The role of culture in multi-organizational emergency management

Kees Boersma (Vrije Universiteit) and Jeroen Wolbers (Vrije Universiteit)

Challenges with information sharing and coordination in emergency response

One of the most pronounced key challenges in emergency management concerns how to adequately share information and coordinate the rescue efforts of different emergency response organizations. In emergency response various organizations with different backgrounds, specialized operational expertise, and professional jargons try to develop a shared understanding of the situation. In order to do so, they must bridge their jurisdictional and organizational boundaries. This is challenging because each response organization has operational field units at different levels, different functional command structures, and separate back offices for information and resource management. Consequently, emergency management literature often describes failing information management due to problems of information overload, difficulties with information technologies and validation of information, and insufficient attention for data sharing (Comfort and Kapucu, 2006; Kapucu, 2006; Moynihan, 2009; Netten and Van Someren, 2011).

Recently scholars have started to address the cultural dimension in emergency response operations. For example, Morris, Morris and Jones (2007) describe that the success of the US Coast Guard rescue operations in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina was based upon being able to speak the different professional languages of many different stakeholders. In a different analysis of the response to Hurricane Katrina, Moynihan (2012) shows how the Department of Defence performed a culture-switch to adopt to a new multi-stakeholder operational logic. Similarly, Tsai and Chi (2012) argue that cultural distance is the missing link in explaining the gap between desired and perceived effectiveness of Incident Command System in Japan and Taiwan.

Yet, a coherent perspective on the cultural dimension of multi-organizational response operations is missing. The main focus of this chapter is, therefore, to explore the cultural dimension in multi-organizational emergency response coordination. We propose a coherent cultural model, which builds upon and integrates several years of empirical studies into Dutch emergency response organizations (Boersma et al., 2010; 2012; 2014; Wolbers et al., 2012; Wolbers and Boersma, 2013; Treurniet et al., 2016; Wolbers, 2016).

Introducing a culture model: the trading zone

Organizational culture has been described as a pattern of (a) basic, shared assumptions, (b) invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, (c) and instrumental for organizational members to cope with problems and uncertainties (Schein, 1996; Giorgi et al., 2015). It is seen as the social glue that holds the organizational members together. In the case of emergency responders this means that the fire department, police and ambulance services each have distinct cultural characteristics that give the professionals an unique identity, but at the same time can also cause misunderstanding between them as soon as they have to work together.

However, the description of culture as a static set of shared assumptions is an oversimplification of the actual situation. Stories of first responders provide us with a far more complex and dynamic picture, showing that tensions can develop because of cognitive and normative diversity within a particular response organization. The attribution of meaning (an important part of the cultural process) is complicated and can lead to fragmentation as well as integration, diversity as well as unity.

In line with JoAnne Martin’s organizational cultural analysis (2002), we argue that a monolithic approach that sees each response organization as having an own ‘culture’, neglects the complexity of the cultural dimension. In order to understand the role of culture in the multi-organizational, and dynamic environment in which emergency responders operate, we propose a model that adheres to that complexity. We do so, by addressing the practices of emergency responders from an interpretive perspective, which considers organizational culture:

  1. to be a layered phenomenon, which including the values and the deep assumptions within the organization,
  2. to be multi-dimensional since it is not a static, monolithic phenomenon in which each organization has a distinctive culture (i.e. are integrated). Instead, these cultures can also be differentiated (i.e. have subcultures) or be fragmentized (i.e. different perspectives can exist within one subculture) and they can change over time,
  3. to be an outcome of sensemaking and sensegiving in which organizational members (de/re)construct reality based upon these processes to find out what is going on in times of uncertainty.

In the actual practice of emergency response operations, we have often witnessed professionals from the different response organizations in discussion with one another about the characteristics of the emergency, their actions, and the consequences of the actions for the response operation. This interaction is characterized by a process we regard as negotiation. We propose a model of cultural-in-practice to capture the recurring processes of negotiating actions and interpretations between emergency responders. The negotiation between emergency responders take place in trading zones: situations in which local coordination of ideas and action take place despite differences in the (professional) backgrounds, norms, and routines the first responders (see for this concept: Galison, 1997). A trading zone as a setting that embodies coordination efforts, is an ongoing accomplishment in which diverse groups interact across their boundaries, by agreeing on the rules of the trade, while the objects traded can mean different things to both groups.

The trading zone has four dimensions. First, groups that interact in the trading zone have different professional backgrounds, a phenomenon that we call: epistemics. Second, by developing their own professional knowledge and standards these groups create an own identity. Third, the groups confront their different interpretations by initiating in a negotiation process across their professional boundaries through boundary work. Fourth, this negotiation process occurs by sharing the interpretations of a particular situation by storytelling. We have placed these elements on two axes in a culture model (figure 1).

