Understanding Culture (and organizations) for the rest of us —

Greetings. I’ve been away for a while (for those of you who might have noticed) engaging in the practical issues of ideas introduced in my last couple of postings.  A frequent reader suggested it was about time for me to pick back up on the discussions where I left off.  So what to do?  This week the world lost an icon whose visions changed the world – Steve Jobs.  And the many remembrances of him inspired me about how to rejoin and refresh my earlier discussions.

Steve Jobs had the vision of computers for people.  It was the average person, not the hardware or software engineer, who was important to Jobs.  To Jobs computers were the “bicycles of the mind”.1 It was all about humans, not the code, not the box, not the chips, not the micro-transistors. It was about expanding the horizons of the mind to create new worlds. Steve Jobs changed the culture of the world.2

So as you read the articles mentioned in the last few postings what should we make of them?  Much of what they offer comes from the research of Phd’s in social sciences.  And I’m pleased to count several of the authors as colleagues.  Their research informs and enriches our knowledge. But what about the rest of us?  Is there an Apple equivalent for safety culture?

If the subject matter is so esoteric, the methodologies so arcane that only social science doctorates can make sense of it, what is the value of concepts like safety culture to the rest of us.  How do we translate the work of the research community and operationalize the concepts such that the humans who constitute our complex organizations -characterized by consequential science and technology – can derive value from dealing with issues such as culture?  Is there some dimension between the rarified world of academics and the yes-no checklists of the compliance auditors in which the rest of us can find knowledge and techniques that add value to our organizations and our work practice?

This month the U.S. nuclear power industry begins implementation of an industry wide initiative to understand and manage safety culture. That is described in a document produced by the Nuclear Energy Institute, NEI 09-07.3  

To suggest that the NEI approach might be the IPAD for safety culture would be exaggeration to the extreme. The approach has been in development for almost a decade.  It will likely take years of use before such approaches are universally accepted in by the industry and regulator as valid and valued.  But is it a harbinger of the future? Perhaps more like the Apple I?

That’s what I’ve been thinking about while being in the field seeking to apply what the authors of these papers discuss.  Can we use this knowledge in practical ways to produce understandings we can use to improve our collective worlds?

So what do you think?  What might be the Apple equivalent of the social sciences for people who operate complex, hazardous, technology-centric organizations? 

  1.  For a brief clip of Jobs on bicycles for the mind see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ob_GX50Za6c.  With thanks to Rosabeth Moss Kanter for the reminder.
  2. See an article by Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute  https://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Strategy/Growth/The_second_economy_2853
  3. NEI 09-07 is accessible at the NRC ADAMS system, see http://wba.nrc.gov:8080/ves/view_contents.jsp

7 Responses to Understanding Culture (and organizations) for the rest of us —

  1. wroege says:


    Outstanding post! I too found Jobs’ focus on the customer the key to his brilliance. I liken it to the recent move to view medical care from the patient point of view instead of the doctor’s.

    What I find puzzling is that industry claims to chase the customer and give the customer what he or she wants, yet so few actually get it right (e.g., Apple, Google, Facebook). I think these people understand that the customers are not necessarily conscious of what they would really want because they don’t know the art of the possible. Many of the really big transformations are combinations of technologies in ways that make the result much more valuable than the sum of its parts.

    For safety culture, the leadership behaviors our workforce wants are so simple and tried and true, yet we still have so many workplaces where we do not see them. I think we need to get our people in leadership positions to internalize viewing the world from the worker’s (or engineer, or whatever) perspective. That one shift could be transformational.


    • wecarnes says:

      Bill – “the art of the possible” very true. Your point of getting leaders to view the world from other perspectives could be the transformational lever.

      Thank you for advancing the conversation.

    • Tom Thome says:

      I agree 100%! This is the very reason why the INPO CONOPs guide & 5480 produced a step change improvement in performance. As Dr. Deming often said “They are willing workers denied the pride of workmanship.” Leadership will never excel at the elimination of latent organizational weaknesses until it is able to view the world from the sharp end of the stick. But, it takes leaders like Steven Jobs who have great determination, resolve and lots of guts. When the leader faces the Board, the Federal contractee, the regulators, etc. who are using short term measures defined in antiquated terms who only see the world from the blunt end of the stick and want results NOW … Remember, Apple stock rose 7000% after Steve Jobs was rehired following his earlier termination for being a visionary.

