Culture and Aerospace
Proposed framework for identifying the role of cultural factors
Human Actions or Errors
Cultural differences form the subject of this paper and propose a framework for exploring the role of culture in helicopter accidents.
Cultural factors are not currently well represented in accident analysis. We lack a comprehensive model to explain the cause of the accident, especially in the context of different cultures. It is important to note that a modifier of human behaviour is the culture in which it takes place. Few studies have focused on the socio-cultural interactions and implications in the aviation industry at the crew, organisation and other levels. No comprehensive study has been carried out to identify the cultural themes within the interactive system. In particular, no study primarily focuses on the cultural influences leading to the identified performance variability within the investigation proceedings.
The cultural framework syntheses different theories and establishes that cultural factors can be effective identified during investigation processes.
The study that defines and identifies these cultural influences is important for several reasons: first, it brings out the underlying cultural factors which leads to the accident. Secondly, it identifies the context in which the interaction took place, i.e. decision making.
As a result, more attention needs to be paid on accident analysis and the role of culture within the national context.
Cultural framework can be applied to accident analysis, human error analysis, and cultural awareness studies
Keywords: Accident Analysis, National Culture Human Error Analysis, Methodology
Despite making up only 12% of the total aviation fleet, helicopters account for 70% of accidents (GAMA, 2010). While the worldwide airline safety trend is improving, helicopter accident safety trends are not (IHST, 2012). Research shows that human error is implicated in around 70 to 80 percent of aviation accidents (Wiegmann & Shappell, 2003), and an important modifier of human behaviour is the culture in which it taes place.
Culture has been the topic of consideration in previous study, especially in aviation domains (Orasanu, Fisher & Davison; 1997; Meshkati, 2002; and others). It has been studied at the level of organisations (Helmreich & Merrit, 1998), in maintenance activities (Soeters & Boer, 2000), design and manufacturing (Foushee, 1984), and pilots (Merrit & Helmreich, 1996a; 1996b; Strauch, 2010; Helmreich & Davies, 2004). Despite this, culture is still not a prominent component of accident analysis methods and neither is it studied in an integrated fashion across different layers of the system (Helmreich & Merrit, 1998).
Merritt (1993) defined culture as the values/norms and practices shared with others which define a group, especially in relation to other groups. Culture defines the way of life of a particular group of people and, in turn, has wide ranging influences on their values and behaviours (Hofstede, 1991). Authors such as Kluckhohm (1951) put it, that “culture consists in patterned ways of thinking, feeling and reacting, acquired and transmitted mainly by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artefacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional ideas and especially their attached values” (Hofstede, 1991, p. 25).
A common issue in cultural theories is the way in which ‘meaning’ and ‘values’ influence people’s actions, and sustains the social and economic structures in which they co-exist (Kluckhohm, 1951; Merritt, 1993; Hofstede, 1991). Culture can influence the behaviour of a person to act in an individualistic or collective manner; influences the way an individual relates to interpersonal power; influences how they will tolerate uncertainty and the way they relate to members of the opposite gender (Hofstede, 1991 chap 4, 5). These factors have been shown to play an important role in accident causation (Helmreich & Merrit, 1998, p. 98-100).
This paper focuses on national culture, defined as the traits which describe a group of people living in a particular region.
It is important to note that a modifier of human behaviour is the culture in which it takes place. Few studies have focused on the socio-cultural interactions and implications in the aviation industry at the crew, organisation and other levels. No comprehensive study has been carried out to identify the cultural themes within the interactive system. In particular, no study primarily focuses on the cultural influences leading to the identified performance variability within the investigation proceedings. A study that defines and identifies these cultural influences is important for several reasons: first, it brings out the underlying cultural factors which leads to the accident.
Second, it identifies the context in which the interaction took place, i.e. decision making. Third, it explores the cultural dimensions that interplay to produce the interactions. Fourth, it provides the strengths of socio-cultural interaction in the accident investigation process and its outcomes. It brings together an extensive wealth of potentially useful information/data from numerous experts/theories that can be used to explain/create a training programme for cultural interaction within the industry. Finally, the outcomes will be applicable to a wider audience of practitioners, academia and organisations to assist in the development of cultural training programmes and investigation processes.
