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Communication Skills

A quintessential requirement of an Operations Controller is the ability not merely to communicate but to communicate extremely well! This necessitates the utmost care in listening, interpreting, liaising, negotiating, and informing of pertinent information about some aspect relating to the operation. It also demands a high level of understanding and the use of appropriate language and terminology. At times, the ability to articulate an argument strongly and clearly, or persuade others to realise and accept a point of view may also be crucial. The ability to communicate clearly ‘at any level’ is a cliche of course, but nevertheless highly relevant in this context. It translates to dealing with a diverse range of people such as team members, senior company management, airline Captains, Air Traffic Control, the country’s regulator or a foreign government representative, for example. So, knowing what the information means, and to whom and when it needs to be communicated can be critical. As a result, language varies, as does communication technique and even emphasis as to the relevance or importance of a particular message.

The skills needed to adapt to these and other influences are therefore quite diverse to suit the circumstances. At times, the Controller needs to confront conflict between the players and may need to play the role of peace-keeper in some decision processes. At other times, knowing how and when to say ‘no’ may be necessary, as might sensing the need to escalate a communication more broadly or to a higher level. The nature of the communication then relies to an extent on the degree to which an individual must exercise empathy, while being fully aware of, and sensitive to, the interests and motivations of the other parties.

Cognitive Skills

A key part of the Operations Controller’s (and indeed, Dispatcher’s) task is to apply advanced thought processes in order to assess and solve complex problems in high-pressured, challenging circumstances. There are a couple of ways of considering approaches to decision making. One approach proposes that individuals follow a rational process.

Rational, deductive thinking

Rational thinking has been described as referring to ‘a logical, step-by- step, systematic approach to decision making’.3 Where such a step-by- step approach may be advantageous is for new Controllers who have little experience and thus, limited exposure to disruptions - especially complex disruptions. At a rudimentary level, they can follow a simple process (even writing down specifically numbered steps to help) to gain the appropriate information, talk to the right people, consider a number of options and select a preferred choice on which to act. This method may serve as a useful training tool to guide a new Controller through the decision process, as it may help them to consider all avenues in reaching the outcome. But in the case of most disruptions, of course, time to generate and analyse possible alternatives can be extremely limited. In addition, circumstances continually change, and information is often scarce, unreliable, confusing or contradictory. There are other limitations too. The individual may be narrowly focused on ensuring each step is followed to the detriment of focusing on the tasks themselves. The formal, perhaps written, steps cannot provide for every event, so a reliability gap also exists. Thus, the step-by-step approach may be suitable in some simple cases, but may not work in many others, resulting in doubt as to the legitimacy of the process. Where complex disruptions occur, not only is available time limited, but circumstances tend to change rapidly. Thus, information also changes rapidly and accumulates so fast that rationalising the volume of material to clarify the important and relevant messages may be too hard to do. A further argument is that the problems themselves are not necessarily well defined. This means that going through this sort of laborious process may not suit the circumstances of the typical operational challenge. This shortfall alludes to the use of an alternative approach to decision making. In this environment where problems are ill-structured, exhibit uncertainty and complexity and considerable time constraints, the use of intuition is usually more widespread.

Intuitive thinking – and thinking outside the box

Being intuitive is a personal trait that is, or at least should be, highly desired for membership of an IOC. It has been referred variously to having a ‘hunch’ or a ‘gut-feeling’,4 or having a sense as to when something is likely to work or not. More experienced, Senior Controllers are usually highly intuitive. Naturally, they will be able to process the vagaries of a problem in a logical way. But what really sets them apart is an almost subconscious ability to cast beyond the obvious or known quantities, enabling them to perceive peculiarities - things that may appear evident on the surface, but somehow just don’t look right. This ability to judge right from wrong, or the achievable from the unachievable, is a most valuable talent, such that whereas logic dictates they might act in a particular way, they sense other influences. For example, rather than following a number of steps normally taken (which may seem obvious to a less experienced Controller), they may instinctively wait, sensing something amiss or, perhaps, more opportune given the circumstances. This innate ability to distinguish between the discernible and the more obscure is one of the dominant features of intuitive thinking.

The expressions ‘thinking outside the box’ or ‘outside the square’ have been used on numerous occasions to highlight an ability to conceptualise problems and potential solutions by de-constraining the boundaries humans implicitly set. From an early age, humans are given parameters within which to think and act and are trained to operate accordingly, even to the extent of being penalised or dismissed should these limits be exceeded. So, as may be expected, potential solutions to problems are interpreted according to the level of experience and expertise of the Controller. A novice or raw Controller is likely to see the ‘black and white’ aspects of a problem and decide what may look to be a straightforward solution - for example, actioning a delay on a flight that, at face value, appears to be inevitable. In contrast, a more experienced and intuitive Controller may have some sense that the delay may not need to be implemented perhaps because of a potential change or other influence. In other words, this Controller realises that having too narrow a focus may only partially address a problem, and that part of the solution could emanate from an obscure or emerging source or may not as yet even be identified.

The sophistication of contemporary software packages (such as those driving and displayed by the Gantt chart) means that ready solutions to quite complex problems can sometimes be achieved with a number of keystrokes. This provides disruption recovery, for example, for aircraft and crew patterns and passenger journeys, among other features. Ironically, though, these tools may actually hinder the decision process in some circumstances. They will achieve a solution of sorts, which may be acceptable, and with the pressure of time may be the best option to invoke at that moment. But it may not be the right option, hence the need for and importance of human intervention. Extensive experience and especially intuition play a vital part in determining the merit of solutions suggested by disruption software in the IOC. For example, in a situation which is affecting a specific port (e.g., weather), part of the problem analysis stage may involve filtering the information on the Gantt display, so that only movements through that port are displayed. This limitation of visual information can reduce overall awareness. Perhaps part of the solution might have been to consider movements in close proximity to the port (overflying or operating through nearby ports). In this sense, the experienced, intuitive Controller shows a healthy respect for the software, but nevertheless is wary of the system-generated outcomes.

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