The information seeking behaviour of oil and gas industry workers in the context of health, safety and emergency response: a discussion of the value of models of information behaviour
Rita Marcella, Tracy Pirie and Hayley Rowlands
Robert Gordon University, Garthdee Road, Aberdeen, AB10 7QE
The critical nature of health and safety in the oil and gas industry continues to dominate the media, as illustrated by the high profile Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, where a subsequent investigation concluded that "BP focused too much on the little details of personal worker safety instead of the big systemic hazards that led to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill", noting in particular the "difference between worker safety and making sure the entire rig and well are safe" (The Guardian 2012). Many of the concerns noted by the panel focused on incompatible systems and poor communications creating a barrier between operator and contractor.
In 2011, a team at Aberdeen Business School conducted a research project, sponsored by AVEVA, which explored the role of information systems in enhancing health, safety and emergency (HSE) response in the oil and gas industry. This resulted in an industry report which was launched at simultaneous events in Aberdeen, UK and Houston, Texas (Marcella and Pirie 2011). Whilst the research identified interesting and useful perspectives on the role of information systems, or safety management systems in enhancing health and safety information, it also uncovered insights into the information seeking behaviour of oil and gas employees in the context of health and safety information. These insights form the focus of the present paper which seeks to consider the research findings in light of influential theoretical approaches to information seeking.
Previous research into safety management systems in the oil and gas industry has focused on the design and implementation of systems, their effectiveness and reliability, and the organizational culture necessary for such systems to have impact. There has been little research into information behaviour and use in the context of organizational information needs and the interaction between the individual and organization through these systems.
Safety management systems
The oil and gas industry employs complex and multiple systems to store, retrieve, create and communicate information relating to health and safety. As such, Reason et al. (1998) conclude that consideration should be given to the needs and capacities of end users when safety management systems processes and guidance are developed. Comprehensible and usable information communication is particularly significant in light of Reason's (1998) sentiment that a safe culture is an informed culture.
Given the challenge of operating in a dynamic and highly competitive industry, it is unsurprising that Dijkhuizen and Henriquez (2011) highlight that not every accident will be fully investigated because of a lack of time and that, therefore, organizations across the oil and gas industry should share data for subsequent analysis of direct and root causes. They suggest that a standard classification should be used to help feed analysis back into safety management and to guide priority setting. Mearns et al. (2003) also present a case for greater cross-industry collaboration between organizations and argue that the benefits of sharing information outweigh any perceived threats in being open about incidents that have occurred. They suggest that confidential reporting is the key to understanding the role of human factors in accidents. Meanwhile, Groeneweg et al. (2010) believe that investigations should explore fully the role of information as part of incidents.
Baram (2010) concludes that better analysis of information and wider collaboration is vital to improvement in health and safety performance and that the industry must create a trusting environment to build a positive safety culture rather than focusing on compliance. Understanding how individuals use and think about information in a health and safety context will aid the creation of a positive safety culture which encourages incident reporting.
Bottani et al. (2009) argue that adopters of safety management systems exhibit higher performance levels across a variety of safety indicators, suggesting that the mere fact of having a system will lead to enhanced safety. To be effective, safety management systems require input and interaction by multiple agents. Beard and Santos-Reyes (2003) identify two types of knowledge required to underpin effective systems: (i) procedures, processes and operations; and (ii) technical, human and organizational aspects. However, even those with automated safety management systems face challenges as a result of the complexity and variety of standards, organizational complexity and cumbersome documentation. Davidson et al. (2006) argue that standardising and simplifying processes and documentation would allow for better staff understanding of personal roles and responsibilities regarding health and safety.
Commentators highlight the importance of near miss reporting to identify potential risks. However, there are two areas of fallibility: the person and the system (Reason 2000) where it is possible to seek either a systemic organizational or psychological cause of failure. Reason categorises failures into two types: active failures (unsafe acts carried out by people in direct contact with the system) and latent failures (error provoking conditions, which may take a long time to emerge). Both may be dependent on access to reliable information.
Research has also been carried out into the extent to which systems can help both proactively to predict accidents and reactively to investigate their cause. In 2008 Aas created a classification framework to form the basis of a 'formal knowledge transfer system', which can also be used to predict and prevent future accidents and analyse the effectiveness of risk mitigations (Aas 2008: 275). Johnsen et al. (2010) conclude that the use of proactive risk indicators, identified through sources such as interviews, the literature and Health and Safety Executive guidelines, can make organizations more resilient. However, there is also evidence to suggest that information may exist but not be available in a usable form. Brazier and Pacitti (2008) found that poor handovers have contributed to major accidents. The face-to-face shift handover might be enhanced by creating a structured logging environment, with log books and handover reports. This allows easier sharing of information, to improve decision making and priority setting and leaves an audit trail (see also Cavaye and Poutchkovsky 2004).
