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Keywords:

  • information transfer;
  • disasters;
  • trust

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Context
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References

Communication and information sharing during the response to a major incident on oil rigs have been identified as significantly influencing capability to control, manage, and limit the effect of the incident. This article reports on one of the few studies of information sharing during such incidents. Interviews drawing on the critical incident technique were conducted with offshore emergency responders and supplemented by internal organizational reports and observations of emergency response exercises. We propose a counterintuitive relationship between trust and information sharing. We argue that better information sharing plays a crucial role in instilling or enhancing trust and that in the time-bound, uncertain, and highly volatile context of offshore emergency response, if trust collapses, then it must be rebuilt swiftly and this can be done through more effective information sharing. We explore this argument using the activity theory concept of contradictions and argue that apparent contradictions in the activity system and the behavior of emergency responders should be analyzed and interpreted by taking into account crucial contextual characteristics. The article draws on further support from relevant literature, including that of the information science, organization, and communication fields.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Context
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References

There is clear need for research that focuses on information behavior during situations that can be characterized as complex, time-sensitive, and uncertain (Allen, 2011) and on understanding the relatively unexplored area of information sharing (Wilson, 2010). In this article we focus on findings from one study that illuminates this area: information sharing during the response to major incidents on oil rigs.

Communication and information sharing have been identified as being of particular interest to practice because they significantly influence the capability to control, manage, and limit the effect of the incident (Cullen, 1990; Flin, Slaven, & Stewart, 1996; Graham et al., 2011). This was particularly emphasized in the report on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in Florida (Macondo Prospect), which concluded that “most, if not all, of the failures at Macondo can be traced back to underlying failures of management and communication” (Graham et al., 2011, p. 122). The same report indicated that poor information and communication have been linked to “amplification of the death toll” (Graham et al., 2011, p. 69) in a number of other earlier incidents.

Between 2007 and 2010 a study was conducted to illuminate information practices in responding to major disasters on oil rigs and therefore enable more effective responses to such incidents (e.g., oil releases or fires). It was conducted within the context of a larger research program into information practices in organizational contexts undertaken by the AIMTech Research Group at the University of Leeds (Allen, 2011; Allen, Karanasios, & Slavova, 2011; Mervyn & Allen, 2012). The main focus of this particular study was on the crucial (Kowalski-Trakofler, Vaught, Brnich, & Jansky, 2010) initial response to the incident. In this period, akin to the “golden hour” (Lerner & Moscati, 2001, p. 758) in emergency medicine, the policy and procedures are put into action for the response to the incident. The success or failure of the response hinges on the effectiveness of the response during this period as emergency responders aim to “respond quickly and efficiently” to a very complex situation (Barbarosoglu, Özdamar, & Çevik, 2002, p. 118).

It became clear, as the research progressed, that the subject of trust and information sharing was particularly relevant in the context of response to major incidents. One of the findings that emerged from the research relates to the role of trust among the different groups and individuals responding to emergencies in the eventual outcome of the response. It is this element of the work that we address.

In this article, through an analysis of the concept of contradictions in the activity systems, we suggest a counterintuitive relationship between information sharing and trust. We address the problem of how trust may be reestablished when it collapses in a highly volatile, complex, time-sensitive, and uncertain context. We propose that collapsed trust may be reestablished through better information sharing. This contributes to the relatively unexplored areas of information sharing (Wilson, 2010) and theories on trust, especially in temporary groups such as emergency response, in which studies of trust are scant (Tatham & Kovacs, 2010).

We deem the relationship as counterintuitive because it appears to be in a different format to that predominantly acknowledged in the literature, i.e., information sharing helping to instill trust, not the other way around; over a relatively short period rather than taking time to develop; and occurring even when capacity for sense making has been diminished. We argue that identifying and resolving contradictions in the offshore emergency response activity are key to resolving some of the challenges and problems faced by emergency responders in the crucial early phases of the response.