  2. PRNickel says:

    James Kotter said that large-scale change efforts have more to do with showing people a truth that changes their feelings (which affects their behavior) than it does with giving them facts which changes their thinking.

    The fundamental assumptions about organizational action have to be challenged at all levels. This video from Simon Sinek gives a great framework: http://tinyurl.com/culturewhy

  3. Bill Mullins says:

    Your line of inquiry highlights both the simple truth and the complex reality that emerges when one considers the global impact of a Steve Jobs. In what follows I will try and lay out, based upon the Jobs exemplar, the reasoning that can predict with high confidence that NEI 09-07 and the other entrants in the “nuclear safety culture” sweepstakes are destined to fail to achieve their professed objectives.

    My approach is to illustrate how meaning is distorted by confusing the bicycles (tools) with the journeys (user decisions) they enable – a distinction that Jobs understood masterfully and mindfully applied (i.e. in the HRO sense) throughout his distinguished career.

    My take home message is along the lines that Jobs was a sociologist first and a technologist only in service of his sociology. I will illustrate what that looks like with some pretty familiar examples before getting to the fatal fault in the “nuclear safety culture” trope. Sorry for the wonkishness, but I don’t know a better way of illustrating these points.

    At the most basic psychological level, knowledge is gathered in statements that correlate outcomes with their precursors. Across the panorama of research methods (bicycles) we can observe a spectrum from item-specific insights (orbital mechanics of a Space Shuttle Mission) to population-based insights (what we can reliably conclude about patterns in ant colony behavior).

    In general, item-specific knowledge permits standardization of processes that deliver tangible objects – often we have these outcomes to degrees of precision that can seem impractical (e.g. measurements of the speed of light in vacuum). However, “Safety” is not an item-specific knowledge artifact like an experimental determination of light speed. “Safety” is an emotional state – both passive and unintentional – of an individual Object, a person, in the Subject class of humans. I’m aware of no literature that suggests that organizations experience “Safety” in some collective sense.

    Steve Jobs championed the human Subject /User – not the Object/Artifact his firm manufactured. His “WHY” (in the Simon Sinek sense) as a Level 5 Leader (in the Jim Collins sense) for artifact performance improvement never wavered. Consider the difference between the descriptions I-Phone and Smart Phone; one demonstrates a simple and lexically correct subject-object relation – the other label is an oxymoron. Objects are not “smart”, Subjects are; as Jobs understood, clever tools can expand the range of a Subject’s “smarts” (i.e. knowledge) it cannot take the place of it.

    “Smart Phone” is an example of Standardization Bias at work – it demonstrates how “me-too eagerness” and a natural propensity to over-simplify complex circumstances leads to normalized deviation in the most fundamental communications working space – grammar. “Smart Phone” is a reprise of the earlier great example of Standardization Bias – “Apple vs. PC.” Anthropologists, and most of the rest of us consider “An Apple” is a cultural icon; in contrast they would describe “PC” is a generic label for a sub-category of artifact.

    Taken at face value, “Safety Culture” fits in the same lexical category with “Smart Phone” and “Personal Computer” – each anthropomorphizes an artifact rather than humanizing it. Even within that category, the Subject-Object disorder of Safety Culture is beyond impoverished and into pathological. In the term “Personal Computer” most inferences take “Computer” as the Subject (devise class) and “Personal” as a subcategory of Objects with the class. Today, the meme “PC” is so ubiquitous that it has receded into Schein’s lowest tier of cultural elements; it rests among the “taken-for-granted and nearly invisible” feedstock of decision-making.

    In comparison, the meme “An Apple” resides in Schein’s more conspicuous and higher-tier space of values (i.e. user-friendly); this is the case precisely because its Subject domain is filled with Jobs-envisioned artifacts engineered to enhance user self-awareness and individual effectiveness with minimal interface/process distraction imposed by the artifact.

    When we move forward in history to consider the I-Phone: Smart-Phone dichotomy we see that Jobs managed to move into even closer Subject-Object (i.e. user & device) relationship while his competitors stuck with their artifact-centered label and chose a modifier, “smart” that is at once more impersonal and subtly discriminatory. “Smart-Phone” broadcasts a message: “If you want to be among The Smart then you must have a phone like this.” This outcome is a triumph of “marketing savvy” over human-technology relationship.

