Friday, March 20, 2015

A Very Rich Topic

(I keep underestimating the task in my discussion with Tim Vogus. Indeed, it's a bit worrying to notice the analogy to the firefighters in Mann Gulch, who, Weick tells us, believed that they'd have the fire out by morning, a belief that contributed to their demise. Fortunately, I don't agree with Weick on that point, but I do keep thinking I'll have things wrapped up in my next post. It now looks like I'll be continuing the topic well into next week. This post is just preliminaries.)

In his "Fighting Fires in Educational Administration" (EAQ, vol. 32, no 4, 1996), Karl Weick proposes to apply what he knows about wildland firefighting to the work of educational administrators. Making what he calls a "simple and shameless generalisation", he says that "the way in which wildland firefighters preclude failure when they fight fires in forests has direct relevance to the way in which educational [administrators] can preclude failure when they [deal with problems] in schools" (566). The idea of "precluding failure" establishes the link to high-reliablity organisations; reliability is simply the systematic preclusion of failure. When I talk about organising writing processes like HROs, I'm simply saying that authors do well to be reliable.

But there are many pitfalls in such an analogy. In order for Weick's argument for the "direct relevance" of firefighters to administrators to hold, he has to do a number of difficult things well. First, he has to get the work of the firefighters themselves right. Second, he has to understand the work of educational administrators. Third, he has to establish the right connections; he has to correctly identify which parts of the firefighting are like which parts of administration. Moreover, on both sides of the analogy, he has to both understand the concrete particulars of the work and adduce appropriate abstract generalisations. In his case, the particulars are drawn from his work on the 1949 Mann Gulch disaster, in which thirteen firefighters lost their lives.

It is important to keep in mind that, in a certain sense, we all have the same authority to interpret the Mann Gulch disaster that Weick has, since his analysis (in his famous 1993 ASQ paper) is based solely on his reading of Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire. I have read that book alongside his analysis and found several critical issues. I suppose that those of us who work at a university also have the same experiential access to educational administration that Weick does; in any case, he does not suggest in his EAQ paper that his thoughts about the topic are grounded in a particular empirical study. This is an ideal critical situation: we're going to be engaging with Weick's interpretation of a book that we have as much access to as he does, from the perspective of similar life experiences, i.e., experiences with university administration. It's a bit like the conversation one imagines firefighters could have about Maclean's book. It can happen at a very high level.

Now, it just so happens that I think Weick's analysis of Mann Gulch is wrong. Also, as I've pointed out before, Weick himself seems somewhat ambivalent about his own analysis, and therefore draws contradictory lessons. This equivocation is, interestingly, itself part of the recommendation he makes in the paper he wrote with Tim, where they argue that we do well to foster "emotional ambivalence" through "complex and contradictory" job design. Next week I'm going to try to explain what I think academics can really learn from Mann Gulch, both as leaders and as scholars. It really is a very rich topic.

[Continues here]

No comments: