The Legacy of the High Reliability Organization Project

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Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management

Volume 19 Number 1 March 2011

The Legacy of the High Reliability Organization Project
Mathilde Bourrier
´ Department of Sociology, University of Geneva, Unimail, 40 bd du Pont d’Arve, 1211 Geneve 4, Geneva, Switzerland. E-mail: This article looks back over two decades of work pioneered by Todd LaPorte and colleagues, under the banner of High Reliability Theory (HRT). The article revisits the American roots of the Berkeley-based group and comments on its early and decisive fieldwork choices. It revisits some of the elements that emerged through the controversy around findings and implications of HRT. It discusses the legacy of HRT and the ethnographical impetus given to ‘normal operations’ studies. The use of ethnographic and sociological methodologies gave new vitality to the study of high-risks organizations.

1. Introduction


riting a piece reflecting on Todd LaPorte’s inspiration and work is a journey taking me back and forth between the United States and Europe. It is an exploration of the intellectual framing of the High Reliability Organization (HRO) group in the United States and also a reflection upon the success of HRO ideas throughout the world and especially Europe. Writing these pages made me realize that one of the main contributions of the HRO founding father, Todd LaPorte, has been to encourage numerous young researchers to engage in the complex study of large sociotechnical organizations and systems. What struck me in retrospect in his work is this implicit encouragement to engage in demanding fieldwork, in order to genuinely understand the functioning of these socio-technical systems, which are key to our societies. Ever since the launch of the High Reliability Organizations Project at Berkeley in the mid-1980 s, there has been an ongoing debate over the HRO category of organizations. In his handbook on Organizations, Scott (1992, p. 351) devoted a full page to this topic. The central importance of such organizations to modern society (they provide crucial services, such as electricity, transport, chemicals and health care) provokes much scrutiny, and sustains an ever-growing body of research in Management, Sociology, Political Science, Anthropology, Public Administration and Psychology. Today, there is hardly a chapter or an article on this topic that does not give deference to the HRO model, devoting a few introductory paragraphs or a few slides to the phenomenon. It has come to replace Reason’s (1990) famous ‘Swiss Cheese Model’, which in the past was offered as a classic starter to numerous talks and powerpoint presentations. The success of the HRO label has not been instant but rather has gained strength each year, up to the point where

some of the research now labelled ‘HRO’ has little relation to the original objectives of its founders. Todd LaPorte, Gene Rochlin, Paul Schulman and Karlene Roberts have presented their research findings in numerous often cited publications.1 The intent here is not to repeat what has already been explained elsewhere. Rather, I would like to reflect upon the original objectives of the HRO project, in order to understand its reception and provide some feedback on the legacy of High Reliability Theory (HRT).

2. The original cases: A deliberate choice
The Berkeley group noticed that some high-hazard organizations were doing far better than expected. Struck by this paradox, they embarked on a new theoretical and empirical journey. They found absent from the literature any discussion on the idea that some organizations could not fail at all as an error would be so damaging that it would kill the industry altogether. They were reluctant to follow Wildavsky’s (1988) analysis in Searching for Safety, rejecting the notion that trial and error is the best way to manage potential risks. The group first identified three organizations that to their knowledge continuously met and often surpassed...
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