Kathleen Tierney on disaster and resilience

The fact of large-scale technology failure has come up fairly often in Understanding Society (link, link, link). There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that our society is highly technology-dependent, relying on more and more densely interlinked and concentrated systems of production and delivery that are subject to unexpected but damaging forms …

Culture change within an organization

It is often said that culture change within an organization or workplace is difficult -- perhaps the most difficult part of trying to reform an organization. What do we mean by this? And why is this so difficult? The daily workings of an organization depend on the activities and behavior of the people who make …

Regulatory thrombosis

Charles Perrow is a leading researcher on the sociology of organizations, and he is a singular expert on accidents and system failures. Several of his books are classics in their field -- Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters, Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of …

Thinking about disaster

  Charles Perrow is a very talented sociologist who has put his finger on some of the central weaknesses of the American social-economic-political system.  He has written about corporations (Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism), technology failure (Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies), and organizations (Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay).  (Here …

System changes in healthcare

One of the largest and most interesting processes of change going on in the United States today is the rapid redesign and adjustment of the American healthcare system. A key driver is this spring's passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), but the more fundamental causes are the twin crises we face …

System safety engineering and the Deepwater Horizon

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, fire, and uncontrolled release of oil into the Gulf is a disaster of unprecedented magnitude.  This disaster in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be more serious in objective terms than the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986 -- in terms both of immediate loss of life and in …

Patient safety — Canada and France

Patient safety is a key issue in managing and assessing a regional or national health system. There are very sizable variations in patient safety statistics across hospitals, with significantly higher rates of infection and mortality in some institutions than others. Why is this? And what can be done in order to improve the safety performance …

Safety as a social effect

Some organizations pose large safety issues for the public because of the technologies and processes they encompass. Industrial factories, chemical and nuclear plants, farms, mines, and aviation all represent sectors where safety issues are critically important because of the inherent risks of the processes they involve. However, "safety" is not primarily a technological characteristic; instead, …

Trust and corruption

The recent collapse of a major skyscraper crane in New York City last month led to a surprising result: the arrest of the city's chief crane inspector on charges of bribery. (See the New York Times story here.) (The story indicates that the facts surrounding the charges are unrelated to this particular crane collapse.) Several …

Explaining technology failure

Technology failure is often spectacular and devastating -- witness Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the Challenger disaster, and the DC10 failures of the 1970s. But in addition to being a particularly important cause of human suffering, technology failures are often very complicated social outcomes that involve a number of different kinds of factors. And this …

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