The article is structured as follows. First, the research problem is put into context. This is followed by a review of the limited amount of available literature that focuses on information sharing and trust. The theoretical framework, methods adopted, and summary of the overall findings of the study are then presented. These are followed by an analysis of the specific findings this article seeks to illuminate through the concept of contradictions, followed by further discussion that relates the findings to a wider body of literature relating to information sharing during major incidents. The concluding section highlights the implications of the study, limitations, and opportunities for further research.

Research Context

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Context
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References

The oil and gas industry is one of the most technologically advanced worldwide, but with this advancement comes corresponding serious challenges, as identified by Perrow (1999). It is prone to major incidents and, in some cases, catastrophic disasters such as the 1988 North Sea Piper Alpha platform disaster (Cullen, 1990; Flin et al., 1996) and the Texas BP refinery disaster of 2005 (Holmstrom et al., 2006; Khan & Amyotte, 2007). Major offshore incidents are, thankfully, infrequent. Nevertheless, when they do occur, they often have catastrophic consequences. Furthermore, they are uniquely challenging for emergency response as they occur in some of the most isolated locations, hundreds of miles from shore, and in some of the most extreme weather and environmental conditions. The recent disaster (a blowout, explosion, and resultant oil spill) that occurred on a BP-operated, Transocean-owned, Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico (Graham et al., 2011; McNulty & Hoyos, 2010) is a case in point.

On the evening of April 20, 2010, a well control event allowed hydrocarbons to escape from the Macondo well on to Transocean's Deepwater Horizon, resulting in explosions and fire on the rig. Eleven people lost their lives and 17 others were injured. The fire, which was fed by hydrocarbons from the well, continued for 36 hours until the rig sank. Hydrocarbons continued to flow from the reservoir through the wellbore and blowout preventer (BOP) for 87 days causing a spill of national significance. (Deepwater Horizon Accident Investigation Report, 2010)

The platform was located approximately 48 miles from the nearest shoreline, 114 miles from the shipping supply point of Port Fourchon, Louisiana, and 154 miles from the Houma, Louisiana helicopter base (Deepwater Horizon Accident Investigation Report, 2010). One year on, the aftermath of the event is still being contended with by various stakeholders. However, the initial emergency response on the platform would have had a most significant effect on life, limb, environment, and the reputation, indeed the very survival, of the organization. The blowout, explosion, resulting fatalities, and pollution bring the national and international significance of this issue into stark relief.

The remoteness of offshore oil rigs means that at least in the early stages of an incident, the platform's crew are entirely responsible for containing the emergency before help arrives, which could take hours depending on the location. In some (mainly developing) countries, where the statutory emergency response structures are inadequate, inefficient, or even nonexistent, platform crews may be entirely left to their own devices. In addition, some of the locations where the oil industry operates, such as Nigeria and, until recently, Angola (Mahtani, 2006; Swanson, 2002), are fraught with civil unrest and militant activities that may be the direct cause of an emergency, or at the least present additional challenges to resolving it.

As noted earlier, the ability of offshore crews to share information with each other and communicate effectively could be the difference between life and death, between minor environmental damage and an environmental catastrophe. Lord Cullen's analysis of the Piper Alpha disaster stated that from the outset, coordination “was threatened by poor communications and a failure in the procedures which were intended to secure a prompt, well-informed and efficient response” (Cullen, 1990, p. 172). In his analysis Cullen noted that of the 165 persons who perished in the disaster, only four died of burns, while 109 died of smoke inhalation (Cullen, 1990), as the dangers of going to the smoke-filled accommodation block (the normal safe haven for the oil workers) were not communicated. Cullen noted, “At no stage was there a systematic attempt to lead men to escape from the accommodation. To remain in the accommodation meant certain death” (Cullen, 1990, p. 2). Simply put, effective information sharing could have saved many lives.

