How to improve OHS through Human and Organisational Performance

Understanding how Australian, or indeed international corporations fare with regards to Human and Organisational Performance (HOP) requires us to reflect upon both what we measure and what optimal performance looks like.

The term Human and Organisational Performance describes the interactions and interdependencies of humans and organisa- tions in the execution of work. Used within a professional practice context, it has come to be paradigmatic of a broad range of relativ- ist and phenomenological thinking within business, focusing upon the understand- ing and improvement of relationships and interactions between the parts, as opposed to traditional componential analyses. It takes a holistic approach which recognises that systems as a whole drive behaviour – a view common among recent management, organisational and safety research.

This perspective, in which performance emerges from the interactions and relation- ships between technology, people and management (the fourth age of safety in Borys et al’s article “The fifth age of safety: the adaptive age” (2009)), emphasises the importance of building upon our existing knowledge base through reflective acts, in light of growing evidence-based research.
It is a perspective that views emerging safety philosophies not as genocidal acts upon traditional approaches, but instead
as more enlightened viewpoints borne of reflective processes; an act of integration, as described by Hale & Hovden in their article “Management and culture: the third age of safety” (1998).

Determining a state of performance thus requires the measuring of these interactions and relationships, relationships which by their very nature are constantly changing in response to numerous environmental and cognitive conditions, giving rise to the key HOP principle that interconnected networks of conditions, or systems, drive behaviour.

Yet, what is often measured is not these conditions but the behaviours, as well as attitudes and beliefs, of people within the system – the emergent phenomena of under- lying interactions, void of the contextual con- ditions present at the time such phenomena are observed.

HOP, Safety II and Safety Differently are perspectives and paradigms that promote a deeper and greater understanding of operational work conditions, a means of providing organisational intelligence, “not being a spy, but being someone who can understand the organisation, and hold up a mirror reflecting the organisation back to itself ” (Dr Drew Rae, School of Humanities, Griffith University, 2016). The emphasis here is on understanding as opposed to explana- tion, an important philosophical difference between the natural and social sciences (Hollis, 2011).

The WHS Act 2011 yields further insight into this philosophical debate, for the word “understanding” not “explanation” is used within the definition for due diligence, re- quiring officers to “gain an understanding of the nature of the operations of the business or undertaking of the person conducting the business or undertaking, and generally of the hazards and risks associated with those operations”.

The question of how organisations are faring is thus dependent upon how management and people understand their own operations, through the interactions and interdependencies of their system components.

Understanding the vulnerabilities, the “messy” interactions, workarounds, frustrations and single points of failure within these operations is one measure of this fourth age of integration. Yet, we are only now beginning to ask these types of questions, and understanding the full spectrum of work irrespective of its outcome.

The only people capable of answering the question posed, therefore, are those from within the organisation. Benchmarking against others or providing a general account for how corporations are performing is both distorting and distracting; looking within, learning and understanding is what counts.

Our goal is thus to learn enough about our operations, that we realise – given the conditions our operators face, the informa- tion, tools and equipment they use, and the interdependent pressures they are under – that we ourselves would probably make the same decisions they do at any given time.

The question is not what your dash- boards and intelligence-gathering activities tell you about performance outcomes or ac- tivities, but rather, what they tell you about the conditions of work at any given time.

Where are the most common challenges for companies, and what impacts do these have on OHS?

Despite the polarising debate that emerges from the word “bureaucracy”, there is certainly a challenge in the amount and value elicited from its use. Greg Smith, in his recent book Paper Safe, captures this sensitive issue in a way few can argue with, in that “the problem with bureaucracy is that it has lost its connection with purpose”. This is a hypothesis that is increasingly evidenced in case law, research (Rae & Provan, 2018), and in the decluttering experiments being undertaken at Australian academic institutions.

Reconnecting process with purpose, and measuring understanding over activity are key challenges for organisations, yet the benefits of adopting this approach extend far beyond any safety outcome, providing insight into all manner of operational performance phenomena such as quality, wellbeing and production.

The issue we commonly see in the interpretation and application of safety be- ing part of normal work, is in the adoption and completion of ever-increasing safety artefacts, artefacts with tenuous links between process and purpose.

What strategies can companies take to remedy the above?

Seeking to better understand requires organisations to reframe what it means to understand. To rely solely on metrics and quantifiable data as a representation of people’s everyday work is clearly insufficient, yet it remains the primary tool for organisational intelligence.

Understanding requires us to engage with our people, to enter into dialogue and conversation, not discussion; to share stories as representations of how individuals and groups make sense of the conditions present in work. This means seeing people as the so- lution, the intelligence gatherers, the problem solvers and innovators that they are.

Creating opportunities to converse, co- create understanding and reflect together are key first steps, yet they require a broader organisational commitment to learning. Acknowledging the barriers to learning – such as the attribution of blame and absence of diversity – enables people to share without fear of judgment, eliciting a deeper and richer understanding of work conditions.

What are the implications for OHS professionals?

For us as professionals, these fresh perspectives provide an opportunity to reflect upon the efficacy of our own actions and work in a way that needn’t be judgmental or critical, but instead, that emphasises the things we ourselves are doing well, that add value to operational safety and that connect process with purpose.

This article was originally published in the SIA OHS Professional magazine in December 2018.


Borys, D., Else, D., & Leggett, S. (n.d.). The fifth age of safety: the adaptive age.

Dr Drew Rae, School of Humanities | Griffith University – YouTube. (n.d.). Retrieved 2 November 2018, from

Hale, A., & Hovden, J. (1998). Management and culture: the third age of safety. A review of approaches to organizational aspects of safety, health and environment. In A.-M. Feyer & A. Williamson (Eds.), Occupational Injury : Risk, Prevention And Intervention. London: CRC Press.

Hollis, M. (2011).The Philosophy of Social Science – An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rae, A., & Provan, D. (2018). Safety work versus the safety of work. Safety Science.

Smith, G. (2018). Paper Safe: The triumph of bureaucracy in safety management.


  1. Adam Johns Reply

    Nice piece Andy, thanks. Very well written. Just an editorial comment – some of the words have become, I assume, unintentionally hyphenated. E.g. ‘This means seeing people as the so- lution, the…’

  2. Gary Wong Reply

    Thanks for a terrific article, Andy. In our anthro-complexity work we call Borys et al’s “The fifth age of safety: the adaptive age” the Age of Cognitive Complexity. Cognitive Science research has dispelled myths that humans are logical, rational decision-makers and the human brain is a computer storing & retrieving information efficiently. We now know decisions are emotionally made and the brain is built to recognize patterns.

    Within the space of a complex system, we can explore adoption, adaptation and exaptation. Totally agree that the relationships and interactions between the parts are much more important than the parts themselves (i.e., the reductionist’s view.)

    “Anthro” means we perceive workers as storytellers, toolers, and game players. Stories provide content and context on everyday decisions made. Using a distributed ethnography practice we can easily collect narratives (stories, voice recordings, photos, drawings). By converting them into data points, narratives essentially become the ‘measures’ in a complex system. We use the brain’s pattern recognition powers to discover patterns to help us understand why workers behave the way they do.

    Narratives can also generate 2D landscape maps that represent the safety culture. The intervention question OHS professionals are able to ask is: How might we get more stories like these, fewer like those?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *