Human Factors and Social Responsibility

The social responsibility of business or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been a highly debated topic for many years. Even though it really came under the radar of public attention at the end of the 60´s, it had been around both in the business and the academic arenas since companies started to exist.

The social responsibility strain that emerged almost 50 years ago, has been one of the most fascinating and evolving areas that business has known. Both, concepts and practice, have changed. From doing good to doing well. From one direction to a bidirectional vision. From helping people, to working in favor of the sustainability of the planet. From reducing damages, and sometimes, costs, to being efficient. And so on. There are many more areas, being studied at universities and think tanks, and practiced at companies. And they are only getting more and more complex.

One of the most interesting areas is the one related to embedding CSR into the value chain. Where does it belong? Which department? What is natural? Should it report to the board? Why? If not, why not? Finally, if embedding it, how? Even if there are tons of social responsibility or sustainability reports, the area still has an“outsider aura”; a “you don’t belong here” kind of identity. And that in big, recognized companies. To the rest of business, CSR is at best, a grey area.

Embedding CSR is not just about having the will to do it. Many companies wish to incorporate the concept and the tasks into their value chain, but the disruption might not be worth it, because it means changing mind sets, not just boxes or processes. Many other companies don’t recognize or accept the value of changing the way their employees think about environmental, social and governance (EGS) issues. A bigger number just don’t care, or thrive in a non-demanding environment, as we said sometime ago.

Embedding CSR into the value chain is not an easy task. And it can be a long one. Criticism and attacks from certain stakeholders, can be a deterrent. And above all, success can be hard to achieve. Talking and convincing everybody within the company that “this is the way to work”, or that “we are starting to change”, can be met with skepticism, passive rejection or even sabotage.

A strategy is necessary, then. Fortunately, this is not the only area that has been embedded into the value chain or the first time that a new approach is attempted. So, an interesting management concept, originated in the aviation industry can be useful. It is called CRM, which stands for Cockpit (or Crew, or Company) Resource Management.

At the end of the 70’s, an organized effort to reduce aviation accidents between companies and the US government, produced CRM. It soon became a whole discipline, but also a philosophy on how operate a company from a safety standpoint. But what distinguished CRM, was the fact that although it had started in the cockpit, because of the understanding that many accidents happened because of pilot’s errors, it evolved first to the crew and then to the whole company.

The main reason for that evolution was recognizing that errors causing accidents were not only made by pilots and copilots. And they were not a discrete occurrence at a certain point, but a continuum that -as accidents reports showed- ran through the whole operation. They could start at any place of the value chain. An error that started as a tiny fault, let’s say in Maintenance, could grow into a catastrophe if nobody noticed. And nobody noticed. This knowledge, based on combining concepts that came from several fields, moves around two important ideas: Human Factors and Error Management. The first, related to how people interact with tools, technologies, environments and systems. The second idea has to do with studying and minimizing errors in performance, produced by perception biases.

CRM has grown. Usage is now widespread. Not only the transportation sector is using it, training people to act at all times, consciously aware of the possibility of error. Errors are still made, but sectors or companies with high operational risks (those that involve the possibility of catastrophes and death) have introduced practices that identify and minimize errors. That is, they try to manage error. Errors caused by human factors, by anyone along the value chain. Not a particular department is in charge. Whole processes, as well as reporting and internal communication practices have been changed in order to minimize risks.

Now, back to CSR. Is it possible for companies to introduce the concepts of Error and Human Factor into the whole idea of social responsibility? At least two things can be done: first, expand the concepts of error and risk. Thus, errors are not only misjudgments or improper procedures that can trigger operational disasters, but also all those that can trigger disasters related to EGS issues. Maybe a plane will not crash, but a company careless actions will have devastating effects. And that carelessness can start with a tiny mistake. The second thing a company has to do, is to create a whole set of errors that can trigger EGS disasters, upgrade policies and train people. This is a tougher and longer task.

Companies are a whole body. They are integral. Errors made at any point, can grow to become either an operational or an EGS risk. Or both. A disaster can be waiting to happen. Of any kind.

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