BarnOwl Info Sharing Insight: Embracing Human “Be-ing” In Uncertainty, Change and Disruption with Robert Koch

November 28, 2019

BarnOwl Info Sharing session: 31 October 2019

Embracing Human “Be-ing” In Uncertainty, Change and Disruption

Presented by Robert Koch: Senior Manager: Enterprise Resilience – Eskom Holdings SOC Limited

Thank you very much Robert for your fascinating presentation at our BarnOwl info sharing event held at the BarnOwl offices in Bryanston on the 31 October 2019.


What does it feel like to be a human being in a world that is in a continual state of uncertainty, change and disruption?
We have all heard that ‘change is the new normal’. The question is do we have the tools to do something about it whether it be an acute disaster or an ongoing chronic churn in our organisation / environment?

How can we play a role in this uncertainty trapped between pessimists (where “everything is falling apart”) and eternal optimists (where “everything will be fine”):


Traditional Risk Management:

Risk: the impact of uncertainty on objectives

How do we manage risk: by identifying causes and controls

An interesting perspective on managing risk in a context that is complex:

What if we don’t have access to all the causes and what if the idea of controlling something doesn’t work in some spaces – and the most you can do is influence the outcome if you are lucky? What does this do to the level of certainty we are trying to manage?


Part 1: Two Worlds

World #1: Ordered, mechanized, causal, linear, bounded systems:


From a Western mindset we tend to see the world as ordered, deterministic, predictable – and if it’s not that, we try and get it there.

World #2: And then come along humans: variable, narrative, creative, caring, unpredictable:


Harvard Professor Michael Puett asks the question: ‘what if we look at the world as being fundamentally messy, fragmented and broken’? That this is actually how the world really is. How do we manage risk in a world that looks like this?


Robert speaks about ‘complex adaptive systems’ which present a very different world to the ordered and causal systems mentioned above. From a risk-management perspective, what is of interest is that causes are difficult to isolate in these systems – and our ability to exert control on individual components or interactions has limited (and sometimes unintended) effects on the system as a whole, due to its non-linear characteristics.


In summary the two worlds overlap and are interconnected by the human dynamic (socio):
A system that involves human beings often displays complex dynamics. These systems are all around us (i.e. socio-technical systems, socio-ecological systems, socio-economic systems, and socio-political systems) – and when these interact, the complexity we have to manage increases further.


Part 2: Resilience

The ecologist and professor Buzz Holling defines resilience as ‘the science of dealing with surprise’. How then do we build resilience in complex adaptive systems?
Robert talks about ‘specified resilience’ versus ‘general resilience’ – and how these can be addressed in socio-technical systems such as the national power system. Specified resilience addresses those interventions that can be implemented at a social and technical level, based on international standards and good practice (e.g. ISO 31000 for risk management, and ISO 22301 for Business Continuity).

General social resilience addresses human issues such as mental models, culture, and inter-relationships.


An important aspect of general resilience is how we think about ‘unexpected surprises’ and major accidents – and how we learn from these. If we approach the system from an ordered, causal perspective, we will tend to seek and assign causes such as ‘human error’.

In complex adaptive systems, accidents are better described as an ‘emergent outcome’ of various influences – including ‘human variability’ (as opposed to human error). Viewing unexpected suprises in this way allows much deeper learning in order to help us to avoid such accidents in the future.


Given that ‘cause’ is difficult to assign in a complex adaptive system, this has led some prominent accident investigators to assign the root cause as ‘management’ (in its broader sense). This is because the role of management (and supervision), is to put in place controls and to monitor feedback to continually adjust these controls.

At the time of investigating an accident, such investigations engage each ‘actor’ to find out what their area of responsibility was – and how they responded to feedback in the context at the time.


Without this type of thinking, management often imagines how they think work is done versus how it is done in reality. In learning from incidents and ‘near misses’ we should focus on understanding ‘how this incident happened’ rather than ‘why this happened and whose fault it is’.

Part 3: Be-ing

What then makes us human – and how do we engage with our human ‘be-ing’ in managing risk in a complex adaptive system? One of our limitations as human beings is that we can display a range of cognitive biases – which affect how we perceive and interpret a situation.

Several prominent studies have showed how experts tend to focus on specific information – based on their training and experience. However, in complex adaptive system it often not the ‘usual’ or the ‘average’ thing that is the cause of uncertainty and disruption. Because of the non-linear nature of these systems we need to look out for ‘outliers’ and ‘small signals’ – which could result in significant missed opportunities or threats to the organisation.

One way of extending our ability to identify patterns, outliers and small signals is to work with the stories that staff at the frontline, customers, and suppliers are telling. These stories are what Professor Brene Brown refers to as ‘warm data representing cold acts’. The ‘Human Sensor Network’ illustrated below, is a great way to extract a story both from an emotional and rational perspective. Such human sensor networks are similar to the idea of ‘the internet of things’. (The example shown is that of a study currently being undertaken by IRMSA for its annual risk report).

Sense-making in complex adaptive systems plays an important role in creating a ‘sense-of-coherence’ in organisations undergoing change and disruption. Several studies have shown that this sense-of-coherence is a differentiator in how resilient organisation are.

In addition to sense-making, ‘sense of coherence’ is built by establishing a sense of meaning, promoting a sense of ‘agency’ in individuals, and fostering ‘connectedness’ between people. This allows us to collectively respond to the ‘evolutionary potential of the present’, in an agile manner, rather than relying on detailed plans.

In summary:

The following slide summarizes attributes of complex adaptive systems and resilience thinking – specifically in relation to how we as human beings engage with uncertainty, change and disruption.


Presentation and Video links:

Please see attached presentation as well as video link for more information.

Useful and associated links: Hack Uncertainty by Simon van Wyk, Infrastructure Advisory, Aurecon by Paul van der Struys, BarnOwl business development, August 2019 The Biggest Risks Are Sometimes the Ones We Never Talk About (People risks), Presented by Miles Crisp: CEO – Tarsus Technologies Group

Thank you:

Once again thank you Robert for your time and for your informative presentation and thank you to all those who attended our info sharing session. We look forward to seeing you at our next info sharing session. Please keep a look out for our upcoming events at:

Kind regards
Jonathan Crisp
Director – BarnOwl GRC and Audit software

About Robert Koch:

Robert Koch is deeply curious about how resilience and complexity thinking can be applied to socio-technical systems.

He has extensive experience in risk management, business continuity, disaster management, major incident response, accident modeling, organizational learning, and leadership in times of crisis. He has led several national and international working groups, and won several awards for his work in the energy sector.

Robert has a master’s degree in engineering from Stellenbosch University, and currently heads up Eskom’s Enterprise Resilience function.
His passion is connecting people and ideas through art, design, and technology.

Uncertainty, change, and disruption are synonymous with the sea changes that we are experiencing In our socio-technical, socio-economic, and socio-ecological systems. The dual lenses of complexity science and resilience thinking provide us with a powerful means of making sense of these changes.

This talk will explore “the human being” in these systems; how a sense of coherence, narrative, and tools such as human sensor networks can help us to adapt and respond to the kinds of threats and opportunities that lie in the patterns, small signals, and outliers.

About BarnOwl:

BarnOwl is a fully integrated governance, risk management, compliance and audit software solution used by over 200 organisations in Africa, Australasia, Europe and the UK. BarnOwl is a locally developed software solution and is the preferred risk management solution for the South African public sector supporting the National Treasury risk framework.

Please see  for more information.