Literature Review

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Context
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References

A review of the literature indicated that although there is no scarcity of studies on trust and its relationship to many aspects of human behavior and organization (Dirks & Ferrin, 2001; Marsh & Dibben, 2003), the literature on trust and information sharing during major incidents is particularly limited. In stable organizational settings, trust has been found to be associated with information sharing (Martins, 2002) or knowledge sharing (Lee, Gillespie, Mann, & Wearing, 2010; Mooradian, Renzl, & Matzler, 2006). The existence of trust is often formulated as directly resulting in, or moderating the conditions necessary for, various operationalizations of information sharing (Dirks & Ferrin, 2001). Information sharing and accurate communication were among factors described as influencing employees’ trust in their organization (Bharosa, Lee, & Janssen, 2010). However, it has been argued that “the locus of trust resides not in the organization, but in an agent within the organization” such as a superior (Marsh & Dibben, 2003, p. 473). Similarly, Lee et al. (2010) suggest that a team leader's leadership role behavior of knowledge building indirectly enhances team knowledge sharing by engendering the team's trust in each other. Several other studies showed positive significant effects on communication in dyads (usually superior-subordinate) or groups (e.g., Dirks & Ferrin, 2001).

However, there seems to be a dearth of literature that discusses trust from the perspective of its relationship to information sharing among groups in the context of emergency or crisis situations. Longstaff and Yang (2008) investigated the role of communication management and trust in building resilience to natural and other disasters, focusing on trust in the later stages of response. Stephenson (2005) discussed the role of operational coordination, trust, and sense making in making humanitarian relief networks more effective. Kostoulas, Aldunate, Pena-Mora, and Lakhera (2006), on the other hand, proposed a decentralized model of trust to reduce the unreliability of information in disaster relief operations. They argued that first responders are usually reluctant to interact with others from different organizations because they have had little prior interaction, despite the ad hoc networks available. To improve collaboration among participants in disaster operations therefore, “participants must be given the ability to assess the trustworthiness of others and information propagated by them” (Kostoulas et al., 2006, p. 383).

Trust takes time to develop (Reynolds, 1997; Robbins, 1999), whereas emergency responders may be assembled in an ad hoc manner, and some team members may not have necessarily known or worked with each other long enough for trust to develop (Weick, 1993, 1996). However, it has been argued that swift trust can emerge in temporary systems (Meyerson, Weick, & Kramer, 1996) or hastily formed networks such as those in emergency response (Tatham & Kovacs, 2010). For instance, Schraagen, Veld, and De Koning (2010) argue that emergency response teams with a network, rather than hierarchical, structure are able to “exchange information quickly, monitor each other's performance, and build up mutual trust.” In any case, little, if any, research focused on the situation where there was a single organization response to a major incident. However, in practice, this is the situation usually faced in the oil and gas industry context when initially responding to incidents.

In the oil and gas context, there seems to be consensus on the importance of trust and that it is “emphasized in all aspects of offshore safety” (Conchie & Donald, 2006, p. 1154). A common view in offshore oil and gas and other high hazard industries (Flin & Burns, 2004), it can be argued, is that trust is “associated with open communication characterized by knowledge sharing between organizational members” (Conchie & Donald, 2006, p. 1152), citing Bonacich and Schneider (1992) and Dirks and Ferrin (2002). However, Flin and Burns (2004) argued that trust is not as pervasive in such industries as suggested by previous studies. One such study indicated “that more than one-third of the respondents showed a lack of trust in their work colleagues” on an offshore installation, including the Offshore Installation Managers (OIMs), supervisors, and workmates (Flin & Burns, 2004, p. 282). The research evidence seems to point toward the significance of trust within the context of response to major incidents. However, there seems to be little consensus beyond this point.

Theoretical Framework

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Context
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References

A qualitative, interpretive methodology, using activity theory as a conceptual framework, was adopted for this study. Activity theory has its roots in Russian cultural-historical psychology as developed in the 1920s by Lev Vygotsky and his followers (Toomela, 2000). An activity system must have a desired outcome and is hierarchical (i.e., comprising the activity, actions, and operations), with the activity itself as the smallest possible unit of analysis to understand how work is performed (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 1997). The activity is “oriented to motives” and constructed from goal-directed actions, which are “realised through operations that are determined by the actual conditions of activity” (Kaptelinin, 1996, p. 55). The significance of this research approach, its theoretical challenges, and the openings presented by adopting cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) as a conceptual lens has been discussed in more detail by Allen et al. (2011).

