The Idealcast with Gene Kim by IT Revolution

The Sociology and Typologies of Organizations, and Technical Maestros with Dr. Ron Westrum

May 6, 2021

In the first part of this two-part episode of The Idealcast, Gene Kim speaks with Dr. Ron Westrum, Emeritus Professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University. His work on organizational culture and his contribution of the Westrum organizational typology model have been instrumental in understanding what makes a high-performing organization across industries. For decades, he has studied complex organizations from medicine to aviation to the nuclear industry.

 

In part one of their conversation, Kim and Westrum talk about the stark contrast between NASA’s highly experimental culture of the Apollo space program versus the highly compliance-driven culture of the US Space Shuttle program, and Westrum’s opinions on how to bring that experimental culture back. They also discuss the origins of the Westrum organizational typology model and some of the insights that led to it. Finally, Westrum shares what organizations should do when things go wrong in complex systems.

 

ABOUT THE GUEST

Dr. Ron Westrum is Emeritus Professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University. He holds a B.A. (honors) from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago.

 

Dr. Westrum is a specialist in the sociology of science and technology and complex organizations. He has written three books, Complex Organizations: Growth, Development and Change; Technologies and Society: The Shaping of People and Things, and Sidewinder: Creative Missile Design at China Lake. He has also written about fifty articles and book chapters. His work on organizational culture has been valuable for the aviation industry and to medical safety, as well as to other areas of endeavor. He has been a consultant to NASA, the National Research Council, and the Resilience Core Group. He is currently at work on a book on information flow cultures.

 

YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT

 

  • Why much of the body of knowledge around safety culture came from sociology as opposed to psychology.
  • How Westrum views the stark contrast in NASA between the highly experimental culture of the Apollo space program versus what has been characterized as a highly compliance-driven culture of the US Space Shuttle program.
  • Insightful and useful opinions on what would be required to bring that experimental culture back in NASA.
  • The origins of the Westrum organization typology model and some of the insights that led to it.
  • Why Westrum views the notion of a technical maestro important to get the desired outcomes.
  • What Westrum thinks should ideally happen when things go wrong in complex systems.

 

RESOURCES

 

 

TIMESTAMPS

 

[00:00] Intro

[04:01] Meet Ron Westrum

[07:19] Why prominent figures in the safety field come from sociology

[08:38] Observations about the work on airline safety

[11:17] How Ron’s work is relevant and why culture is important

[16:56] Apollo 13 and Space Shuttle Columbia disaster

[23:15] Westrum organization typology model

[24:38] United Airlines Flight 232

[34:45] Understanding the dynamics of generative organizations

[41:57] Three western typologies beyond the table

[50:16] The Whitehall II study

[53:05] What the word generative means to Ron

[55:31] The two NASAs and how he would drive out fear

[58:44] LaunchDarkly and DevOps Enterprise Summit Virtual

[1:00:37] What Ron imagines would cause a different outcome as NASA

[1:08:40] It matters who’s at the top

[1:12:18] The technological maestro concept

[1:16:38] How the technological maestro concept applies

[1:26:20] How these characteristics can be learned

[1:28:51] Building a community of good judgment

[1:33:39] The role of CNO

[1:35:27] How organizations learn and adapt generative capabilities

[1:42:01] What should ideally happen when something goes wrong

[1:45:41] Information flow, organization’s nervous system, and management

[1:48:01] Contacting Admiral Richardson

[1:49:06] Outro

 

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