Feature

The truth, a semblance of the truth and nothing like the truth

In the first of two articles, Tony Collins reports on efforts to tackle fear, uncertainty and doubt at National Air Traffic Services.

It reads like the hackneyed plot of a paperback potboiler, only it's true. This is the story of a large company, National Air Traffic Services, which is responsible for the lives of millions of air passengers every year. In statements and interviews, its executives talk about the company's exemplary safety record, success with new technology and the culture of openness.

But a leaked report written for the board at Nats reveals that the company has ongoing problems with a £337m system for supporting air traffic controllers at the En Route Centre at Swanwick, Hampshire. The report says there is low morale among air traffic controllers at Swanwick, poor internal communications and a rift between management and staff.

Meanwhile the company faces debts of more than £1bn over 20 years, although it plans to invest in new technologies that are desperately needed.

But it is the chasm separating staff and managers that is the most serious and enduring problem for Nats. Some air traffic control staff believe that managers are not taking seriously enough their concerns over, for example, weaknesses in new technology. They worry that the large safety margins of the past are being slowly eroded.

But managers at Nats insist the levels of safety are higher than ever and, in their internal notices and talks to staff, they attack their workforce for leaking documents to the media, particularly Computer Weekly, about the company's problems. In response staff continue to leak information and to issue their own circulars, which attack managers.

And so the gap between staff and managers widens: staff see measures to end leaks as the actions of self-protective managers who do not want the public to know the truth about the depth of the company's problems; and managers see staff who divulge internal information as wreckers who will do the company down come what may.

Recently the breakdown in the relationship has led to staff accusing managers of trying to stop leaks by asking administrators to monitor closely the use of photocopiers. "People are offering to copy our documents for us," said one controller.

Management denies this.

There are also disagreements about whether managers pass to controllers workloads that are sometimes excessive.

The leaked report for the board makes it clear that managers do their best to limit the flow of aircraft into the sectors handled by controllers, such that safety is not compromised. But the report concedes that controllers sometimes feel overloaded. It says controllers may, on rare occasions, feel they are in danger of "losing the plot" under the pressure of work.

And there is no surplus of controllers to spread the workload. Such is the shortage of staff that managers are paying controllers up to £500 a day to work on their days off. But controllers can work only so many hours.

To the disinterested observer it appears that the rift between management and staff grows more marked by the year. Staff do not doubt that managers at Nats are thirsty for reform. But they question whether any individual, however talented, can change the long-established defensive culture of a large company. Yet if Nats continues as it is, with profound differences between management and staff, some air traffic controllers doubt the company and staff will ever be able to work as a team to reduce further the risks of a mid-air catastrophe.

Nats says there has been no mid-air accident caused by air traffic control for 50 years. And safety is improving: for the last two years there were no incidents of the most serious "Category A" near-misses.

Each side is doing the best job it can in the company's interests. But could the volatile exchanges and mistrust between some staff and managers be mutually damaging?

The story unfolds...

Seeking to put the company's difficulties in the past, Nats has appointed a new senior manager who wants to change the defensive culture of the company. Paul Louden is general manager of the Swanwick En Route Centre.

Some wonder whether he has set himself a task that cannot be accomplished, that the company's culture is immutable. For example, when the Swanwick centre opened in January 2002, nearly five years late, it was hailed as a technical success by senior management at Nats. Yet there were difficulties with the software. Flaws that had existed during testing became evident in operational use by controllers. Staff regarded some of the defects as potentially serious. Management did not.

Affable and open, Louden seems a good choice to run Swanwick. He used to be an air traffic controller. Now that he is a senior executive at Nats he can see from both perspectives the "them and us" divide between management and staff. "We are trying to create a climate that is about openness," he said. "It is of paramount importance that we are open about addressing the concerns of staff. We are doing our very best to address them in each and every instance."

To succeed, Louden must, to some extent, try to erase memories of the past. The challenge is to convince controllers that the company is not fundamentally flawed. For in the past Nats has suppressed reports that recommended safety-related changes to systems and, when it eventually published the reports internally with a narrow circulation, the concerns of the authors were toned down.

Nats has not always kept the Department of Transport informed about the seriousness of problems with technology. And in statements to Parliament about its internal affairs it has at various times told the truth, a semblance of the truth or nothing like the truth.

When, for example, Nats was asked by the House of Commons transport committee how things were going on the Oceanic IT contract for a new air traffic control system in Scotland, the company gave a glowing account of progress with the contractor, service supplier EDS. But when giving this assurance, the board of Nats was in fact considering cancelling the contract with EDS - and several months later it was cancelled.

One especially positive development for Nats is the report for its board published on the company's intranet site in April. It was written by the safety review committee of Nats which comprises a former safety director at British Airways, systems and human factors experts, the chairman of the safety committee of the British Airports Authority and the director of operations at British Airways.

One of the report's recommendations was that the document should be disseminated widely to staff. It was a refreshing recommendation, considering this was a report to the board that contained sensitive information about structural weaknesses within the company.

The report gave a fascinating insight into Nats' culture. On the plus side, the report said the safety performance of Nats was better last year than in any year since records were compiled in their present form. And the report made it clear that managers at Nats made safety a top priority.