The usefulness of activity theory for research in information behavior lies in its ability to force the broadening of the horizon of enquiry and to enable the understanding of phenomena in a way that limited accounts cannot (Wilson, 2006). The theory was found to hold great promise in understanding and explaining the information behavior of participants in emergency response activities (Allen, 2011), as it is concerned with socially constructed knowledge through the use of tools (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 1997), which could be mental, physical, or social. Furthermore, activity theory helped us in bridging the dichotomy between cognitive and social elements of human behavior, a dichotomy that has been entrenched in many research traditions. We recognize that alternative approaches to understanding action may be used; indeed, that “distributed cognition, situated action, activity theory and actor-network theory” have been described as “prominent approaches for studying activity and action in context” (Hemetsberger & Reinhardt, 2009, p. 988).

For instance, distributed cognition shares with activity theory a focus beyond individual cognition, to interactions among cooperating people and their use of artifacts (Halverson, 2002; Nardi, 1996). However, compared with distributed cognition, we found activity theory more “appealing” (Halverson, 2002, p. 247), and in comparison with both situated action and distributed cognition, we agree with Nardi (1996) that it is a more comprehensive framework. As argued by Halverson (2002), activity theory has descriptive, rhetorical, and inferential power through enabling the naming of theoretical constructs and the definition of relations among them. Conversely, as suggested by Wilson (2010), the probability of information sharing taking place between individuals depends as much on the context as the nature of the information. In a nutshell, we were interested in exploring the insights enabled by this theory and feel that it strongly supports our understanding of the wider context within which information sharing occurs.

A key theoretical construct in activity theory is that of contradictions, which are tensions within or between elements (e.g., object, rules, subjects, tools) of an activity system. These manifest in the form of deviations from standard scripts, thereby threatening its internal coherence (Engeström, 2000). According to Engeström although activity systems are driven by a deeply communal motive, they are inherently contradictory. To achieve the goal of the activity, therefore, such contradictions have to be resolved. An understanding of the cultural-historical development of an activity system and the resolution of its inherent contradictions are better enabled through an understanding of context (see Allen et al., 2011, for a more detailed discussion). From the cultural-historical perspective, context is viewed as a dynamic and changing environmental variable and a byproduct and determinant of history, embedded in action (Allen et al., 2011).

The context of the offshore emergency response activity, as evident, for instance, in its strong safety culture, can be traced in large part to the recommendations of the Cullen Report (Cullen, 1990) into the North Sea Piper Alpha disaster, along with other factors like competition, U.S. and EEC directives, as well as oil company pressure (Schindler & Lamprecht, 1991). This culture is sustained by the application of international regulations, standards, and practices that govern the global operations of any oil company. Thus, to a large extent, it would outweigh national and organizational cultures. Even contract personnel on an offshore platform are more likely to imbibe the platform's organizational culture, rather than that of their parent company, as suggested by a study on safety climate in the industry (Høivik, Tharaldsen, Baste, & Moen, 2009). Figure 1 illustrates the main cultural-historical elements of the offshore emergency response activity system; the most relevant ones will be drawn upon later in the discussion.

figure

Figure 1. Offshore emergency response activity system in context.

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Methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Context
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References

Three data collection techniques were used in this study: a review of organizational documents (through the organization's incidents database), observation of two emergency response exercises, and semistructured interviews. The interviews were the primary approach. However, notes were made of actions, processes, and communications from observing the emergency response exercises and from reviewing the organization's emergency response procedures. These complemented the structured coding and analyses of interviews in NVivo and helped the researchers to make better sense of the data.

A total of 19 interviews were conducted with employees of the organization, a major multinational oil company, in its U.K. (nine interviews) and Nigerian (10 interviews) operations. The interviews were semistructured and in depth, using the critical incident and explicitation technique (Urquhart et al., 2003) and an interview protocol that was developed from the research questions. This was refined iteratively after each phase of the study, which was in three phases over the course of 9 months. Four interviews were conducted in phase one, 10 in phase two, and five in phase three. A core set of questions in the protocol remained constant. The interviewees were chosen based on their involvement in responses to offshore incidents of varying types and gravity in different countries. We had earlier identified some of the interviewees from reviewing 1,849 incidents on the organization's incidents database, while the organization recommended others. All participants had offshore experience in dealing with a major incident and held positions in the emergency management structure of the organization. To safeguard their anonymity and in line with the confidentiality agreement signed with the organization, names, location, and gender of the participants are not provided. Numbers are assigned to interviewees in bold instead, e.g., i1, i2.

