Gas towers litter our urban landscapes: rusted, towering steel mushrooms that rise and fall throughout the day. They’re so ubiquitous that i’d never really given them much thought, so it was just a moment of idle curiosity that led me to mention to the taxi driver ‘i wonder how they work’. Turns out that he knew exactly how they worked, explaining how they are constructed, how they are filled, how they are ‘water sealed‘ and how perilous they are when derelict.
He’d spent twenty five years as a fireman in London, probably meaning that he’d seen more than his fair share of action, and recounted several stories of gas tower incidents, one, tragically, about a group of children who had been playing on a derelict one when the top collapsed.
I asked him why he’d left, how he ended up driving a cab by the seaside: fast track promotion was his surprising answer. We talked at length about how the profession had changed. The usual conversation on how ‘health and safety‘ had got out of control, and how there was more paperwork for every occasion, although this wasn’t just some rant about the evolution of the workplace. It was a frustration as the lack of recognition of the value of experience.
His particular issue was with decision making by younger, more qualified, but less experienced ‘fast track‘ managers. As he said, the crew on his tender had, between them, more than a hundred years of operational experience. That’s got to count for something.
I guess two points seemed relevant for me: the first, how to capture the right balance between leadership, professional management, development and experience and, secondly, how to capture and build on this tribal knowledge.
Clearly there is space for both: fast track, qualification led promotion and also the need to retain, promote and value experience. But how do we keep the balance right and how do we ensure the right opportunities exist for the qualified to gain experience and the experienced to develop qualifications in line with the learning from the rest of the working population. How do we share the tribal knowledge?
You can’t argue with a hundred years experience: clearly fields develop, new equipment arrives, responses are systematised and refined, made more consistent and safer. There is clearly a need for people to adapt and grow, whether management or not. It’s just how we keep the balance right and, when push comes to shove, who would i want to be on the tender that comes flying down the road in a crisis? Personally, experience (and experience based decision making) wins the day for this one.
It’s an abstract conversation i realise: i’m sure the London Fire Brigade have excellent management and staff development programmes and i’m sure they value the experience of the crews, but it was interesting how this chap commented that there had been a mass exodus of the older crewmen when the new processes and management schemes came in.
Modern approaches are good, but we have to ensure they are based on the right balance between experience and theory.