Endsley (2000: 4) explores the information dimensions of situational awareness theory, arguing that
the problem with today's systems is not a lack of information, but finding what is needed when it is needed... this is because there is a huge gap between the tons of data being produced and disseminated and people's ability to find the bits that are needed and process them [in support of decision making].
Saracevic recognised this challenge which led to his theory of information consolidation (Saracevic and Wood 1981). The added dimension of the situational aspects of information need formulated by Endsley (2000: 4) emphasises the importance of systems supporting 'the operator's ability to get the needed information under dynamic operational constraints'.
The elements (Endsley 2000: 4) of situational awareness vary widely between domains but the components can be generalised as perception, comprehension, projection or prediction and temporal aspects. The first stage, perception, which is described as fundamental, refers to the perception of cues and information. Comprehension is the second stage of situation awareness which involves the combination, interpretation, storage and retention of information to derive meaning and significance in relation to goals and tasks. Stage three, projection, is the ability to forecast future situations to allow for timely decision making. Finally the temporal aspects of situation awareness are considered, as how much time is available until an event occurs will influence action to be taken, and impact on tasks and goals. The dynamic aspect of real-world situations is highlighted, with the need for situation awareness to evolve as situations change and new information is available, and which is a fundamental ability when dealing with a critical or emergency incident.
The communication of health and safety information
As staff are expected to deal with a significant amount of health and safety information in the workplace, the capacity of end-users must be considered when implementing safety management systems, and information must be displayed and communicated to them in a way which is comprehensible and usable. Fairbairn et al. (2006) describe the typical safety case as a huge document, in which information is difficult to find and extract and which often means little to the workforce. These documents also date quickly. Fairbairn et al. (2006) believe that presenting the safety case in a graphic and dynamic electronic format makes it easier to understand, allows information to be tailored to job role and responsibilities and, generally, improves communication. Similarly, Campbell et al. (2010) argue that a pictographic and standardised representation of health and safety information is better suited to its effective communication to multicultural workforces. If such visualisations are realistic they can also enhance perceptions of safety (Frohlich 2010). Dalzell (2004) also argues that staff must have access to sufficient information to do their job safely, concluding that knowledge is the greatest risk reducer.
Brazier and Sedgwick (2011) argue that over-reliance on oral communication may undermine safety as there are too many opportunities for miscommunication. They propose that communications between control rooms and senior management be improved by recording information electronically, a form also easy to use, update and search. Use of a single integrated system would also ensure that the format, structure and content of handovers are standardised, improving the safety culture and enabling the historical analysis of information.
Johnsen et al. (2008) note that collaborative digital integrated systems improve communication between onshore and offshore personnel, optimising decision making; however, companies are cautioned to be vigilant about security risks, the potential lack of shared understanding and the need for staff training in system use. Other benefits of an integrated system identified by Kubala and Carey (2002) include greater consistency of implementation and a heightened capacity to provide multilingual and multicultural information and resources.
It is widely acknowledged that information dissemination could be better designed to engage the workforce. Lopez (2012) proposes greater use of new forms of social media as an effective way of engaging and informing staff about the health and safety agenda. While Tamarra and Macwan (2012) believe that the inclusion of a daily health and safety message in the footer of every e-mail sent in an organization ensures that the health and safety culture permeates the workforce. Flin (2008) recommends storytelling as a good way of involving staff in learning about health and safety.
In terms of organizational culture and the effectiveness of safety management systems, Reiman and Rollenhagen (2011) believe that a sound safety culture requires a holistic human and system alignment; while Antonsen et al. (2007) conclude that a trusting, encouraging, participatory environment is essential, if the workforce is to make informed health and safety decisions. However, Reason et al. (2001) believe that what they call the 'vulnerable system syndrome' has three elements: blame, denial and pursuit of specific indicators, each of which may undermine the production of good and reliable intelligence. Cohan (2002) also warns of 'information myopia' as a common feature of the lead up to critical incidents, where a poor organizational culture impacts on honesty and information sharing.
Choo (2009) discusses the information barriers which prevent organizations from noting and acting upon warning signals, including: epistemic blind spots (selective use of information, use of information which confirms beliefs, reinterpretation of information to meet beliefs); risk denial (values, norms and priorities influence the use of information so that no action is taken); and structural impediments (the supply and flow of information affects the organization's ability to detect, mitigate and recover from failures).
First, in early warning, it is difficult to discern signals about a real threat from random noise. Second, even when signals are detected, policy makers have to weigh the costs and consequences of possible false alarms and misses in deciding whether to [move to] active warning. (Choo 2009: 1071).
Choo also notes that information is rarely complete or conclusive and difficult decisions remain, reinforcing the need for an open and honest reporting culture to maximise the value of workforce intelligence.
Mearns and Yule (2009) find management commitment to safety a critical factor in influencing levels of safety behaviour, in contrast with the widely held view that frontline staff need to take more responsibility for safety (Marcella and Pirie 2011). To reduce disparity between management and workforce perceptions of health and safety effectiveness, Hovden et al. (2008) recommend the involvement of safety representatives in gathering employee opinions and assessments.