The interviews were analyzed interpretively, with the aid of the qualitative analysis software NVivo. Advanced techniques for qualitative data analysis, such as open, axial, and selective coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), were applied. However, these did not supplant the creative thinking of the authors, as ultimately, “it is the researcher who gives meaning to the codes and does the abstract thinking” (Jennings, 2007, p. 484). In the latter stages of the analysis, elements of the activity-theoretical framework, as represented in Figure 1, were reintroduced to help make sense of the themes emerging from the interviews. This helped in interrogating the themes in the context of the activity the interviewees were involved in, a better understanding of relationships among concepts, and the extent to which phenomena can be explained through activity theory concepts.

The concept of contradictions was found to be very meaningful in understanding some phenomena in the emergency response activity system, as will become clearer in the next section. Engeström (1987, 1999) defined four levels of contradiction inherent in human activity systems, as follows: (a) primary contradiction—within each constituent component of the central activity; (b) secondary contradiction—between the constituents of the central activity; (c) tertiary contradiction—between elements of one activity system and a higher, more advanced form of that activity; and (d) quaternary contradiction—between the central activity and its neighbor activities. So in the offshore emergency response context, for instance, a primary contradiction may exist between the subject and the rules when a responder is instructed to fight a fire, but due to fear he refuses to comply, despite having being trained for it. However, not all levels of contradictions have to be present in the activity system.

One set of respondents that need particular mention are the OIMs. They play a pivotal role in the management of incidents, as they are responsible for the operation and management of an offshore oil platform. During an emergency, the OIM leads and coordinates the offshore emergency response organization. This is made up of teams that include personnel directly employed by the firm as well as employees of contractor firms working on the platform. The OIM makes the final decisions with input from other members of the emergency response organization (Flin & Slaven, 1996). The initial response and the decisions that are made play a pivotal role in determining the outcome of incident, i.e., the speed of resolution, number of casualties, and extent of pollution among, others.

It is important to note that although data were gathered from more than one country, the technology, policies, and processes put in place were exactly the same in both countries and are, indeed, universally applied in these environments, with minor modifications to suit the particular platform. As no significant cultural or organizational differences were noted, therefore, a cross-cultural analysis does not form part of this article. At the start of the study, it was envisaged that because of local cultural contexts and the multicultural makeup of the organization, aspects of its practices might vary between its Nigerian and U.K. operations. However, the only differences evident in the data were local accents and mannerisms. Even then, these were not considered as significant factors in the outcome of emergency response as they were largely neutralized by the uniform application of communication protocols and procedures in both locations.

We note that in an interpretive study such as this one, a balance needs to be maintained between objectivity and reflexivity. Objectivity “is necessary to arrive at an impartial and accurate interpretation of events,” while sensitivity “is required to perceive the subtle nuances and meanings in data and to recognise the connections between concepts” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, pp. 42–43). Objectivity was maintained by analyzing the data in a transparent manner, while not being unmindful of or insensitive to the authors’ subjective understandings and limiting, as much as possible, their intrusion into the interpretation. Also, data triangulation was utilized as much as possible and internalized as a “mode of enquiry” by the researchers as suggested by Denzin and Lincoln (1998).

Summary of Findings

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Context
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References

The overall findings of our research indicate the central role that information sharing plays in the offshore emergency response activity and how it influences the outcome. This it does by helping bring about (a) a shared understanding among the responders, which (b) aids collective decision making, (c) coordination of action, and (d) following of instructions. Key issues discussed by interviewees as crucial in helping responders share information effectively are as follows: (a) knowledge and training, (b) application of emergency procedures, (c) improvisation within limits, (d) human interaction, (e) use of physical and nonphysical tools, and (f) other related information behavior (e.g., information seeking). The findings also indicate that the manner in which information is shared is influenced by intricately intertwined aspects of the offshore context, which we describe as the socio-physical, structural, practices, and tool-use contexts.

