11: Culture and High Reliability – Bierly and Spender

Paul Bierly and J. C. Spencer

In Episode 11 we are joined by our resident expert, Dr. Ralph Soule (retired US Navy Captain), to discuss Culture and High Reliability Organizing (HRO). While not universally known within management and organization studies, High Reliability is concerned with formal structure and process, as well as informal commitment, motivation and trust. HRO describes a subset of hazardous organizations that enjoy a high level of safety over long periods of time. What distinguishes types of high-risk systems is the source of risk, whether it is the technical or social factors that the system must control or whether the environment, itself, constantly changes. This latter can be controversial to observers as environments change within a range of expected extremes. It is the surprise of the change, its unexpected presentation that influences the level of reliability.

High reliability organization theory and HROs are often contrasted against Charles Perrow’s Normal Accident Theory (NAT), but where Perrow believed in the inevitability of accidents in the face of ever more complex technology, HRO scholars believe that accidents can, and are avoided by means of appropriate culture and training of the workforce. The term “high reliability organization” (HRO) was coined by Rochlin, La Porte, and Roberts (1987) to describe organizations that achieve superb safety performance  under difficult circumstances and perform highly complex technical tasks in unforgiving environments. HRO scholarship has sought to resolve the organizational structure paradox between the need for centralization of knowledge to manage highly complex technical systems (systems that are too complex for any small group to understand) and the need for decentralized decision-making to prevent failure of tightly coupled parts of the system. Prior to the theory, there was no way to describe how to reconcile the paradox between technological and organizational complexity in high risk systems.

Paul Bierly and J.C. Spender’s 1995 article, “Culture and high reliability organizations: The case of the nuclear submarine,” is about the culture that underpins the reliability of nuclear submarines. They argued that culture and organizational structure are mutually reinforcing in producing high reliability. Drawing from their personal experience, the authors “argue for a multi-level model in which culture interacts with and supports formal structure and thereby produces high reliability.”

We decided to read Culture and High Reliability Organization: A Case of the Nuclear Submarine in order to get ourselves acquainted with the ideas behind the concept. The Authors, both of whom are qualified nuclear officers with the U.S. Navy, describe how certain characteristics of the culture instilled into that organization by its founder – Admiral Rickover – facilitate a safety-centred high reliability approach to operations. Fascinating stuff!

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 

Read with us:

Bierly, P.E. and Spender, J.C., 1995. Culture and high reliability organizations: The case of the nuclear submarine. Journal of Management, 21(4), 639-656.

To Learn More:

High Reliability: A review of the literature (get PDF here)

Todd Conklin’s podcast – The PreAccident Investigation – Episode 40 (can be found here)