Digital systems are today considered essential for effective operation in offshore or any remote operating environment (Maher et al. 2011). Haight (2006), however, concludes that a balance is needed between human and system capacity to maximise a safe culture; while Moulton and Forrest (2005) suggest that automation can lead to 'out-of-loop' syndrome where the workforce becomes detached from the process and more experienced staff are discouraged from passing on tacit knowledge to those less experienced. Folb et al. (2010) caution that, as in other domains, the effectiveness of health and safety information systems is undermined by time constraints leading inevitably to the phenomenon of satisficing, described as "accepting less than full information as adequate" (Folb et al. 2010: 6).
Models of information seeking behaviour
As illustrated by the literature presented above, much of the research regarding health and safety information has focused on systems, processes and organizational context, with little focus on the role of the individual and their information seeking behaviour. The present paper attempts to place health and safety information in a theoretical context by considering data on information behaviour collected from a practical study, designed to feed back into industry practice, in terms of their relevance to models of information seeking behaviour. Relating practice to theory in this way will help us to explore the contribution such models can make to develop an understanding of the information practices demonstrated in the earlier study.
Four models of information seeking behaviour will be considered: Kuhlthau (1991); Leckie, Pettigrew and Sylvain (1996); Ellis and Haugan (1997) and Wilson (1996). Case (2006: 120) states 'theories and models are simplified versions of reality, yet models typically make their content more concrete through a diagram of some sort.a model describes a relationship among concepts but is tied more closely to the real world'. This relationship with the real world is a major attraction in using models to understand the information seeking behaviour of oil and gas employees in relation to health and safety information. This study was carried out with participation from health and safety managers, senior managers and engineers currently working in the oil and gas industry.
Kuhlthau's information search process
Kuhlthau (1991) sets out a general model from the user's perspective of an information search process which considers not only information actions and tasks, but also the affective dimension in the feelings and thoughts that individuals experience during this process. She describes her model as "the user's constructive activity of finding meaning from information in order to extend his or her state of knowledge on a particular problem or topic" (Kuhlthau 1991: 361).
There are six stages to the information search process; initiation (an awareness of lack of knowledge or understanding, recognising the need for information); selection (identification and selection of a general topic or approach); exploration (finding information on a general topic to extend individual understanding); formulation (forming a focus for the search through information found in exploration); collection (gathering of information related to the focused topic); and presentation (completing the search and preparing to present or otherwise use the information collected).
Ellis and Haugan's general behavioural model of information seeking patterns
Ellis and Haugan (1997) carried out research into the information seeking patterns of research workers in an oil and gas company in the context of their 'general behavioural model [which] can be considered to be quite robust in relation to the information seeking patterns of scientists, engineers and social scientists in both academic and an industrial research environment' (1997: 402).
Eight activities are identified, but no sequence is given in which these occur. Surveying is the process of gathering an overview of literature within a new subject, or identifying key people in the field as potential sources of information by speaking to colleagues, consulting internal documents, etc. Chaining is following the connections or references between sources of information to identify new sources, again through literature or personal contacts. Monitoring involves maintaining an awareness of developments formally or informally. Browsing involves casually consulting primary and secondary sources. Distinguishing also happens between sources to identify the information best suited to the individual information need, whilst considering available time and the extent of the information need. Filtering is using specific criteria or mechanisms which ensure information is relevant and precise, whilst extracting is working through these sources to identify material of interest to the searcher. Finally ending involves checking sources for new information since the search was begun, and clarifying any queries or questions.
Leckie, Pettigrew and Sylvain's information seeking behaviour of professionals
Leckie et al. propose a general model of the information seeking behaviour of professionals (e.g. doctors, lawyers, engineers), recognising that each will encounter a variety of work related information needs and arguing that,
while it is true that the provision of various types of service or expertise to their clients is the overarching activity that links all professionals, they work within specific environments that differ greatly in organizational structure, mission, goals and social culture. (1996: 178).
There are six components in this model:
Work roles and associated tasks: professional life is complicated and various roles are assumed in day-to-day work. Specific tasks are associated with each of these roles which influence the context of an information need.
Characteristics of information need: roles and tasks are influenced by factors such as searcher demographics and the context, frequency, importance and complexity of the search.
Awareness: the searcher's level of awareness of sources and/or content influences information seeking behaviour, as does familiarity with sources, trustworthiness, packaging, cost, quality and accessibility.
Sources: sources of information in professional contexts are varied and can include colleagues, librarians, handbooks, journals and personal knowledge and experience. They may be formal or informal, internal or external and oral or written sources.
Outcomes: the outcomes of information seeking behaviour ideally are that the information need is met and the instigating task is accomplished. If not, further information seeking behaviour can take place to satisfy the information need.
