Over the last few months, we’ve been watching tremendously troubling images come out of BP’s Gulf oil spill. We often think that when things go wrong, they can usually be corrected, but sometimes something goes wrong and it’s just catastrophic. At the time of writing, the oil spill had recently overtaken the amount of oil released into the environment, overpassing any prior oil spill. It’s not that these oil spills are even infrequent. We hear about the Exxon Valdeze, and of course this BP spill will be remembered for decades at least. But smaller spills happen many times a year and other than local economies, most of the U.S. population doesn’t hear about it. The fact is that oil spills are not rare events as the oil companies would like us to believe.
The sad thing, is this was probably predictable. On an event by event basis, the probability of this type of outcome is very small indeed. But as you look across time and volume, if there are 25 events that can be categrized as oil spills in the U.S. every year, every few years or decades, one of them is going to be huge. Exxon and this BP one fall into those categories.
Perhaps when small things go wrong, we are correct in thinking that we can fix things. Indeed, small mistakes are easy to either fix or cover up. Impacts are limited and uually don’t spread to large populations. But when something big happens, not only is it explosive, but it’s hard to contain. In the example of the oil spill, sometimes events are predictable, and you can’t really stop the event from happening no matter what you do – at some point, there wil lbe another disaster of an oil spill in the future. But you can evaluate what the cleanup process is going to be and what disaster recovery looks like. In the case of the oil companies, it seems that hey have assumed that small events would happen periodically, but it was not worth the investment for the rare major events. In the case of BP (at the time of writing) having committed $20B to fund cleanup and other payouts, research and development of better cleanup contingencies may have been worth it. (IMO, $20B is not going to come close to what the final cost will be). I suppose when you are not only killing off wildlife, but extincting species and altering the ecosystem for decades to come, that puts things in a hole new perspective.
I remember back in Hurricane Andrew when Florida was evacuated (no, not the whole state), and ADP was literally paying people when payolls had not been submitted. Often the business was not even there anymore, but they got paid. Same thing for 9/11. Businesses were literally destroyed, never to come back and sadly many people were gone as well. Payrolls were not submitted, but people got paid.
There are similar types of employee engagement issues. Sometimes major events happen that adversely effect everyone else in the organziation – such as large layoffs or spinoffs in business. These are quite predictable as the planning probably happened in advance, but we don’t often think about the effect on other parts of the organziation and other employees.
HR is often a detailed, transactional business. We don’t often think about changes and problems on a large scale – instead relying on our ability to deal with small scale problems, we have to expect and be ready for the large scale problems that happen. I once worked with a large, global organiation that had a major project around the flu pandemic (that never happened). They were prepared not only regarding how to get people vaccinated, but also had a map of every country and how to get in touch with people, how to replace people and over the orgnaizational requirements on a short term basis. All this preparation was just for the contingency of half their population coming down with the flu. Hopefully things don’t go wrong, but when major events happen in the workforce, it brings our businesses down with it. A bit of preparation is warranted, and that does not usually mean scalability in how we treat smaller events, but a completely different approach.