The socio-physical context comprises situational, affective, and cognitive aspects. As a major theme that emerged from the data analysis, these contextual characteristics guide or influence the information behavior of responders from the time an alarm is sounded to the time when the incident is finally resolved, or where that is not possible, the platform is abandoned. For instance, the ferocity of a fire and remoteness of the platform (situational features) accentuate feelings of common danger and faith among responders (affective features), which enable a shared understanding (cognitive feature) of how information must be shared. Furthermore, interviewees are of the view that information must be shared (a) in a timely manner, (b) clearly and concisely, (c) using a calm and confident tone, and (d) with a duty of care to ensure that it is accurate and understood.

However, it is not within the scope of this article to cover all the issues or discuss all the findings of the study. In this article, we are concerned only with aspects of the socio-physical context, which suggests a relationship between information sharing and trust. What follows is an analysis of those elements of the emergency response activity system that were mutually reinforcing and help shed light into this relationship.

Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Context
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References

In this section, the characteristics of the offshore environment, namely, the common danger faced by offshore emergency responders and the heightened imperative to collaborate with and trust each other, are considered as an important part of context. An analysis of the data from an activity theory perspective indicates the presence or absence of contradictions that help in understanding information behavior and its relationship to other group outcomes, specifically the relationship between information sharing and trust in this context. Understanding contradictions and how complex systems such as this can cope with and use them for improvement is argued to be what activity theory is “particularly well-suited” for (Hemetsberger & Reinhardt, 2009, p. 990).

On the other hand, Paton and Jackson (2002) attributed much of the success of teamwork in response operations to good information sharing, while Crichton, Lauche, and Flin (2005) identified teamwork as one of the several skills necessary for successful emergency management in the oil industry. To aid in putting the ensuing findings in perspective, we contrast them with Weick's (1993, 1996) account of the Mann Gulch fire incident, which is discussed in the next section. With over 500 scholarly citations, this is one of the most influential studies undertaken in the context of emergency response.

Two of the four levels of contradictions identified by Engeström (1987, 1999), primary and secondary, are discussed. Secondary contradictions, which, in general, “tend to dominate empirical studies” of developmental work research (Miettinen, 2009, p. 167), were the most evident in our research. Primary contradictions, while theoretically possible, are discussed as uncommon or unlikely in this context for reasons adduced in the next section. Tertiary contradictions were entirely not evident. Quaternary contradictions that would occur, in this context, between offshore response and onshore support were evident in a few statements; however, they are not discussed here as they are not directly relevant to the initial offshore response stage. An analysis of the contradictions or absence thereof in the offshore emergency response activity system leads us to formulate a counterintuitive relationship between information sharing and trust.

Several responders made statements about information sharing-related actions during emergencies using concepts associated with trust (e.g., faith in team members and team leaders, respect, taking care of each other). When interpreted from the perspective of the inherent contradictions in the actions, we believe a strong but counterintuitive relationship between information sharing and trust is suggested. The relationship is deemed counterintuitive because it appears to be in a different format to that usually acknowledged in the trust literature: information sharing helping to instill trust, not necessarily the other way round; over a relatively short period rather than taking time to develop; and occurring even when capacity for sense making has been diminished.

One OIM argued that the team's ability to follow the offshore installation manager's instructions during an emergency relies on the respect they have for him, as well the manner in which he communicates. According to this OIM (i19), “there is a certain commanding presence; a commanding voice; a reassuring presence; a reassuring voice,” which makes the emergency crew believe that they are being well looked after by the OIM, which in turn secures their obedience. Another responder, a team leader, suggests a link between the quality of information being shared (especially by the leader) and the perception of people that they are being looked after, in other words, their ability to trust.