Wilson's global model of information behaviour
To fully understand Wilson's (1996) global model of information behaviour, his earlier (Wilson 1981) model must first be explored. The 1981 model was an outline of areas associated with information seeking behaviour, emanating from a perceived need by an information user. To satisfy the need, formal or informal information sources are consulted, leading to either success or failure in finding relevant information. If successful, the information found will be used to satisfy the user's need; if unsuccessful, then the search process will begin again.
Wilson later revised this model, drawing on research from fields other than information science, such as decision making, psychology and consumer research (Wilson 1996). The later model describes a cyclical process which begins with the person in context, followed by the context of the information need. An activating mechanism instigates the need for information, and intervening variables influence the line of information behaviour taken by the individual. Another activating mechanism dictates the need to find information and then information seeking behaviour occurs. Wilson proposes four categories of information seeking behaviour: passive attention, passive search, active search, and ongoing search. Information found is then processed and used, or deemed unsuitable to fulfil the information need and the information seeking process starts again.
The Wilson model synthesises the recognition of contextual and individual factors which impact on the information seeking process, whilst acknowledging the significance of volition on the part of the searcher.
In 2008, Wilson commented on the growing disconnection between research by practitioners (to improve practice) and academic research (grounded on theory), commenting that the
consequence of a disconnection between practice and academe is the danger that the division may become so complete that both sets of players simply ignore what is happening in the other 'world'...some may believe that the position has already been reached that professional education and research are irrelevant to practice (Wilson 2008: 462).
Wilson suggests that action research should be applied to future research into information seeking behaviour to help bridge this gap. Whilst the project from which this paper draws its data was not designed as an action research project, the data gathered draws from the real life experiences of practitioners. In particular the critical incident case approach used in the interviews allows the researcher to explore the behaviour of practitioners in an information seeking activity with minimal prompting and a focus on what actually happened.
The aim of the current paper is to explore data from commissioned research into the role of information systems in the management of health and safety in the oil and gas industry, to consider the extent to which these data can be explained by existing models of information behaviour and to identify any emerging findings which add to our theoretical perspectives on information behaviour.
The research project was conducted in two stages, in a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches: an online survey and in-depth interviews using critical incidents as a focus in four case-study companies.
The research team were part of Aberdeen Business School at Robert Gordon University, with expertise in information management and information behaviour. This influenced the design of the survey and, although the focus was on information systems, ensured that theoretical perspectives on information seeking behaviour were considered in design of the instruments. All survey questions and interview schedules were designed in consultation with the commissioning company AVEVA, to reflect industry perspectives, and each part of the study was piloted at an appropriate stage with industry representatives. The interview schedule was piloted internally amongst AVEVA personnel, which led to a diverse array of individuals contributing to the design of the research instrument. On reflection whilst the process of collaborative research design can be challenging, with industry-led research focusing on broad lessons and academic research focusing on what may be perceived as small detail, a collaborative approach was felt to be an effective exercise in ensuring the research instrument was well designed. In the authors' experience the outcomes from a robustly designed instrument have been positive, ensuring effective output for both parties.
The online survey was conducted between April and May 2011 using Survey Monkey (survey questions are provided in Appendix 1). Participants were invited to complete the online survey by e-mail, which was distributed to organizational industry contacts and the LinkedIn 'Oil and Gas Professionals' group. Participation was also promoted through press releases. There were 374 responses to the online survey from operating companies, contractors, service companies and suppliers. Respondents tended to be health and safety managers, senior managers and engineers. Over 72% of participants described themselves as able to exert major influence on health and safety decision making and direction, indicating a relatively senior level of respondents. Responding companies operated worldwide, with only 29% focused on the UK Continental Shelf.
In the second stage of the research, four companies were enlisted to participate in in-depth follow-up interviews: these were an operator, a contractor, a manufacturer and a logistics company (interview questions are provided in Appendix 2). Participating companies were identified through industry contacts, LinkedIn and from the survey. A single critical incident to be discussed was identified by the companies before interviewing began, and all incidents chosen were unexpected and unpredictable. The incidents selected were regarded as sufficiently substantial to have potentially caused a detrimental impact on the organization, but were not of such stature as to jeopardise company anonymity. The duration of incidents ranged from a week to years, and interviewees were key individuals instrumental in dealing with the incidents and able to comment critically on the impact information behaviour had had on their company's capacity to respond.
Interviews were carried out face-to-face or by telephone and lasted between forty minutes and two hours. All interviews were recorded with oral permission by interview respondents. The interview schedule was long and covered lots of eventualities; therefore, some questions were superfluous and truncated, were not needed, or further probing was required depending on the circumstance and receptiveness of the interviewee. The interviews were subsequently transcribed verbatim and recurring themes were coded by the research team, in an iterative process. Subsequent further analysis for the present paper has been informed by the models of information behaviour discussed above.
