On the writing styles of some resilience engineering researchers

This post is a brief meditation in the writing styles of four luminaries in the field of resilience engineering: Drs. Erik Hollnagel, David Woods, Sidney Dekker, and Richard Cook.

This post was inspired by a conversation I had with my colleague J. Paul Reed. You can find links to papers by these authors at resiliencepapers.club.

Erik Hollnagel – the framework builder

Hollnagel often writes about frameworks or models. A framework is the sort of thing that you would illustrate with a box and arrow diagram, or a table with two or three columns. Here are some examples of Hollnagellian frameworks:

  • Safety-I vs. Safety-II
  • Functional Resonance Analysis Method (FRAM)
  • Resilience Analysis Grid (RAG)
  • Contextual Control Model (COCOM)
  • Cognitive Reliability and Error Analysis Method (CREAM)

Of the four researchers, Hollnagel’s writings read the most like traditional academic writing. Even his book Joint Cognitive Systems: Foundations of Cognitive Systems Engineering feels like something out of an academic journal. Of the four authors, he is the one I struggle the most with to gain insight from. Ironically, one of my favorite concepts I learned from him, the ETTO principle, is presented more as a pattern in the style of Woods, as described below.

David Woods – the pattern oracle

I believe that a primary goal of academic research is to identify patterns in the world that had not been recognized before. By this measure, David Woods is the most productive researcher I have encountered, in any field! Again and again, Woods identifies patterns inherent in the nature of how humans work and interact with technology, by looking across an extremely broad range of human activity, from power plant controllers to astronauts to medical doctors. Gaining insight from his work is like discovering there’s a white arrow in the FedEx logo: you never imagined it was before it was pointed out, and now that you know it’s impossible not to see.

These patterns are necessarily high-level, and Woods invents new vocabulary out of whole cloth to capture these new concepts. His writing contains terms like anomaly response, joint cognitive systems, graceful extensibility, units of adaptive behavior, net adaptive value, crunches, competence envelopes, dynamic fault management, adaptive stalls, and veils of fluency.

In Woods’s writing, he often introduces or references many new concepts, and writes about how they interact with each other. This style of writing tends to be very abstract. I’ve found that if I can map the concepts back into my own experiences in the software world, then I’m able to internalize them and they become powerful tools in my conceptual toolbox. But if I can’t make the connection, then I find it hard to find a handhold in scaling his writing. It wasn’t until I watched his video lectures, where he discussed many concrete examples, that I was able to really to understand many of his concepts.

Sidney Dekker – the public intellectual

Of the four researchers, Dekker produces the most amount of work written for a lay audience. My entrance into the world of resilience engineering was through his book Drift into Failure. Dekker’s writings in these books tend toward the philosophical, but they don’t read like academic philosophy papers. Rather, it’s more of the “big idea” kind of writing, similar in spirit (although not in tone) to the kinds of books that Nassim Taleb writes. In that sense, Dekker’s writing can go even broader than Woods’s, as Dekker muses on the perception of reality. He is the only one I can imagine writing books with titles such as Just Culture, The Safety Anarchist, or The End of Heaven.

Dekker often writes about how different worldviews shape our understanding of safety. For example, one of his more well-known papers contrasts “new” and “old” views on the nature of human error. In Drift Into Failure, he write about the Newtonian-Cartesian worldview and contrast it with a systems perspective. But he doesn’t present these worldviews as frameworks in the way that Hollnagel would. They are less structured, more qualitatively elaborated.

I’m a fan of the “big idea” style of non-fiction writing, and I was enormously influenced by Drift into Failure, which I found extremely readable. However, I’m particularly receptive to this style of writing, and most of my colleagues tend to prefer his Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’, which is more practical.

Richard Cook – the raconteur

Cook’s most famous paper is likely How Complex Systems Fail, but that style of writing isn’t what comes to mind when I think of Cook (that paper is more of a Woods-ian identification of patterns).

Cook is the anti-Hollnagel: where Hollnagel constructs general frameworks, Cook elaborates the details of specific cases. He’s a storyteller, who is able to use stories to teach the reader about larger truths.

Many of Cook’s papers examine work in the domain of medicine. Because Cook has a medical background (he was a practicing anesthesiologist before he was a researcher), he has deep knowledge of that domain and is able to use it to great effect in his analysis on the interactions between humans, technology, and work. A great example of this is how his paper on the allocation of ICU beds in Being Bumpable. His Re-Deploy talk entitled The Resilience of Bone and Resilience Engineering is another example of leveraging the details of a specific case to illustrate broader concepts.

Of the four authors, I think that Cook is the one who is most effective at using specific cases to explain complex concepts. He functions almost as interpreter for grounding Woods-ian concepts in concrete practice. It’s a style of writing that I aspire to. After all, there’s no more effective way to communicate than to tell a good story.

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