Neil Clark: businesses need to manage human error (pic: Terry Murden)
Interview: Neil Clark, founder and CEO of IHF
Risk is written into Neil Clark’s DNA. His CV lists ski instructor, white water raft guide and ten years as an RAF pilot. No one could say he wanted a quiet life. Yet, when he decided on his career path after leaving the forces it was the challenge of removing risk that most appealed to him.
From three rooms above a Co-op in Colinton, Edinburgh, he runs a global business with a blue-chip list of clients that, to coin a phrase, many larger firms would risk their right arm for.
IHF is a human factors company whose team of 24 consultants and trainers around the world set out to understand and resolve what are commonly regarded as “human errors” in any system or process.
“We know that as much as 95% of accidents are attributable to people,” he says. “If you can effectively manage the error rates you will have a better business.”
He developed an interest in human factors while serving in the military and took a course in the subject. The decision to launch his own business wasn’t easy given that his wife had recently given birth, but they felt it was, to coin another phrase, “worth the risk”.
That was in 2010, with the business run initially from his home near to his current office. The company soon had clients, mainly in the oil and gas sector, knocking on the door, and as it gathered a few awards Clark’s confidence took off. Until the oil crash of 2014.
“Until then I was beginning to think that running a business was a doddle,” he jokes. “We then decided to get our commercial faces on.”
Demand picked up again, driven in large part by ever-increasing technological systems and, in particular, by automation.
“Technologically, systems were reaching almost 100% reliability, but they were still prone to fail. And it was almost always down to people,” he says, explaining that a systems failure, a crash, could usually be traced back to someone not performing a task effectively.
He’s not in the blame game, but simply rooting out the weaknesses that cause the problem so that they can be eradicated and the system improved. It may be down to someone who has not fully understood the operating manual, or even a simple failure like not tightening a bolt.
Global ambitions: the firm works around the world (pic: Terry Murden)
One key task is getting those in charge to accept that these things happen and that belief in the system is not enough to guarantee success, particularly after what may have been a considerable investment.
“As technology becomes more reliable there is a tendency to believe the human element can be engineered out,” he says.
“There is also a belief that if people running a system are properly trained then nothing can possibly go wrong. But even in the best environments, mistakes happen.
“Organisations will know what went wrong, but not why it went wrong. Their first instinct is to look at system failure, when usually it is down to the human factor.”
The solutions can be as simple as re-arranging desks or equipment to allow for better multi-tasking, and staff properly understanding their role and reporting duties.
For more complex tasks such as human factors risk assessments IHF has a suite of software tools to help firms perform safety critical task analysis or incident investigations, using a proven step-by-step process.
Ideally, the company works with companies from when they install new systems so that the potential consequences of human failure can be identified from the outset.
“Once a company has built a system there is massive resistance to unbuild it and include these elements, so we do like to be in at the beginning,” says Clark.
Apart from big oil and gas, aviation and marine companies, trade unions are also signed up as they make risk and safety a top priority for their members in these industries.
Increasingly, there is demand from the financial services sector as more technology, including greater automation, is integrated into financial transactions.
“They may say that no one has ever died from banking,” says Clark, “but it has ruined a lot of lives.”
He now also runs Salt, a sea, air and land survival training business, and IHF Cyber which has developed wearable biometric devices to measure when an individual is most at risk of error.
After surviving the pandemic, group turnover is up on 2019 at about £1.3 million. “We have not lost any work. Clients just put it on pause,” he says. “It wasn’t nice but I was not worried about going under. We’ve bounced back better.”
Occupation: Founder and CEO, IHF
Birthplace: Edinburgh, raised in Musselburgh
Education: Musselburgh Grammar School, Heriot-Watt University (Mechanical Engineering and Maths)
Career Highlights: Ski instructor, white water raft guide, RAF (pilot), founded IHF
What frustrates you in business life?
The loneliness of command… my own limitations, work-life balance. I didn’t want to build a business that meant not enjoying my children’s childhood.
Who has had the most influence on you?
Parents and my wife who stood by me and invested in my plans.
Are you a glass half full or half empty person?
Half full. I am quite driven.
Do you carry cash?
Who would you invite, living or dead, to a fantasy dinner party?
Winston Churchill, Elon Musk and David Attenborough.