Interviews were carried out with eleven individuals encouraging reflection on the critical incident identified. Interviewees held a variety of roles in relation to these, including investigator, supervisor, lead response, project manager, team leader, safety advisor, duty manager, data analyst and participant. The research team sought participation from a variety of organizational levels to reflect the differing perspectives within an emergency response team dealing with a critical incident.
The critical incident case study technique was chosen for the interviews, as this allows a storytelling approach, with interview participants telling the research team about an incident in their own words. The critical incident technique is an approach first proposed by Flanagan (1954) and subsequently found valuable as part of behavioural research in relation to information behaviour (see, for example, Sonnenwald et al. 2001 and Urquhart et al. 2003). The critical incident formed the early focus of the interview, followed by questions about safety information in the second half. This avoided dictating which topics should be discussed during the critical incident part of the interview, gave focus to the interview for participants, encouraged free and open discourse on a familiar topic, and enhanced analysis of the key themes. On reflection, the research team believe this to be a sound approach to the research project and believe the results of this study reinforce the value of critical incidents as a focus for storytelling and narrative enquiry in future information behaviour research. It enables participants to describe in real life terms episodes of information behaviour where participants may have little understanding of (or interest in) the information domain on a more conceptual level.
To understand the data from the research project better, in the context of information seeking behaviour, the components of the models were categorised into three general themes: pre-search, searching, and information use and application.
|Information behaviour model||Pre-search||Searching||Information use and application|
|Kuhlthau (1991)||Initiation, selection, exploration and formulation||Collection||Presentation|
Leckie, Pettigrew and Sylvain (1996)
|Work role and associated tasks, characteristics of information need||Awareness and sources||Outcomes|
|Ellis and Haugan (1997)||Surveying||Chaining, monitoring, browsing, distinguishing and filtering||Extracting and ending|
|Wilson (1996)||Person in context, context of information need and activating mechanism||Intervening variables, activating mechanism and information seeking behaviour||Information processing and use|
The discussion which follows presents the results of the commissioned research in three broad sections:
- in terms of what the results of the research tell us about information behaviour in relation to systems, the company context and the individual;
- in terms of what the results of the interviews tell us about individual information behaviour (pre-searching, searching and information use); and
- a discussion of the applicability of the information behaviour models to the observed information seeking environment.
Safety management systems provide the core for managing the metrics applied by companies to safety, with 92% of questionnaire respondents reporting their company had an information system to support health and safety. However, despite the widespread use of safety management systems throughout the responding companies, over a quarter of respondents felt there were difficulties in accessing information to help them operate safely; almost 30% of respondents felt there were deficiencies in the reporting of and provision of health and safety information; and over 35% were aware of instances where they or colleagues had not recorded information about near misses. Paradoxically, while respondents were confident they were sharing information with others, 24% felt that relevant information was not being shared with them and over 45% reported instances where information was not shared with other parties.
Tools being developed to improve safety information included developing dynamic forms of safety communications (for example, toolbox talks, e-mails and notice boards), improving company handbooks, increased training, increased emphasis on competency assessment and strengthening safety leadership.
All companies had incident recording and reporting systems although concerns were expressed about the communication of safety lessons in a comprehensible and dynamic manner. The methods most commonly used to provide employees with health and safety information were safety bulletins, safety meetings, newsletters, site walk-arounds by management, verbal direction, toolbox talks, seminars, company handbooks, e-mail, company intranets, training packages, management systems and notice boards.
Interviewees were comfortable they had process safety information to support organizational metrics, and that this information was current and robust. There were issues, however, as to whether the correct types of information were being recorded.
A complex array of information sources is used to carry out roles safely including: company intranets, intranet gateways to external resources, the UK Health and Safety Executive Website, Institution of Occupational Safety and Health materials, competitor Websites, customer guidelines, trade documents, government Websites and documents, information related to external audits, information shared with companies and competitors, management meetings, company health and safety reports, statistical reports from external agencies, integrated management systems, oral briefings from health, safety and environment teams, maintenance management systems, incident recording systems, accounting systems and verbal communication with key individuals.
Interviewees reported that the majority of information required was available through a company database, although it was recognised that third party information was integrated on an ad-hoc basis, explaining the previously reported uncertainty around the reliability of some information.
Many thought an integrated system collocating the variety of sources, systems and data, would be desirable, if challenging to produce. Integration would enhance consistency of information provision, reduce reliance on cascade procedures and ensure updated information is available in one location. However some respondents noted breakdowns in communication channels closer to the front line, as, for example, when information is communicated verbally at potentially weak points such as shift handover.
The ease with which respondents can communicate with the systems or people that could help respond to an incident varied. Some found internal communication to be easier than external; in one case all communications were mediated through a third party. Other agendas may come into play, as a result of concerns around liability, competitive advantage, market impact and reputation, and these tend to be heightened in critical incident situations. Some interviewees reported a reluctance to share information. Such caution may impede an organization's ability to respond to the incident in the quickest and most effective manner, encourage duplication of effort, result in differing conclusions being drawn and lead to confusion about responsibilities.
