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)

The Study of Information Flow

Information flow relies on relevance, timeliness, and clarity, Ron Westrum writes. Based on how they handle information and prioritize their mission, Westrum categorized organizations on a continuum from pathological, through bureaucratic, to generative. This is a continuum instead of distinct categories. Suppression of information is linked to pathological environments, encapsulation, public relations, and local fixes to bureaucratic climates, and global fixes and inquiry to generative environments.

Pathological environments result from leaders prioritizing their own advancement, bureaucratic environments emerge when leaders prioritize departmental goals, and generative environments focus on the organization's mission above all else.

Others expanded the three-culture model into a five-part version, including "reactive" between "pathological" and "bureaucratic," and "pro-active" between "bureaucratic" and "generative." But Westrum is skeptical about the theoretical and empirical basis for this expansion.

Westrum’s focus is on an organization's ability to use the information it possesses. In pathological organizations, information flow is problematic due to fear, the emphasis on increasing power and glory of the leaders, and the inhibiting effects of hierarchy. Bullying by managers can further hinder the flow of information, as well as making certain subjects "off-limits”.

It’s still a powerful insight, and it’s a shame that Westrum’s original intentions were lost in the translations of his work.

Westrum, R. (2014), The study of information flow: a personal journey, in: Safety Science 67: 58-63.