Organizational Cultures – a Matter of Life & Death Part I

Shuttle Discovery launch Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

For a few years, I’ve been interested in the formation, sustaining, and analysis of organizational culture. This refers to the ways in which organizations – be they corporations, universities, government agencies, charities, etc – operate. This operation necessarily includes both official guidelines and behaviors, such as training manuals, employee workspaces, emergency plans, as well as unofficial procedures, such as employee communication habits. Sometimes these phenomena are collectively referred to as “corporate culture,” a misleading name that nonetheless captures the significance of both the letter and spirit of the “law” in any organization. At best, a functioning culture can create a positive environment for workers and theoretically lead to better products/events/services. At worst, a non-functioning culture creates both a negative employee environment and can potentially result in disaster. There are two fields which have captured my attention in this regard: the space shuttle program at NASA and nuclear power plants. Both fields emphasize technical expertise and process as keys to the safety of their work, but both fields have also proven to be rife with the kinds of culture that can lead to real tragedy.

I became interested in this after reading Diane Vaughan’s 1996 book The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. It is a fascinating analysis of the problems within NASA’s organizational and technical processes that ultimately led to the tragedy that was the Challenger shuttle accident. Vaughan’s thesis is that the accident was the direct result of many smaller issues that caused the technicians at both NASA and the associated shuttle contractors, most notably Morton-Thiokol, to downplay the potential for errors in the preparation to launch. There are two aspects of her argument that I find particularly fascinating and which hold lessons for other organizations, including academic ones.

Weak Signals: Vaughan describes a “weak signal” as “one conveyed by information that is informal and/or ambiguous, so that its significance – and therefore the threat to flight safety – is not clear” (355). The most infamous weak signal with regard to the Challenger was Roger Boisjoly’s memo to his superiors at Thiokol, almost one year prior to the launch, that the O-rings in the solid rocket boosters (the two white pieces attached to the orange fuel tank) could fail in a cold weather shuttle launch. Because memos in the 1980s NASA-related technical culture were such routine communication, no particular memo stood out from the others, according to Vaughan. Thus, the warning in the memo did not affect the processes in place the way Boisjoly thought.

Normalization of Deviance: Vaughan pinpoints another problematic aspect of NASA technical and organizational culture which was paradoxically one of its most celebrated features – its extraordinary achievements and the immense risk attached to them. She argues that NASA had grown so used to the risk involved in shuttle launches that they tended to “normalize” certain behavior and actions as part of an overall acceptance of the risks of their work. In other words, even though each shuttle launch was an extraordinary and incredibly risky achievement, the technical culture surrounding the shuttle program treated the project as much more “normal” than it ever really was. Deviations or abnormalities were alway seen within the context of what the shuttle program had already achieved. In the case of the Challenger tragedy, neither the launch day temperature nor the O-ring wear and tear were automatically flagged as issues which would cancel the shuttle launch, which had already been previously rescheduled. Rather, because the O-ring condition didn’t appear to be worse than other O-rings had for other lunches, it was within the realm of acceptable risk. This is significant because after the accident, many fingers were understandably pointed at the various actors who either ignored or glossed over these apparent defects and conditions. However, as Vaughan points out: “actions that analysts defined as deviant after the disaster were acceptable and non deviant within the NASA culture” (120). This is perhaps understandable – things within the organization culture clearly become normalized, even if they would appear out of the ordinary to an outsider.

However, within the specific context of the shuttle program, the organizational culture failed to fully respect the extraordinary nature of their work. After all, over the fifteen year period the program existed, only about 150 launches were made. That is far from old hat; imagine how many airplanes fly every day, around the globe – that is, after 100+ years of flight, old hat. In 1986, the Challenger mission was to be just the 25th mission of the entire program (outside of the initial 5 test flights with the Enterprise orbiter). Thus, any deviation from established parameters should not have been normalized.

Lessons – while being in academia may not be the most dangerous or extraordinary organizational culture, I think there are some lessons to be drawn from these events. First, consider the category of weak signals. We may not write and send a lot of memos, but I wager everyone receives a lot of emails all day, every day. Those emails from the Dean or from Academic Affairs? The numerous conference spam emails? Questions from students or colleagues? It can be difficult to sort through and ensure you pay attention to and respond in a timely fashion. Thus, we would do well to consider that emails are really academia’s own form of weak signals – when we send course updates via email to our students, are we sending the strongest signal? Perhaps an in-class announcement or statement uploaded to your course website would be more effective. The same considerations can be applied to other forms of communication – maybe the idea you pitch to the Vice Chancellor at the semester kickoff wine and cheese reception never goes anywhere. Is that because you sent a weak signal? Perhaps they didn’t think you were serious because chitchat is not the same as a formal proposal. Whatever the communication need is, we should all consider the most effective means of transmitting it.