Research participants acknowledged that information gaps existed during a critical incident, which were sometimes unpredictable and inevitable. It was however felt that such gaps placed additional pressure on staff not just at the outset of an incident but throughout its duration, as ill-informed early decisions affected everything that followed. This is in line with Endsley's (2000: 5) theory of situation awareness, which states the perception of cues is fundamental as 'the odds of forming an incorrect picture of the situation increase dramatically' if cues are missed.
While much might be done to enhance information dissemination to staff to support ongoing safety performance, it is particularly important that critical incident information handling procedures be drawn up, given the heightened importance of getting the right information quickly to the right people, to minimise collateral damage. All of the pressures of everyday information handling are exacerbated when dealing with a potentially catastrophic incident, yet individuals rely, arguably to an even greater extent, on sources that are trusted, familiar and physically accessible.
Whilst safety management systems have improved communications across the oil and gas industry and its supply chain, respondents continue to report barriers to open communication and transparent reporting of the causes of incidents, undermining the potential of such shared systems to aid in the identification of performance indicators which robustly assess safety performance and ensure that lessons are being learned from incidents and near misses.
The company context
Safety management systems are used by the oil and gas industry to monitor safety performance and improvements in safety, as well as to raise safety awareness generally and encourage a positive safety culture. Drivers include changes in regulation and legislation, customer demands, changes in industry perceptions, increased focus on procedural compliance and increased media coverage of high profile industry incidents. Respondents sought to foster better personal attitudes and individual safety behaviour, as well as encouraging personal responsibility for safety.
It was felt by companies involved in the research that they provided a good level of structured guidance and training for employees on accessing or searching for information. This was done through the use of staff handbooks and training programmes. There was, however, evidence of confusion amongst respondents relating to the myriad of regulatory standards and compliance regimes in which they operated. Equally an individual might have to deal with a variety of differing client expectations. Respondents noted particular challenges in dealing with environmental regulations.
The industry as a whole also faces the twin challenge of an often highly experienced workforce, with very fixed views; in contrast to new entrants with new ideas but little real life experience. This tension is felt to impact on the success of safety enhancement initiatives to encourage behavioural change.
The information user
Respondents reported that the diverse workforce, in age range, experience, culture and literacy levels, reduced the effectiveness of training packages which tended to be designed for office-based staff or new employees.
Just over half of respondents reported a need for better systems to record audit improvements and over 40% of respondents reported a need to improve the quality of safety information available. Clearer information was required about fundamentals, such as what procedures should be followed if an incident occurs. Respondents felt that company handbooks could be improved by clearly highlighting the most reliable indicators of heightened risk. Respondents also reiterated the need for more user friendly health and safety information systems, greater pictorial representation of information, and improved offsite access to systems. More generally, there were calls for an overall simplification of documentation.
To overcome these issues respondents felt that employees should have a more proactive role in determining the information which could highlight potential risks and in identifying the information required in the event of an emergency or when dealing with a health and safety incident. Although challenging, such user consultation at the design stage will inevitably result in better designed information systems.
Critical incidents are dynamic high pressure situations, when a variety of information is required from multiple sources to enhance situation awareness and make decisions quickly; information needs can change and develop as the incident unfolds. Delays in sourcing information can potentially escalate the incident but also heighten risks for others involved. Overall, interviewees highlighted the need for information to be readily available in one physical/virtual location when dealing with an incident, so the whole emergency response team has access to information relevant to where the incident was occurring.
Time was identified as a significantly influential factor when dealing with an incident as decisions often need to be made instantaneously or conversely be made over a period of months, depending on the nature of the incident. It was felt where time is a critical factor there is a greater chance of full data not being resourced to make a decision, again aligning with situation awareness theory.
The variety of types of information required when responding to a critical incident might include: information from people involved in the incident, the location of the incident, what machinery, equipment or chemicals were involved, customer, contractor and supplier information and policies, company data about the specific job, data recorded on machinery or equipment, incident statements, third party assessments of products and equipment as well as the location of affected equipment, where employees and contractors were located at the time of the incident, information about how the company wishes to proceed, information on the logistics of moving employees, the current state of operations and occupational health advice. There was also a need to verify the validity of information accessed during a critical incident.
While 80% of questionnaire respondents felt the systems they used supported them in assessing and improving safety, more than 30% had never received training on how to access the information they needed to operate safely. Sources used by employees for safety information include team meetings, informal networks and external experts. There was also a tendency to surf the Internet in the hope of finding relevant and reliable information. When dealing with a critical incident, interviewees were guided in finding the information they required by: training in dealing with specific situations; seeking guidance from senior managers; approaching trade bodies; and generic searching on the Internet. When working as a team during a critical incident, employees liaised and shared information via telephone, e-mail, video conferencing or face to face meetings.