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1Figure 1: Interacting levels of cultural influence (Source: adapted from Schneider and Barsoux, (1997), p. 47)
Organizational culture is a subculture of national culture, and professional culture (such as that which might exist among pilots or aircraft engineers) is a sub-culture of both as shown in Figure 1. “The culture of a profession is manifested in its members by a sense of community and by the bonds of a common identify” (Goode, 1957). For instance, within the aviation industry, the professional culture of the flight crew is defined by its personality (used as predictors of performance); aptitude and intelligence; above average motivation and interpersonal skills (Helmreich & Merritt, 1998). Critically, these subcultures interact in powerful ways with national culture (Strauch, 2010; Helmreich & Davies, 2004) to give rise to significant performance shaping effects. The extent to which these cultural interactions offer a predictor of performance lies partly in the notion of cultural context.
Culture and Aerospace
An overriding feature of culture in aviation is that while the vast majority of aircraft are built by a small number of manufacturers in the United States and Western Europe, aviation business activities involve Asia and Africa (Foushee, 1984). It is not merely the aircrafts that are built in non-indigenous cultures, it is the associated maintenance, operational and safety practices that go along with them. The key question is the extent to which this ‘alien’ entity of people, technology and processes translates into different cultural environments. A series of accidents have exposed the cultural dimension in aviation, starting with the Air Ontario Fokker F28 crash in March 1989. The merging of two organisational cultures was implicated in the icing problem leading to the crash. An even more powerful case-study is provided by the 1992 Airbus A320 crash at Mount St-Odile near Strasbourg (FMTT, 1992). The French commission ‘d’Enquete’ discussed in some detail the possible influence of corporate culture and the social context of the crew performance citing in particular: Lack of communication between the captain and co-pilot, because of their personality.
Accidents such as these stimulated further interests in culture in aviation and the findings are revealing. Merrit and Helmreich (1996a; 1996b) studied the “cockpit Management attitudes” between Asian and American flight crew and attendants using two of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, power distance and individual-collective (appendix A). The report argues that the American crew were more independent, self-reliant (individualism), and had a personal responsibility in contributing to being an effective crew (low power distance). This was in contrast to the Asian crew, who for similar cultural reasons were more likely to support the authority of a superior (high power distance) and be satisfied with that role. Jing, Lu and Peng, (2001) compared accident outcomes in 59 countries and made similar observations of cultural differences, in particular Taiwanese and Chinese cultures score highly in high power distance and, with cockpit voice recordings indicating major communication difficulties between the crew before the crash, this confirms Helmreich and Merritt’s 1996 findings.
Helmreich and Merrit, (1998, p. 84-100) studied of 8,000 pilots on the statement “written procedures are required for all in-flight situation”. The result revealed that in countries with low scores for uncertainty avoidance have fewer rules and regulation, pilots were generally less stressed under emergency conditions and could respond naturally. In addition, pilots from these countries are more likely to act outside the rules using improvisation to solve problems independently (Hofstede, 1980; 1991). Soeters and Boer (2000, p.126) compared NATO air forces accidents from the period 1991-1995. In Contrast to Helmreich and Merrit, (1998), they reported that the stronger the level of uncertainty avoidance within the national (air force) culture the greater the chances of an accident. The more individualistic the national (air force) culture is the lower the chances of total loss accident.
Despite what seems like overwhelming evidence the importance of the role that culture can play a major part in accident causation is still not fully accepted (Helmreich & Merrit, 1998; Maurino, 1998; Strauch, 2010). It is certainly more convenient to believe it is possible to have "culture free" work environments, yet it is clear there is high cultural diversity within the industry which directly impacts on operations (Helmreich & Davies, 2004). The problem, as Maurino (1998) states, is that “cultural factors should routinely be considered during the safety investigation process although this might be the toughest nut in the entire lot to crack, owing to the resilient conservatism of accident investigation.’’ (pg. xxiii) The industry is facing, therefore, with the challenges of developing a practical model to deal with the relationship between different culture and further research is needed to confront this challenge. Recent attempts have focused on examining the relationship between factors related to the Western origin of the aviation industry and the diverse non-Western cultures into which it has been implemented.
Existing research confirms the importance of the research area, but identifies that there are still a number of knowledge gaps that need to be addressed. Li et al, (2007) used the Human Factors Analysis and Classification System (HFACS) framework to compare accidents in China, United States and India to explore the role of cultural differences. The results show a significant difference in the accident outcome of the three countries in seven HFACS categories, however, certain causal factors could not be accounted for, such as cultural difference between the countries, the level of government oversight, and design/technology sophistication. This led Strauch, 2010 to argue that the overall research methodology had flaws (Strauch, 2010). To address gaps like this in existing methodologies what is needed is a systemic framework for cultural factors is required. Such a framework should take into account human failures, cultural beliefs, and the social context of the system.
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2Figure.2: the proposed framework for the cultural analysis in accident causation (Author’s)