I also think we should consider how our organizational culture might appear to an outsider. Academia is often inscrutable, a series of chutes and ladders that we have all been forced to navigate since graduate school, and which never really came with a clear set of rules. Thus, we accept a lot of risk that in other professions, would seem “deviant.” Such as, things like buying plane tickets to interview at conferences, with no guarantee of further job prospects. We normalize a lot of behavior that is less than professional in other industries. Those long-tenured faculty who never attend meetings? By only moving with the flow and not being reflexive, disaster can result. These are not disasters on the level of NASA failure, but they can negatively affect important things such as student retention, research projects, collaboration amongst colleagues, and the every day work of the university.

In Part II, I will unpack some things I’ve learned about organization culture from the nuclear power accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima. These lessons are similar to those learned from NASA, but with the added element of regulatory issues that were either ignored or slow-walked, and which likely directly contributed to the accidents.

Note: the problems identified in the Challenger disaster were not entirely eliminated from NASA culture. In fact, they were repeated almost to the letter in the Columbia shuttle disaster of 2003.

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Is Athleticism a Language?

I’ve become fond of the All or Nothing series that airs on Amazon Prime each summer. For the first two years, it was an inside look, documentary-style of an NFL team, from the draft through the end of the football season. S1 covered the Arizona Cardinals and S2 covered the St. Louis-to-L.A. Rams. This year, the chosen NFL team was the Dallas Cowboys, which was not a team I cared to follow, plus professional football is not as much fun to watch right now as it used to be. Between the concussions, the crackdown on athlete protests, and the seeming lack of any ethics regarding labor practices, my household has backed way off on its NFL watching. So, I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t get a fun documentary to watch this summer. And then I saw that Amazon had produced a season of the program that was shorter, but covered the famed rugby team from New Zealand, the All Blacks.

The NZ All Blacks rugby team squat in a haka dance prior to playing England.

The All Blacks perform their haka before a match in England.

Continue reading

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Summer Update

Bronze sculpture of a bulldog wearing a spike collar and standing on a black slab of granite.

Go Dawgs, even if you look like you’re melting in the Georgia heat. This guy can be found outside Memorial Hall at UGA.

We are at the tail end of July, and as usual, I haven’t completed nearly enough work over the summer break. The fact that I and so many other academics constantly worry about their productivity over what is ostensibly vacation is a topic for another day. Instead, I’d like to talk about the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute in Digital Technologies and Performance Studies, which I attended back in June. It was two weeks of heat and humidity, but also filled with interesting ideas and new colleagues. I feel quite fortunate to have been able to attend. Continue reading

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Booker T. Washington Checks Out of a Hotel…

Hotel English in Indianapolis, Indiana, 1904.

Hotel English and Army and Navy [Soldiers’ and Sailors’] Monument, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1904. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

1903 was a particularly difficult year for African Americans, as described in Douglas Blackmon’s book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. In that year alone, at least 85 African Americans were murdered by lynching. Several high profile cases of “peonage”–essentially, the continued enslavement of Black persons by private citizens and corporations in the post-Civil War Era–were being prosecuted throughout the South, with little effect.

Blackmon’s book is a fascinating and well-documented examination of the means white Americans developed to keep Black Americans in slavery, mainly (though not exclusively) in the South. One anecdote he relates stood out to me, and the story isn’t directly related to the book’s topic, but included in the narrative as context for the general social temperature of the country in 1903:

“A young white chambermaid at the English Hotel in Indianapolis, Indiana, named Louise Hadley, became a brief cause célèbre in May 1903, hailed in the North and the South, after she refused to make up a bed that had been occupied by Booker T. Washington” (238).

Continue reading

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Confronting Tokenism in the Syllabus

Kitty cat with a book open. looking to the left.

This cat looks wary of whatever they’re reading. Seems appropriate.

With the news that heretofore widely beloved author Sherman Alexie is apparently a real monster who has preyed on women–particularly Native women–and threatened to ruin the careers of anyone who reported his sexual harassment, I had to confront my own syllabi, which currently (and previously) feature texts by Alexie. There’s nothing wrong with having assigned him in the first place, and certainly appropriate to rethink his place on a syllabus now. But a tweet thread (which has now been marked private, probably due to Internet Jerkism) forced me to confront exactly what I was doing: looking for a way to replace the “Token Native American voice” on my syllabus. Continue reading

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Critical Thinking & Source Evaluation: It’s Sexier Than You Might Think!

Wooden model figure lying on stomach while reading a book.

Always Be Reading!

First, let me say that it has been a real struggle this semester, and I have pushed blogging way down my “next actions” list. I should be committing to write here much more, and I intend to get back on the weekly schedule I maintained in the past, but the schedule for Spring 2018 has been a tough one.

