When ignorance does more than you think

Unstudied conditions are avoided as vigilantly as possible—right now, when it matters—by control room operators of large critical infrastructures mandated to operate reliably and safely systemwide. Having failed to fail because an operator was behaving ignorantly is orthogonal to high reliability management.

–That said, ignorance has functions in large socio-technical systems—but in ways not captured by the happy-talk of trial-and-error learning and Experiment! Five under-recognized positives deserve highlighting:

(1) A longstanding proposition in organization theory has been that operators and managers cannot know everything and something like bounded rationality is required in order to undertake decisions and manage. More, a mandate for comprehensive decisionmaking would undermine reliability management at the complex system level, not enhance it.

It is in such senses that the operations of other large infrastructures with which a control room is interconnected are largely, if not completely, “unstudied conditions” for that control room. Real-time management by a control room is so knowledge-intensive that its operators cannot be expected to understand just intensively how the other interconnected infrastructures and their control centers operate.

(2) The comfort zone of control room operators includes managing nonmeasured or unmeasurable uncertainties so as to stay out of unstudied conditions—unknown unknowns—about which system operators are by definition ignorant.

The uncertainties are not denominated as calculable risk, but still operators may know more about consequences than likelihoods, or vice versa. Operators undertake uncertainty management because they differentiate uncertainties.

(3) Large system control operators do innovate within their comfort zone. We see their improvisation in control room assembly of options just-in-time under conditions of high volatility (high unpredictability or uncontrollability in the outside environment). In fact, the evolutionary advantage of control rooms lies in the skills and expertise of its operators to operationally redesign in real time what is otherwise inadequate technology or regulation.

There is a kind of learning-through-error-management going on, but the learners do so by avoiding having to test the limits of system survival. Professionals will not deliberately chance the first error becoming the last trial (trial-and-error as probe-and-explode).

Certainly the view–“It’s almost impossible to innovate if you’re not prepared to fail”–is orthogonal to the innovation-positive we observed in critical infrastructures.

(4) That said, some unknown-unknowns may be key to something like an infrastructure’s immune system for managing under risk and uncertainty.

The complex and interconnected nature of large socio-technical systems suggests that “low-level” accidents, lapses or even sabotage may be underway that systemwide reliability professionals–like control room operators and their support staff–do not (cannot) observe, know about, or otherwise appreciate. This is less “ignorance is bliss” than ignorance as the ability to put up with what is disliked without knowing it as reliability is maintained by other means. You might want to think of this as a kind of trained (in)sensitivity, like bare hands becoming unavoidably calloused.

(5) Last but not least: When unstudied conditions and unknown-unknowns are feared because of the awful consequences associated with behaving ignorantly, the ensuing dread promotes having to manage dangerous complex technologies more reliably and safely than theories of tight coupling and complex interactivity suggest. Wide societal dread of systemwide failure takes on a positive function in these cases, without which the real-time management of dangerous technologies would not be warranted, let alone warrantable.

(It’s at this point that someone complains I’m advocating “the manufacture of dread for the purposes of social control through taken-for-granted technologies.” Which is oddly unreflexive on their part if they really believe what they say, since the very infrastructures they criticize enable them to render such judgment, here and now.)

–The upshot of the five features is this. Notions of experimentation and innovation are recast in the face of unstudied conditions and they vary substantially from Experiment! Adapt! Be resilient! Each may be true as far as it goes, but each does not go far enough in specifying the with-respect-to-what.

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