In all of the critical incidents, respondents reported having to consult external sources of information, including third party transport agencies, vendors, the emergency services, customers and suppliers, environmental agencies, trade bodies, standards agencies, government bodies, contractors, logistics experts and offshore installations. The usefulness of these sources was determined by experience, industry codes and company procedures or driven by the nature of the incident. A number also reported relying on 'gut instinct'.
Some interviewees had been guided by senior management to external sources of information, and team and management discussions would take place concerning the trustworthiness of external sources, which are more likely to be subjected to some form of verification. Interviewees regarded internal information as more likely to have been previously subject to quality assurance. Others noted that they had no way of assuring themselves that the information they were using was fit for purpose. Where people were aware of uncertainty over the status of information they tended to escalate concerns about data reliability to senior management teams flagging its questionable status and seeking advice.
It is interesting to note the high level of trust demonstrated in, and lack of verification of, internal information sources in light of the evidence of the survey that respondents tend to be aware of misreporting of data in internal systems.
Despite awareness of gaps in the sharing of knowledge, respondents reported feeling pressurised and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information, frequently duplicated or contradictory, with which they must seek to engage. This is exemplified in the number of standards with which they must comply. This increase in pressure and feeling of being overwhelmed can lead to important information being missed or incorrectly prioritised, reducing situation awareness. The scale of information available may not only undermine an individual's capacity to process but also induce complacency, leading to valuable sources being ignored.
Respondents measured the trustworthiness of the information available on the basis of somewhat subjective criteria such as character judgement when receiving verbal accounts from employees, appraisal of the track record of companies with whom they were dealing, the interviewee's personal interpretation of the data, value judgements as to the reputation of external agencies such as environmental bodies, and whether or not the interviewee regarded the information as 'just a fact'. Interviewees also reported issues with inaccurate manufacturer's data and paperwork, fragmentary information from third parties and poor quality information provided by suppliers. In terms of determining whether information was trustworthy, interviewees confirmed the preference for internal sources.
Frequently, the validity of information used in decision making was only tested after its use and indeed after the incident was over. Respondents tended to focus on the immediate information required to take the next steps rather than the information which would enable them to form a longer term view.
There were perceived information barriers regarding the nature of information, including the effective translation of information for foreign workers, the development of media to make instruction more visually explicit, the introduction of explicit procedures for how to access, process and apply information in work roles and a need to trend health and safety issues more effectively. It was also felt that disparate systems and a lack of resources to deal with health and safety information helped to create information barriers.
Where gaps in information existed they often related to: information not being available on what corrective actions were expected of an organization in the early stages of an incident; logistical information; and information on how the incident would affect key equipment. It was also suggested that where information is changed in daily operations these are not always propagated to associated references, exacerbating the potential for error during an incident. For some incidents there was felt to be a need for all information that might be required to be available in a single widely accessible digital form.
In some cases during a critical incident interviewees reported they had no access to information which would have aided them to assess the impact of their decisions. For others the systems in place did not allow for the creation of reliable statistical models to support their decision making. In some cases there were issues with accessibility of required information which resulted in delays in first step responses to an incident, and others identified a challenge accessing the highly specialist information sought.
As with most information behaviour, individuals tend to place great trust in informal sources, such as peers, and the ubiquitous recourse of surfing the Internet. With information being sought and disseminated through numerous channels and by a variety of means, a great concern for health and safety managers is that messages are not always being received, internalised and operated upon, but rather getting lost in the white noise. This lack of comprehension may have negative consequences on the ability to derive meaning and significance from information, therefore reducing situation awareness and increasing the risk of incidents occurring.
Conclusions: the applicability of information models to the research findings
In data collected from a real world complex business environment, the stages identified in the information seeking behaviour models can be observed throughout. However, the reality of an information seeking episode such as those illustrated in the critical incidents on which the current study draws, is that the stages merge and overlap as information of multiple types is required at different points in a process which is non-linear and where strands overlap and interact. The situation may involve multiple players and systems and can become chaotic as a result of time and other pressures.
Situation awareness has become an important conceptual part of the process of system design for particular operator fields of engagement such as air flight: however, it can be readily seen how such an approach would have value for the design of health, safety and emergency response information systems. The authors have not found evidence of such use to date, but future research might valuably explore the identification of data, with user consultation, which would best enhance situation awareness. It would also be valuable to explore the role of systems in effective communication during emergency response, and how data may be best aggregated for team access to support situation awareness throughout the critical incident.
Kuhlthau (1991) presents broad categories of stages in information seeking behaviour all of which are relevant to the current study, but more significantly for the current research her observations on the influence of feelings and emotions on information behaviour are confirmed in the present study. Respondents reported feelings of frustration and being overwhelmed as a result of the information gaps and barriers they encountered, while feeling under intense pressure as a result of the time constraints in which they operated. Respondents noted uncertainty, anxiety and confusion in describing their experience of critical incidents. They relied on 'gut instinct', experience and familiar and trusted resources very readily in circumstances where the use of invalid information might impact on the outcomes of a catastrophic event. Perhaps the focus on critical incidents heightens the significance of the affective: however the present authors would argue that the affective domain is always relevant to a degree.