Despite this, I have been considering the topic of today’s post for a while now, and with the ongoing news about how social media (mainly Facebook, also Twitter) played a large role in the nightmare that was the 2016 election, the time is right to unpack how this relates to the teaching of literature, writing, and the humanities more generally. Continue reading

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2017 Reading List

Happy New Year! We are officially in 2018. I find New Year’s Eve/Day to be a bit of a downer holiday. Celebrating the onward march of time can be a little depressing, but mainly as an academic, January is hardly a new year, or time for a fresh start. It’s just the beginning of the Spring semester. I tend to find renewal and fresh thinking as the academic year prepares to kick off, in the fall.

But to take a moment to look back at 2017, I’ve stolen the idea behind this post by Erik Loomis at the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog. My list is quite short compared to his, but the reasons for that are: 1) I am a painfully slow reader; 2) I teach a 4-4 plus 2 courses in the summer, so my work load does not provide nearly enough reading time; 3) these are books I read in their entirety, unlike Loomis’ list, which includes books he read only parts of in his research, or for class prep. So here they are, in no particular order: Continue reading

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A Twitterary Approach to Poetry

Sometime earlier this year, William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say” became something of a phenomenon on Twitter. The 1934 poem, simple in its Imagist style, is now a funny meme, getting remixed, reinterpreted, and set to music all over the social media platform. While it is now starting to irritate many users, I think the emergence of this meme is a delightfully postmodern love letter to the poem itself, and to poetry more broadly. First, here’s the original text: Continue reading

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What Does Conservative Theatre Look Like?

Image of a Bald Eagle

Bald eagle: MURICA!

I am teaching an upper level elective, American Drama, this semester. My students are about to embark on their final projects, which are “play recovery” projects. The students had to find a lesser-known play they thought could be placed into “the canon” of American drama, and produce several assignments based on this recovery. I’m excited to see what they come up with! If you want to check out some of their blog posts about their projects, you can read them at: American Drama Blog. Continue reading

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The Theft of Marsha P. Johnson

Over the past few weeks, it has come to light that a new documentary about the legendary transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson was made in a highly unethical fashion. The still-developing story about The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is a sad one, and one which I think has clear overlap with academia. In fact, I think seeing this story through the lens of academic research further emphasizes the unethical behavior of the film’s director, David France.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can read a good article about it at Mother Jones. The broad strokes are that France relied on footage gathered and in some cases, found, by Reina Gosset, who had been gathering video footage and other materials about Johnson for years, partly with the intention of making her own documentary. France never credited or paid Gosset for any of this work. The fact that Gosset is a trans woman of color and France a cis white man only further highlights how messy this ordeal really is.

For his part, France claims that the materials on Gosset’s Vimeo and Tumblr pages were not really germane to his film, despite an assistant saying this material was, in fact, copied to hard drives belonging to the production:

“Furthermore, France admits that Gossett’s Vimeo channel, which consists of 19 videos, was one of several that his crew examined during the course of their filmmaking process and video from that channel may have appeared on their ledger to keep track of available footage. But he maintains that Gossett did not hold the copyright for the archival footage of Johnson that appeared on the channel and that it also appeared elsewhere. He says his team legally obtained permission from copyright holders for the footage that ultimately appeared in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.

I’m afraid that Kamran [the assistant] misunderstood the process of research and documentary filmmaking,” France tells Mother Jones. “The deeper question is: Did we learn anything from finding those videos on her Vimeo page? And that answer is no.”

France doesn’t deny using and incorporating the material into his larger research, he just claims he “learned nothing new.” If we take him at his word, this doesn’t technically amount to plagiarism, but it is an unethical theft of someone else’s hard work. When a scholar goes to an archive, for example, they dig through folders and boxes of material. They have to scan endless amounts of documents and photos, and make careful judgements about what is useful and what isn’t. When they write a paper or develop a project based on that research, they don’t own the copyright. That has to be credited to the archive, or the entity which owns the rights to that material. However, the research–the act of finding these documents, collecting them, sifting them, and prioritizing them–is their own work. It takes time, effort, and money to do this work. To take someone else’s efforts without credit, and then dodge complaints by saying “well they don’t own that stuff, anyway,” is a gross misunderstanding of the value of work and research.

This year, I spent two days in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. You can read about that here. If I were to post some of my PDFs from that research trip, or publish a blog with a comprehensive list of my findings, I would have to credit the Collection where I found them. I don’t own that material. But if a person came by and downloaded or copied what I posted here, and then incorporated all of that work into another project, without crediting me, that would be the same kind of unethical behavior David France is exhibiting here. It would be wrong.

Gosset found this footage; she labored to bring the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson to a larger audience. That labor needs to be at least acknowledged, if not outright compensated. Otherwise, France is nothing more than a cheap thief.

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