But it highlighted the need to improve technology at the Swanwick. Some controllers regarded the screens as out of focus. Screens at times displayed data that was inaccurate, unclear or garbled. The confidence of some controllers in the efficacy of technology was "being gradually eroded" said the report. The available technology, for example, did not give controllers enough warning of bunches of aircraft. Bill Semple, chairman of the Nats safety review committee and a former chief executive of Nats, signed the report.

At a higher level, the report suggested there were some profound cultural problems. "At its roots the problems of communication are perpetuating an 'us and them' mentality and lack of trust, confidence and respect between managers and staff which must be tackled," said the report.

It also affirmed what staff have said for many years: that Nats was absorbed by how it was perceived by the outside world. "On the broader communications front, a mature organisation should be able to discuss issues openly without undue concern for the possible public relations consequences," said the report. It called for a "sea change in behaviours within the company" and it suggested that managers should be less defensive. A "reputation for openness and honesty is a sign of a confident organisation able to tackle the challenges ahead".

Yet, as the report was published internally, controllers claimed that Nats was classifying as "internal" documents that had hitherto been unclassified.

It also seems to staff that Nats has become even more sensitive to the way it is portrayed in the media. When in May the BBC broadcast a drama documentary The Day Britain Stopped, Nats complained to the chairman of the BBC board of governors. The programme featured a fictional mid-air collision between two aircraft caused in part by an air traffic controller who made mistakes under pressure. Nats complained because it believed a crash could not happen in the way depicted.

But it is the second complaint Nats has made to the BBC this year. In January, close to the first anniversary of the live running of Swanwick's systems, the BBC broadcast a regional television news item on the centre. Nats complained that too much time had been given over to the broadcasting of an interview with Computer Weekly.

Nats has also in the past written letters of complaint after negative publicity in national newspapers. The company attributes the low morale of controllers to exaggerated and inaccurate reporting. And this is blamed, in part, on staff. "The fact that some staff had chosen to leak stories that were invariably sensationalised and misrepresented in the press has contributed to the general feeling of low morale at the unit [Swanwick]," says the report of the safety committee.

But controllers said the bad publicity was a symptom of problems within the company, not the cause of low morale.

In 1999 a report on the Nats management of technology projects by independent auditor Arthur D Little made points that were not unlike those made by the Nats safety review committee. The auditor said there was an "unwillingness to face up to and discuss bad news, and a style which inhibited an open and frank discussion of difficult problems". There was also a "lack of openness" by Nats in its reports to the government.

So has the culture of Nats changed fundamentally since that report in 1999? Senior managers believe it has. In January, Richard Everitt, chief executive of Nats, gave an interview to the Radio Four's Today programme in which he spoke of the company's "policy of openness that is true of the whole culture of Nats".

But controllers say the culture of Nats has not changed noticeably. If anything the divide between managers and staff may be widening.

In April, for example, staff disseminated internally a letter which ridiculed an earlier attack on controllers by managers. The latest unsigned letter has a veneer of humour, but it seems intended to make serious points.

It attacked managers at head office for "claiming that the New En Route Centre [Swanwick] is an unmitigated success". The unofficial letter continued: "Sometimes we use the word "management" to excuse unacceptable behaviour which can be evident in press releases and media statements".

All this seems to be a response to an official letter from managers last year in which they accused a small number of controllers of unacceptable behaviour.

Looking beyond Nats, IT projects in the NHS for example have shown that staff who respect and trust their managers are likely to accept new technology and will find ways of circumventing any defects. Conversely, staff who distrust their managers may seize on any fault to denigrate attempts by managers to modernise.

With Nats and its staff regularly attacking each other, this being a symptom of the lack of trust between the two sides, one wonders how and if the company's technological and other problems can ever be overcome. This is challenge for Louden. But can one man save Nats from itself?

What we can learn from Nats

When hostilities break out between management and staff, a company is bound to suffer. Openness and transparency are the hallmarks of a company that relishes a challenge and wants a culture of positive criticism. But suppression of criticism breeds internal resentment, conflict and failure.  

Nowhere is this more evident than in the history of National Air Traffic Services. Computer Weekly has charted cultural and systems problems at Nats for more than five years.

Our findings provide a cautionary tale of what happens when a company fails to secure the buy-in of staff to a major IT project. The backdrop to this tale is the safety of millions of air passengers.  

The moral of the story is simple: you can attempt to change a large organisation's systems, staff and offices, but unless you address its existing culture, you will fail to achieve lasting, remedial and successful business change.  

This week and next week, and drawing on a mass of leaked material and interviews with current and former employees, we reveal the story behind the relationship between Nats' personnel and managers. For the first time, we present a fly-on-the-wall study of attempts by a major organisation, over several years, to manage change.

Our investigation shows what has gone wrong and why. Whether you are planning a major project of change in your organisation or are already managing one, you cannot afford to miss the lessons that emerge.  Karl Schneider  Editor, Computer Weekly

Next week:

"One controller was quoted in the report as saying that, after an overload, he was shaking all the way home'"


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This was first published in June 2003

 

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