Learning that can save lives

This report by Lianna Roast from the Disaster Management Centre at Bournemouth University looks at how lessons from major incidents can be translated in to real-world change and asks how human psychology can best support our society to ensure lessons from past events are learnt.

Albert Einstein is reportedly (although mistakenly) supposed to have said that: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’ While this is a recognised human failing, there is human strength in that more often than not we do manage to learn from past failures or omissions to improve the future.

Learning lessons comes with experience, awareness, agility and insight. Yet, there is a world a difference between identifying lessons (hindsight) and applying them (foresight). Translating lessons though a learning process into meaningful actions is sometimes hard and painful, and often requires adaptation, imagination and transformation.

This report, supported by its original study, offers insights on the lessons learned process. It comes at an important time when we are facing great challenges that have no easy answers but do require wisdom and sound judgement from leaders in both politics and business who can apply lessons from the past. History is never repeated absolutely and trends can sometimes be deceptive but the report offers pointers on how to apply lessons learnt. We need the tools to help guide us and this report provides some indicators upon which we can build and act.

The UK needs new thinking when it comes to identifying lessons: if we keep using the same methods and the same people, we will keep getting the same lessons. A decision needs to be made on where learning sits nationally and within each organisation.

Key points from the report are:

  • Clearly defined roles, responsibilities and lines of accountability for identifying lessons, implementing active processes and achieving learning outcomes should be evident at every level to drive required changes following a major incident.
  • Lesson identification should draw on the widest possible experience and welcome diverse, critical perspectives from within and beyond the individual organisation to counter parochial practice and mindsets.
  • The ‘lessons learned’ process should be inclusive and authentic, reaching beyond those managing the process to ground learning in lived experience and ensure the feasibility and acceptability of proposed changes amongst frontline workers.
  • Employing evidence-based tools and techniques that help learning ‘stick’ and promote frequent, collaborative learning – through, for example, regular testing and exercising – is essential to embed changes in future practice.

The government’s Integrated Review calls for a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to building better resilience. This will need an ‘all-in’ learning strategy that applies across and within civil-military domains, public-private sectors and central-devolved governments.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Lord Toby Harris, Chair of the National Preparedness Commission, said: “Too often, after any disaster or crisis we hear the promise ‘Lessons will be learned’.  However, that is sometimes as far as it goes.  The UK needs new thinking when it comes to identifying lessons: if we keep using the same methods and the same people, we’ll keep getting the same lessons.”

A full version of the report can be accessed here.