Ellis and Haugan (1997) give no sequence to the stages of their information model, and focus on the variety of actions which comprise information seeking behaviour. The present study highlights this complex process of information seeking and use in a real life situation, and indicates that information seeking does not happen in a systematic manner, especially when dealing with an emergency situation. Information may be subject to other constraints, such as physical location and time, which impact fundamentally on an abstract conceptualisation of the information search process.
Leckie et al. (1996) provide a model in a work related context, and highlight the differences between individual organizations and the effect this can have on information behaviour. The data presented here confirms this finding as the systems and procedures organizations have in place can influence the information seeking of their employees. Another dimension of the organizational context is the company's culture and bigger picture agenda, where, while the rhetoric may be about openness and sharing, in actuality there is active constraint on information sharing, and this constraint is likely to be more rigorously enforced in a critical situation.
Wilson (1996) also considers the 'person in context' and the intervening variables which can influence information behaviour. This is manifested in the time constraints placed on an information need, especially when dealing with an emergency situation, but also by the external pressures from other organizations and channels of communication between concerned parties. This notion of the individual actor as part of a complex team of players comes across very strongly in the current research. Also significant from the Wilson model (1996) in the context of the current research is the distinction between the passive and active searcher. In the current research much of the organizational strategy in design of safety systems is fuelled by a view of a company seeking to engage with a passive recipient of information, rather than seeing the user as an active information searcher. This is a fundamental flaw in existing system design evidenced by the present study.
What is also evidenced by the present research is that the real world information seeking environment is a complex, fluid and rapidly changing environment and to seek to distil this world into a one-dimensional model may be unhelpful. Whilst researchers such as Leckie et al. (1996) and Wilson (1996) have sought to convey complexity, it remains a challenge to fully represent the real world environment in a model which allows for comparison and contrast and, therefore, deeper understanding of information behaviour. There are hypothetically limitless variables which can and do influence information behaviour which must be understood, and both these models go some of the way towards achieving this. It may be interesting for future research to consider alternative scientific approaches to modelling which are capable of illustrating complexity in a dynamic way. A major benefit of creating a model is that in its generation, the researcher must provide routes through complexity and codify our sense of the limitless in a meaningful way.
Another level of complexity that is demonstrated in the present research is that of the actor dealing with multiple simultaneous information needs; an emergency response team may have several issues with which to deal, all of which require different types of information from different sources, with varying impacts on the incident outcome. Calls for integrated systems and clearly presented information reflect how complex a task this can be. In a world of uncertainty, as is characteristic of a critical incident, users look for certainty and clarity, indeed that is arguably one of the chief motivators in any information seeking situation. One of the most interesting findings of the current research is the lack of verification, analysis or filtering that takes place and the degree of subjectivity that was observed amongst respondents. Information behaviour models are, to an extent, rooted in a rationalist view of the world, while the study provides evidence that intuition rather than analysis may be a relatively common mode of dealing with complexity.
Information behaviour models are highly useful devices to assist researchers in conceptualising our understanding of information behaviour. We believe that an understanding of these models helps in the design of effective research whether for a real life practical purpose or in more abstract conceptualisation. While the industries commissioning research may desire a more pragmatic outcome, without a deep understanding of the theoretical base upon which they can draw, those carrying out the research will merely skim the surface in their research and are highly unlikely to add to knowledge in any significant way. The latter is surely the aim of all serious researchers. The experience of undertaking the research described in this paper has indicated that it is possible to design research which not only satisfies industry needs in a way that can be understood and applied, but also to draw deeper learning from the findings.
While industry-led research may be focused on the headlines and broad lessons to be drawn, inevitably the academic researcher is more interested in what may seem the small detail. The authors believe that the most significant findings in their research relate to the information challenges, barriers and gaps and their impact on effective and open information sharing within companies and across the industry and on the capacity of that industry to operate safely and deal with emergencies. The industry audience however was interested in the next big idea: sometimes it is the nexus between these two expectations where the next big idea actually evolves.
The authors would like to thank AVEVA for sponsoring the research project. Thank you to the referees and copy-editor (Jo Elliot) for assisting with the publication of this article. A special thank you our colleague Graeme Baxter for his assitance with the project.
About the authors
Rita Marcella is Dean of Faculty at Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University. Her research interests include: the provision of, need for, and use of government, parliamentary and citizenship information; Internet use by political parties and electoral candidates; freedom of information; business information provision; information behavior and information systems in health and safety management. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tracy Pirie is a lecturer in the Department of Communication, Marketing and Media, Aberdeen Business School. She was previously a Research Assistant for the same department, and can be contacted at email@example.com
Hayley Rowlands is a research assistant at Aberdeen Business School, where she has worked on several projects relating to the oil and gas industry. She holds a degree in Historical Studies from The University of Glasgow and an MSc in Information and Library Studies. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org