    In the domains of population-based research (e.g. sociology, anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience) Culture is a Subject class (i.e. a body of observables); in that class specific organizations and enterprises are said to display discernable traits that follow recurring patterns; these in turn are evidence of coherent work control systems in action. In a 2003 speech to INPO member CEO’s, Schein identifies Executive, Engineering, and Operator professional cultures as being found in the mix of a typical Nuclear Power Plant site organization – he avoids reference to “safety culture” throughout those remarks.

    It is important to remember that in these fuzzy-logic research domains “Safety” is an emotional state experienced by a role-bearing individual (e.g. a Shift Manager is a specific Object in the professional Subject class of Operator) – “Safety” is not an Object in its own right. With this in mind we can consider the putative meme “positive nuclear safety culture” (PNSC), as identified in NRC and NEI jargon, in the comparison to the lessons learned from the I-Phone: Smart Phone doublet. It can be seen that both “culture” and “safety” have been objectified in ways the customary usage of these terms is unable to legitimate – without, that is, normalizing a fundamental grammatical error.

    Every declarative expression must have both Subject and Object and it must be clear from context or included modifiers which item is which. On this basis the PNSC construct is an inherently sterile mixture of borrowed descriptive features cobbled together without internal coherence – despite any habitual assumption PNSC is Subject-Free. Thus the expression leaves to the imagination of the hearer where to begin in understanding what Subject is trying to be addressed.

    The point here, that PNSC is “subject-less,” is not a matter of “semantics” (i.e. as if that were some form of obfuscation or over-complication of a “more real” substance). A subject-less meme accorded great weight in policy falls in the same logical category as providing a distance measurement without indicating the units in which it was made. To embrace PNSC formally is to normalize deviation across the entire range of the nuclear energy enterprise. In the case of commercial nuclear power, PNSC is likely to prove a short-cut to technology oblivion.

    The fate of nuclear energy need not turn out that way. The legislative mandate in the Atomic Energy Act is faithfully reproduced in the NRC’s Mission Statement: “License and regulate the Nation’s civilian use of byproduct, source and special nuclear materials to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety, promote the common defense and security, and protect the environment.”

    In lexical and grammatical terms this is a well-formed expression of intent; it preserves the distinction between Subject (i.e. adequate protection) and Object/beneficiary (i.e. public, common defense, environment). Until nuclear energy proponents grasp the fact that work control for a fleet-portfolio of NP stations occurs in a population-based knowledge domain, they will continue to be shocked by outcomes such as Davis-Besse or Fukushima. Resorting to Cargo Cult Social Science (of check-listed traits or principles) cannot save the day.

    Thirty years after TMI and 25 years after Chernobyl and Challenger, the global nuclear enterprise’s fierce attachment to the parochial construct of PNSC is indicative of obdurate blindness to entire fields of relevant research from the non-technological sciences. Now is a good moment to observe that what the nuclear energy really needs is a Steve Jobs not another PC or Smart-Phone!

  4. Carol Ingram says:


    I appreciate your questions to stimulate discussion about safety culture. You asked, “What might be the Apple equivalent of the social sciences for people who operate complex, hazardous, technology-centric organizations? ” I don’t think there’s a simple answer. There are two books, however, that I find helpful.

    First, there’s Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. It’s a classic on systems thinking and learning organizations. I’ve recommended to Mel Williams that we consider using it to transform DOE. He was receptive, but I think it will take a lot of effort and buy-in from DOE management to make it happen. There’s even a workshop on Systems Thinking that could engage senior and middle level managers, but I’m not the one who decides the path forward. I tried.

    I’ve also been studying Sidney Dekker’s recent book, “Drift into Failure” to gain insight into how we avoid catastrophes in complex high-hazard operations. What he demonstrates so well in my opinion is that the simple 300-year-old Newtonian model of cause and effect (which has given us a lot, and which is the basis for so many of the tools we use for accident analysis) is inadequate for the complex, highly hazardous, and technologically advanced operations we now have. If you have time, please read it. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Best wishes,


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