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September 2005 edition

Culture at Work in Aviation and Medicine: National, Organizational and Professional Influences

By Robert Oxley

Robert Oxley, technology and culture expert at Embry-Riddle University, gives his take on Culture at Work in Aviation and Medicine: National, Organizational and Professional Influences, written by Robert L Helmreich and Ashleigh C Merritt, which explores the effects of professional, national and organisational cultures on individual attitudes, values and team interactions.

Culture at Work in Aviation and Medicine: National, Organizational and Professional Influences. Robert L Helmreich and Ashleigh C Merritt. Published by Ashgate Publishing. Cost £60 Hardback £27 Paperback.

“Ignoring culture can be a costly mistake, a considerable drain on resources and a serious threat to the long-term success of an international venture,” according to the authors of Culture at Work in Aviation and Medicine.

Robert Helmreich and Ashleigh Merritt discuss cultural differences among aviation professionals, including chapters on organisational culture, professional culture, and error management. While medical schools are beginning to use aviation’s simulation and crew resource management techniques, most of the research in the book is from aviation.

Culture at Work provides a readable mixture of original research and case studies/personal observations from working aviation professionals, with specific information about different cultures and how people from different backgrounds can best work together. Aimed primarily at flight crew operations, it should be useful to the engineer, designer, manager, and student — anyone, in fact, who works in or studies teams. Helmreich and his students at the University of Texas have been studying astronauts, pilots, surgical teams, and other working groups for over 30 years.

Helmreich and Merritt ask professionals from 22 countries a number of questions about culture and their attitude to work. For example: Are you comfortable questioning your superiors? Can you take suggestions from subordinates? Are you an individualist, or is the harmony of the group more important to you? Do you have to follow the rules, or can you work in a flexible, perhaps uncertain environment? Are you focused on extrinsic achievement or on the overall quality of life? Their answers tend to cluster according to national group.

In the chapter on national cultures, Western commercial pilots are compared to Latin American and Asian pilots. In test after test, Western pilots preferred individualism, flexibility, and personal advancement, while Asian and Latin American pilots preferred order, such as time limits and finding one way to do a job. They also favoured predictability and an unchanging routine. Italy was the only country that did not cluster with any other countries - their rankings were often at odds with the majority.

In the chapter “When Cultures Collide,” the authors cite high failure rates among American employees sent overseas. Technical competence is no guarantee that the employee will have the intercultural skills necessary for success. Multicultural misunderstandings occur because of language difficulties, command differences, and attitudes toward rules, procedures, and automation.

The authors recommend that companies train personnel who go abroad or who work in teams, and that companies recruit for characteristics proven to enhance success in multicultural environments: patience, maturity, stability, self-confidence, perseverance, problem solving, tolerance, professional commitment, and initiative.

Robert Oxley, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Florida, teaches courses in technology and culture.

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