Thursday, September 18, 2008

An Exemplary Comparison?

In a recent paper called "Enabling Collective Courageous Action" (Organization Science, 19 (4), 2008, pp. 497-516), Ryan Quinn and Monica Worline offer an analysis of how the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 organized their revolt against the hijackers that had taken control of their plane on September 11. Since this is a study of how a crisis situation unfolds in real time, they rightly cite Karl Weick's famous 1993 analysis of the Mann Gulch disaster (ASQ, 38 (4), pp. 628-652) as an exemplary piece of prior research, but they go on to compare the two cases in a very strange way.

The UA93 episode involved a handful of passengers and crew members, most of whom had never met before and had no concrete shared experience with hijackings. The Mann Gulch episode involved a comparable amount of people, but all of them had been trained to deal with the danger they were facing. Indeed, they had been sent into harm's way. The source of danger in UA93 was a group of four human beings; in Mann Gulch it was a raging forest fire. The crisis on board UA93 called for a plan of attack; the crisis in Mann Gulch called for a plan of escape.

Now, this does not make it simply an "apples and oranges" situation, to be sure. But it does, I would think, rule out the following observation as a plausible point of comparison. Summarizing Weick's analysis, Quinn and Worline note that "by refusing to drop their tools during the 16 minutes between realizing that the fire had jumped the gulch and their tragic deaths, the smokejumpers reestablished their identities as individual firefighters but lost their identity as a social unit" (504). They then "theorize that one difference between the conditions aboard Flight 93 and those described in the Mann Gulch fire has to do with the resources available to the participants" (504) and count time as a relevant difference. The people on UA93, they note, had "approximately 35 minutes between their own hijacking and the crash of the airplane (19 more minutes than the firefighters at Mann Gulch)." (505)

To compare the 35 minutes that an unorganized group of amateurs had to take back control of a hijacked plane with the 16 minutes that a crew of trained fire fighters had to escape from a forest fire already strikes me as odd. But it is surely absurd to take it the analytical step further and "theorize" that this counts as a difference of "resources"—a 19-minute difference in the time available to solve the problem at hand. It's a bit like noting the fact that a brain surgeon had a scalpel at his disposal while a mechanic had a wrench as a relevant difference in "material assets" (i.e., tools).

Sensemaking scholars often promote "eclecticism" of one kind or another. And we can actually go back to Weick's Mann Gulch exemplar to find support for this kind of anything-goes comparative empiricism. Recall that his paper is about 16 woodland firefighters in a crisis. Weick notes the "eerie coincidence" that 16 members of a Uruguayan soccer team once survived for ten weeks on a glacier in the Andes. This is of course only a coincidence after Weick has selected the story for comparison (no doubt based on its amenability to this particular literary trick of association). Beyond that, the situations are in no way alike, and neither their differences nor their similarities are in any way illuminating, as he actually goes on to show while claiming the opposite:

The team in the Andes had 10 weeks and changing threats of bleeding, hygiene, starvation, avalanche, expedition, rescue, and accounting, whereas the team in Mann Gulch had more like 10 minutes and the increasingly singular threat of being engulfed in fire. Part of the problem in Mann Gulch is the very inability for intergroup structures to form. The inability to form subgroups within the system may be due to such things as time pressure, the relative unfamiliarity of the smokejumpers with one another compared with the interdependent members of a visible sports team, the inability to communicate, the articulation of a common threat very late in the smokejumpers' exposure to Mann Gulch, and ambiguity about means that would clearly remove the threat, compared with the relative clarity of the means needed by the soccer players to deal with each of their threats. (648)

There is of course much to learn from all three stories (the Andes, Mann Gulch, UA93) about how people act in a crisis. But at that level of generality, sensemaking scholars can string together any number of stories (all of which, perhaps tellingly, have been made into movies). This sort of thing concerns me because the irrelevance of the comparison seems to be right on the surface of the text. You don't have to be an organization theorist to criticize it. Perhaps, however, you have to be an organization theorist not to criticize it. Any thoughts?

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