In his response to my critique of his paper (with Rothman, Sutcliffe and Weick) about emotional ambivalence, Tim Vogus raises an important point. Is it correct to think of universities as "high-reliability organizations" (HROs)? In answering it, it is important to keep in mind that the definition of an HRO includes, essentially, the fact that it has successfully avoided disaster though constantly exposed to hazards. With this in mind, Tim's response has some initial plausibility. It is debatable whether academics engage in hazardous work; and it is also debatable how successfully universities manage what hazards there are. "I don’t think," says Tim, "any HRO scholar would agree with your assessment of universities as well-designed high-reliability organizations." Indeed, let me sharpen his point before addressing it. While there are plenty of firefighters who would describe their departments as "well-designed high-reliability organizations", I imagine there are substantially fewer academics who would describe their universities in those terms. In short, both theorists and practitioners are likely to balk at the idea.
I have two responses to this, one literal and one metaphorical. Let me take the metaphorical one first, since it's something I point out in my original posts and is the "easy" answer. The idea of comparing academics to firefighters is not one that I've invented. Karl Weick has drawn lessons from his studies of wildland firefighers for both scholars and university administrators. (In 1996 he wrote one piece for the Administrative Science Quarterly and another for the Educational Administration Quarterly to make these two points respectively.) Now, in both cases he's clearly suggesting only that we can use HROs as models for academic organizations, not that universities literally are HROs, and if pressed, I'm willing retreat to this position too. Nothing depends on my making the strong claim that universities fit the textbook definition of an HRO, and I was a bit surprised to find Tim reading my remarks as an "assessment" of them to that effect.
Still, I'm willing to entertain the idea. After all, universities have a long track record of conserving knowledge in often very critical times. The discovery of falsehood in research is a "normal accident", if you will, since science is highly self-corrective, and sometimes aggressively critical. The institution of "free inquiry" constitutes a standing challenge for received views, a source of disruption for the status quo. In the face of these hazards, we rely on universities to remain orderly places of research and teaching, maintainers of a modicum of orthodoxy—despite the occasional revolutionary change of paradigm, to use the familiar Kuhnian idiom. If catastrophic ignorance (epistemic chaos) is the looming danger implicit in intellectual environments, it could be argued that the universities have done an excellent job, for hundreds of years, of maintaining an orderly base of knowledge. Some disciplines more successfully than others to be sure, but let's remember that procedures also change in hospitals, armies, airports, and fire stations.
Maybe we should leave the final assessment as an open question. One thing I would suggest, however, and in line with Weick's 1987 paper "Organizational Culture as a Source of High-Reliability", is that, whether we ultimately conclude that they are successful or not, "what is interesting about" universities is that they are organized around "issues of reliablity, not the conventional organizational issues of efficiency" (cf. Weick 1987: 112). What's actually more interesting is the critical wedge this gives us into current debates about the course of higher education. After all, it can be argued (I think I'm going to try to make this argument) that universities have grown less reliable over the past ten or twenty years in pursuit of greater efficiency. That is, they have abandoned their traditional mission for a more "conventional" one.
Weick, K. E. 1987. Organizational Culture as a Source of High-Reliability. California Management Review, 29(2): 112-127.
Weick, K. E. 1996. Fighting Fires in Educational Administration. Educational Administration Quarterly, 32(4): 565-578.
Weick, K. E. 1996. Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41 (2): 301-313.