No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Gene I. Rochlin

Gene I. Rochlin (1938-2018): A Pioneer in Research on High-Reliability Organizations

The late Gene I. Rochlin's work challenged conventional perspectives on risk management and safety, because he showed the dynamic and proactive approaches that define HROs. He worked together with others at the Berkeley Group, like Todd M. LaPorte and Karlene H. Roberts.

Challenging the Norm
Rochlin's research initially adopted Charles Perrow's ( "normal accident" perspective, emphasizing error avoidance and risk mitigation in complex technical systems. But his findings showed the proactive stance of HROs, going beyond error prevention to actively construct operational safety by anticipating and planning for unexpected events.

Redefining Safety
Rochlin argued that "safety culture" didn't capture the dynamic, collective belief in continued operational safety seen in HROs. Safety, he contended, is not just the absence of accidents but a positive state shaped by specific forms of human action and interaction.

Rochlin likened safety to health, emphasizing that it's a multidimensional, institutionalized social construct nurtured through rituals and stories that embed it within organizational culture.

Salient Properties of HROs
- HROs engage in ongoing learning, but the extent of organizational learning remains unclear, as different actor-groups absorb different lessons.
- These organizations maintain various representations of operations, a means of learning through dialectic.
- Communication is vital for safety, nurturing cooperation and the collective understanding that safety is a shared property.
- Some emphasize individual heroics, while others prioritize shared responsibility, with safe operation seen as an organizational performance.

An Ecological Approach
Rochlin argued for a more flexible, interpretive approach to studying safety, emphasizing its dynamic and adaptive nature within the entire system. He advocated an ecological perspective, focusing on free information flows, responsibility, and dynamic adaptation to the task environment.

Rochlin's work has not only redefined our understanding of HROs but also inspired a new way of thinking about safety in complex systems. His dedication to close observation and interaction with organizations has helped to study the complexity of human agency, technology, and safety.

More about Rochlin's pioneering research in "How to Hunt a Very Reliable Organization":