage they can cause but the fact that communication technologies allow us to see them unfold instantaneously.
Until the recent past, and especially the last 10 years, news of catastrophes reached us gradually. We heard about the breadth and detail of tragedies hours, days, weeks or months after they occurred. Now, we see tsunamis raging live, we watch nuclear plant explosions, and we see oil spewing into the ocean as it’s released. With the rise of social media, all of us can report and publish as well as watch. We’re videographers, photographers and commentators, not just spectators.
There’s nothing any of us can do to prevent earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanoes, tornadoes hurricanes, or other acts of nature. But to the extent that they intersect with man-made technologies and actions, perhaps we can limit or better manage their impact. This goes to the need to build global workplaces sharing the common standard of promptly reporting, speaking up and non-punitively investigating problems. This is preferable to waiting for disasters to strike when post mortems reveal how risks could have been avoided or reduced.
Is it possible that the BP disaster might have been prevented had reporting safety concerns been more vigorously encouraged or investigated when brought forward? Would listening more intensely to those who criticized the design of Japan’s nuclear reactors before they went online have prevented the harm and risks we now face? I can’t answer these questions, but they must be considered. This is an urgent matter far beyond the boundaries of legal and compliance risk and local cultural norms.
Organizations can use their own values and practices to encourage individuals to come forward safely before catastrophes strike, rather than remain quiet out of fear or because of local practices and custom. We can take advantage of the same technologies that bring us news of natural and industrial disasters to communicate risks more effectively through pictures, reports, videos and explanation. Then, organizations and leaders must evaluate the information they receive with a measure of the same intensity as they do with the disasters reported in their aftermath.
While not as dramatic, the principle applies to the importance of considering risks caused by financial, ethical, manufacturing and other human practices whose harms can be avoided more readily than natural disasters. At least in those instances, we have a better chance of preventing, detecting and correcting looming disasters before they cause widespread, long-lasting devastation, provided alarms are sounded and heeded.