Figure 1: a layered cultural model for understanding first response organizations in-action.

The vertical axe in our culture model shows the diverse nature and backgrounds of emergency responders interacting in the trading zone, through their epistemics and identity.

Epistemics refers to the jargon of different professional languages in relation to the organizational practices in which this professional knowledge is developed (Knorr Cetina, 1999). The connection with actual practices is important to understand the relations between the concepts in our layered culture model, as epistemics are made up of patterns of activities that are constructed in daily interaction, that demarcate the existence particular professional fields. By interacting with artifacts the professionals generated knowledge that is seen as particular to that field, which also creates a boundary between different epistemics. In this way the epistemics can be directly related to processes of brokering ideas between different communities.

Identity refers to professionals who tend to identify themselves with their own organization; especially in situations in which they are confronted with other professional organizations (Tajfel and Turner, 1986). We acknowledge the necessity for the strong identification and loyalty of the members with their operational field. At the same time, in the dynamics of emergency response operations the context in which identification occurs often changes to result in ‘identity work’ (Alvesson, 2000). This leads to the situated nature of identity, which means that in one context one identifies with being an emergency responder working together with other emergency responders, while in another context one might identify him or herself with being a police officer who has to work together with a fire officer.

The horizontal axe in our culture model focuses on the action and practices of emergency response in-action, in which storytelling and boundary work takes place.

Boundary Work describes the process of sharing information across the boundaries of organizations (Star and Griesemer, 1989) to negotiate actions and interpretations (Kellogg et al., 2006). Boundary spanning occurs when emergency responders interrelate on the basis of understanding each other’s needs and requirements for coordination. Learning how to bring together each other’s complementary skills, learning from the experience of others and closely examining information is a key asset for developing cross-boundary coordination. Boundary objects are part of coordination mechanisms by representation, which offer a common referent that people can use to interact, align work and create shared meaning.

Story telling conceptualizes the process of sharing and making explicit the interpretations of emergency responders, in which they describe the situation and their actions (Feldman et al., 2004). The stories told by the first responders have a plot (the main message), characters (what are the relevant actors in the story) and a narrative (what is the story about and how is the story presented). Through sharing their stories implicit, problem conceptualizations are made tangible by signalling potential problems, clarifying misunderstandings and exchanging information.

On methodology and methods: a research agenda

Our trading zone model aims at unravelling the cultural dimension by exploring and understanding sensemaking and sensegiving practices of emergency response professionals (Weick, 1995; Weick et al., 2005; Maitlis and Lawrence, 2007). As sensemaking is a process that describes how actors perceive and enact their environment, we adhere to an interpretative, constructionist perspective (Yanow and Schwartz-Shea, 2006). This perspective focuses on collecting and analysing data in which the stories of the actors involved are central. Storytelling (narrative analysis) as a method enables the researcher to uncover the otherwise hidden assumptions of the emergency responders, as well as their organizational values. Through stories actors implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, negotiate their interpretations and actions. The ethnographic approach (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2004) is very useful in unravelling trading zones since it enables the researcher to follow the real-life conversations and the negotiation of the interpretations of the emergency responders. A typical cultural study based on our model takes place by adopting three methods: observations, interviews and document analysis to come to a triangulation of data.

The emergency responder as reflective practitioner

Negotiation in the trading zone is not a neutral process; it involves power and interests. A such, for emergency response to engage in a trading zone, a stance is required that increases their reflexivity. Reflexivity and knowing in-action (Schön, 1987; Thompson, 2008) can make differences, power, and interests that are embedded in interpretation processes explicit. Increasing reflexivity can be achieved by telling stories about the bottlenecks that emerge in the response operation. This often makes the different interpretations of the situation the actors adhere to explicit. Yet, is not only important to tell the story from one perspective, but it is especially important to include the other professional perspectives as well. Reflexivity allows the emergency responders to make their different professional backgrounds visible to themselves and others, and find new creative solutions to traverse their professional boundaries. This, of course, is a learning process that (literally) needs training and education, in order to let professionals recognize the constraining and enabling characteristics of multi-organizational work. Reflexivity starts with the recognition of the problem, and continues with the development of affective responses and empathy. Therefore, a multi-organizational operation in emergency response involves asking and answering the questions (Yanow, 1997): What do I do? Why do I do it? What does it mean for me, as a professional, and for the other professionals I work with and for? In this way, first responders can create a trust in each other’s skills and routines, and work towards a shared process of sensemaking and sensegiving.


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