Read this book some years ago, but failed to make a summary at the time. My bad. When my department invited Stian to speak at a seminar it was time to freshen my memory a bit and so I went quickly through the book. Here are some things that struck me while browsing the pages - just some highlights (mostly drawing on chapters 1, 2 and 8) and by no means an attempt to make a coherent summary. That may come eventually, when time allows.
The central problem of the book is: How can a cultural approach contribute to the assessment, description and improvement of a safety conditions in organisations?
The main answer to this question is that it is important to shed light on the informal and social aspects of work and organisation. The cultural approach shows us things that are otherwise taken for granted in the way we perform our tasks.
What is culture - there are many varying definitions. Within sociology (which is Stian’s background) the concept usually refers to the values that members of a group share, the norms they follow and the material objects they create.
Stian sees culture as the frames of reference through which information, symbols and behaviour are interpreted and the conventions for behaviour, interaction and communication are generated. It’s both a cognitive and a relational symbolic phenomenon.
Organisational culture is not as deeply rooted in the members of a group as are the frames of reference and behaviour conventions of a nation or a tribe. A greater degree of reflexivity towards the organisation’s cultural frames can be expected.
It’s important to understand that labelling a culture as ‘organisational’ does not imply that it is necessarily attributable to the organisation as a whole. Usually organisations consist of multiple cultures, associated with different departments, levels, units, occupations, etc.
Safety Management and Safety Culture
There are important differences between the safety management and safety culture approaches. The former deals mostly with formal organisation while the latter is oriented on informal aspects. Traditionally there used to be the view that organisations are run rationally and calculative. During the last decades there is increasingly the view that actions and decisions are also determined by non-rational aspects, which is one explanation for the interest in culture.
Different approaches to Safety Culture, and Problems
Much of the research on safety culture has been dominated by either a psychological or an engineering perspective. Psychological studies have mostly looked at studying attitudes and behaviour (preferably through standard questionnaires) while engineering emphasizes the systems (looking at management and lines of responsibility) that provide frames for behaviour. Both approaches lack an understanding the culture is something that is socially shared among the members of a group or organisation. It’s important to make a thorough description of the organisation before turning to the question of improvement (context matters!).
The mainstream of safety culture still rests on relatively unclear theoretical foundations. This increases problems and confusion what safety culture is and how it relates to other aspects of work and organising. Also, being only loosely coupled to theoretical models has made it difficult for the existing research to give satisfactory answers to questions of how culture may actually influence safety.
Guldenmund proposes as a solution for the loose coupling a stronger relation to Schein’s concept of organisational culture. Interestingly, Schein is often used as a reference in articles on safety culture, but how these studies relate to Schein’s framework is rarely discussed. Even more interesting is Schein’s clear scepticism with regard to psychometric studies of culture that according to him are too superficial to give valid accounts of culture. It’s an illustration that the concept of culture has been incorporated into safety research in a rather uncritical and unprocessed way.
Another problem is that much safety culture research places too much emphasis on individual properties. It is not sufficient to assess the attitudes and values of individuals and view the aggregate of these attitudes and values of the group studied.
Stian concludes that the study of culture cannot rely on questionnaires alone. Many aspects of culture belong to the sphere of social life; the study of culture will thus require more interactive probing. The study of safety culture should focus on the specific practices in which safety is created and learned. Safety is not a separate object of knowledge; safety is closely related to practice.
Another important thing is that the bulk of safety culture research rests on an implicit model of organisational and cultural harmony. Issues of conflict and cultural inconsistency have been largely neglected by both the psychological and engineering perspectives on safety culture. It’s important to account for differentiation, ambiguity and fragmentation of cultures.
In recent years there have been attempts to improve on some of these issues by drawing in organisational theory, sociology and anthropology.
Relation between Formal and Informal Ideals for Work Performance
Hale sees as the fundamental mission of safety culture research to tell us why the structures of safety management work, or don’t work. There is an apparent contradiction between formal procedures and the local adaptation and improvisation, between the need for predictable operations and the ability to respond to unforeseen events. These two strategies may appear contradictory, they should not be conceived as such, but rather be seen as a continuum between extremities that need to be balanced in some way. Many organisations rely heavily on centralised safety management, but at the same time many activities are dynamic and non-routine. A possible weakness in the way safety is managed is that often it is equated to a detailed control of work processes.
The concepts of culture and power are inescapably intertwined. Power and power differences are important, but often not paid attention to. Both formal and ‘systemic’ power, and more subtle and symbolically expressed examples of power. Studies of the relationship between culture and safety should not disregard issues of power.
Qualitative and Ethnographically Inspired Methods
As said, traditional safety culture research has some serious shortcomings and is therefore in need for qualitative and ethnographically inspired methods.
The neglect of real-life experiences of work is a reason why the abstract concepts and solutions of managers and organisational consultants (like TQM) rarely live up to the expectations that people have of them. This distance from operational work is a particular problem for safety research as it involves risk of neglecting the sharp end. Ethnographically inspired methods can remedy some of this weakness since such methods explicitly aim at understanding the everyday practices in a field. The descriptions and interpretations of everyday work practice which can be produced by such research may be instrumental for safety management because it should provide safety managers with better understanding of work processes and their context.
Culture, Management and Learning
Employee participation in learning and improvement is essential. Reducing the distance between managers and the operational workforce is vital for learning with regard to both facilitating the upward flow of information and the adaptation of general safety measures to local work contexts.
Arguing for increased worker involvement does not mean that workers and managers cannot have conflicting interests, or that organisations should strive for one particular culture or worldview. In contrary, having multiple cultures and different interpretations of reality may serve as a form of requisite variety that may increase the organisation’s ability to learn. Having multiple frames of reference within the boundaries of an organisation serves as a cultural redundancy that may reduce the organisation’s insensibility to hazards.
In order to make use of the requisite variety which exists in the different cultural frames of reference, the organisation must be characterised by a high degree of trust and openness. This requires the willingness of the powerful to set aside their formal authority and let the power of argument take precedence over the power of position. Trust is something that managers of organisations must earn through consistent action over time: a high degree of correspondence between the ‘frontstage’ slogans and safety visions, and the ‘backstage’ priorities in real decisions and situations.
Summing up: a cultural approach to the study of safety can be highly useful in order to understand the match between formal and informal aspects of work and organizing. Culture influences safety on two levels: 1) through the frames of reference through which risks are recognised, evaluated or ignored. 2) Culture influences safety by involving conventions for behaviour, interaction and communication.