Organizational Learning through Crisis: The Role of Media as Change Facilitator in the Airline Industry


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date31 Aug 2016


This thesis attempts to provide answers to two questions: 1) “How can the role of media as an external organizational intermediary lead to learning from failures and promote change in defensive routines within organizations affected by organizational crisis?”, and 2) “How are organizational crises shaping media accountability?” Organizational crisis is an indicator that some things are not functioning in a proper way in an organization. Organizations affected by crises often slip into organizational inertia bounded by defensive routines which inhibit learning. Defensive routines, comprised of organizational factors like corporate culture, are internal factors which, if left untreated can lead to future organizational crises. Changing defensive routines into learning routines requires commitment from organizational members to take warnings from the internal and external environments seriously during the time of crisis. This thesis puts forward an argument that organizations should listen to an external stakeholder – media, when experiencing an organizational crisis. Media acts as an external institutional intermediary for an organization by objectively reporting and sending warning signals about organizational crisis. By doing this, the media is utilizing Individual Blame Logic and Organizational Function Logic to guide organizations to change the underlying causes of a crisis rooted in defensive routines which led to the accident in the first place.
Through qualitative analyses of eight case studies, four for the category of accidents with human errors as the primary cause and four for the category of accidents of which the probable cause is a result of a technical failure, it was found that organizations, when facing crisis, have equal patterns of behavior between those affected by human errors and the ones resulting from technical failures. Organizations have been consistent in using media as a mediator to navigate them in the direction to attend, not only to active causes – human error and technical failures, but more importantly, to latent causes – organizational factors, which create disruptive routines inhibiting organizational learning. Organizations experiencing fatal accidents with both high and low media coverage decided to utilize media as a mediator in facilitating change in organizational routines, enabling organizational learning. However, organizations affected by non-fatal accidents which received high media coverage did not follow the same pattern. They decided to stick with their disruptive routines and did not want to address latent causes.
Further, in order to determine whether organizations should trust media’s accountability and objectivity, this study answers this question by using media accountability theory. In doing so, a multiple linear regression was conducted on a sample of a total of 197 airline accidents, which occurred in the USA during the period between 1979 and 2010. The results indicate that more severe events (fatal accidents versus non-fatal accidents) will be reported more extensively and longer in the media, implying that the media will use accountability more often in more severe events. Moreover, relating to the causes of accidents and contrary to the current literature on media accountability, the media will cover technical failures more extensively due to the public’s perception that technical failures are more uncontrollable and complex compared to human errors. This result implies that media accountability is more pronounced in accidents with technical failures. Overall, it can be said that elements of organizational crisis like event severity and probable causes shape media accountability in a way where media is more extensively covering accidents with greater potential risk for the public. This study affirms the argument that organizations should consider media as a mediator pointing to existing defensive routines which inhibit learning, between the crisis stricken organization and successful learning from failures.