The benefit of serendipity

Serendipity is a great word. Although it is not an onomatopoeia, to me the word itself sounds like a lucky accident. Although I said it is a great word, I have only used it once before in these articles, last October. Yet, I can think of many instances that can be described as serendipitous. A mundane occurrence of serendipity occurs frequently in my TV viewing. The weekend papers come with a TV guide for the week. I will peruse the guide and identify programmes that may be of interest. The ones I definitely want to see I will set to record. Others I will make a mental note of and I may or may not remember to watch. Yet, despite this rough planning, I get to watch some of the most informative programmes by accident.

When the children were little this was not that surprising. Getting up at 5 am, I would see programmes that were not in the normal viewing time frame. There was a series where a broad Yorkshire management consultant went into companies and helped to improve them, mainly by engaging the shop floor staff to make suggestions. I still vividly remember one particular scene where the managing director nullified all the hard work and totally demotivated the staff by asking one scathing question. Even though I was watching through a TV set, I actually felt the deflation in the staff.

Another example of an early morning reward was an animated children’s programme that explained the workings of the various organs in the body. Those of a certain age may remember ‘The Numskulls’ in The Beezer comic. Well, this was a more technical version that this big kid found particularly interesting. The physical effort required of the platelets, to plug a cut and form a scab, still sticks in my mind.

This TV serendipity continues to this day and provided me with the basis of this article. The other day I was flicking through the TV channels after watching a programme and I caught the end of a Newsnight interview with the author Will Self. He was predicting the demise of the serious novel. By serious he means novels such as James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and ‘To the Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf. Now, I haven’t read either of these two books and I haven’t read, and have no desire to read, any books by Will Self. Yet, the part of the interview that resonated with me was his observation that we humans are changing in our psychology when it comes to reading. We (generally speaking) are no longer willing to sit down and read what a serious author writes, accepting that there will be unknown items and difficulties of interpretation but continuing just the same.

E-books allow bidirectional interaction, which can take you out of the context of the text. We can google names of people and instantly look up words in an online dictionary. We can produce comments and reviews of books and make these immediately available to others. We can read the reviews and comments of others, which will in turn influence our own view of the text. It is not just in reading that our psychology is changing. It is also changing in our writing. When was the last time you used an uncommon word like serendipity in a text or an email? It just isn’t done. Pressure, both social and time, means we cut things short and keep them basic, increasing the efficiency but degrading the effectiveness of the communication.

Is this relevant to NDT? When it comes to writing and reading procedures, the profession has been particularly abysmal. Procedures have been written without any consideration given to how best to communicate the necessary information to the operator or help the operator to apply the inspection in a reliable way. There is data to show that operators do not fully read the procedure. Despite the human factors evidence, the profession is slow to adopt any improvements in this area. I, personally, have experience of reluctance to change procedures from the status quo and, in the case of a technical justification, an electronic format being declined in favour of purely paper documents. In both cases, the opportunity for improved communication was lost.

With increasingly internet-connected, bidirectional, psychologically-tuned readers, the challenge to the NDT industry is how to make commensurate changes to our documents and associated ways of working. An interactive procedure may be one answer, but it would be important to ensure that the interactivity doesn’t become a substitute for understanding prior to applying the inspection.

As you can see, the serious column is still alive and kicking. You can help to maintain it by sending in your views on NDT procedures and reports. It would be good to gather a cross-section of views and suggestions for improvements.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within the NDT Newspaper. They do not represent the views of AMEC or the HSE who funded the PANI projects.

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