[They] recognise that they have to share information, which is very vital; the other one is the quality of the information that is being shared. If you're not sharing the right information, then you're leading people to doing the wrong things. And they can take decisions that could backfire. It is also very vital because at each point in time you will have to feed back to your fire team leader or sub-team leader what is happening; and that information you're sharing is to also look after people within your team to make sure that they are all okay. So it's very important. (i6)

Primary Contradictions

Primary contradictions are contradictions that occur within an element of the activity. A primary contradiction could exist in the “object” of the activity when it is not shared in common, i.e., when the motivation of emergency responders differs. There could also be a contradiction in the “subject” when an emergency responder refuses to follow instructions. In the current study's context, however, such a primary contradiction is not common or is unlikely. This is attributed to the common danger faced by responders and the heightened requirement of trust among them. These can be seen as manifestations of the responders’ affective or emotional needs (Wilson, 1994, 1997). According to one emergency responder:

At that mode, you're in military mode; whatever the OIM says, you follow; whatever the team leader says, you follow. I'm not saying you should go into the fire but you understand what I'm saying; the OIM has deemed it safe for him [i.e., the team leader] to deploy six or seven people to go and fight the fire. So the team leader should have faith in the OIM and the team the team leader is leading should have faith in him; simple as that. So they follow the leader. (i5)

The safety and survival of all personnel on offshore oil rigs are of paramount concern, which is evident from the debate on organizational safety in hazardous industries in recent years (Mearns, Flin, & O'Connor, 2001; Mearns, Whitaker, & Flin, 2003). It could be argued, therefore, that the affective (Wilson, 1994, 1997) and situational needs (Taylor, 1991) of the emergency responders in relation to their safety would be their primary motivations for seeking and sharing information during an emergency.

Furthermore, the probability of information sharing taking place between individuals partly depends on the context (Wilson, 2010), while group members are motivated to share information to “satisfy goals evoked by features of the context” (Wittenbaum, Hollingshead, & Botero, 2004, p. 304). The remoteness of an offshore oil rig means that a fire or an explosion could be more fatal than in a more accessible environment. With the likelihood that if it deteriorates, help may come too late, personnel know that they have to do everything to bring it under control. This is illustrated by a team leader and an OIM, respectively:

Because there's nowhere to run to offshore, if we had to abandon the platform, then it would be a real event and nobody wants to be in that kind of scenario. So when you're there, you're living there, you need to take care of yourselves. (i6)

There's one thing you will find in offshore environment; [it] is that everybody knows that we are all very exposed and we are all exposed to the same threat and that we need to look after each other. It's like an unwritten camaraderie. … (i7)

There is nowhere to run to, so there is a clear understanding that the people have to stay and fight the fire and look after each other. It is more likely that if a fire team leader gives an instruction to go into an area and fight a fire, then members of his team will trust that he is acting in their best interest and carry out that instruction. In other words, there would be no contradiction within the object of the activity. However, even if a primary contradiction were to arise (as evident in the Mann Gulch case discussed in the next section), it can be resolved through the manner in which the leader communicates and the quality of the information he shares with his team. This invokes the underlying imperative of trust. In other words, the fire team members’ trust in their leader can be enhanced through better information sharing. Therefore, when such a primary contradiction is apparent, a closer analysis of the offshore context would more likely indicate that it is a secondary contradiction, as described below.

Secondary Contradictions

Secondary contradictions occur between elements of the activity. For instance, when a team leader defers obeying the instructions of the OIM, this would indicate a secondary contradiction between the rules (e.g., procedures, command and control hierarchy) and the object of the activity (e.g., safety). Recalling one fire incident in a confined location on an oil rig, a fire team leader (i6) mentioned that he obeyed the OIM's instruction to deploy his team only because the fire had been contained to an extent and he (the team leader) deemed it safe to do so. He further added that the procedures allow him to disobey the instruction if he did not feel it was safe for his men. So, in principle, an OIM (who is in the control room) could ask the fire team leader to fight a fire, but the team leader may decide not to carry out that instruction immediately. As he is closer to the fire, he is able to make a better decision as to whether it is safe enough to deploy his men or not. However, it is not clear how or where the line is drawn between outright insubordination and legitimate disobedience.

While the fire team leader may decide not to follow the OIM's instructions, the crew at the scene of the incident knows that the team leader sees what they see and can accurately gauge the ferocity of the fire before giving the instruction to go in and fight it. They are therefore less likely to disobey him. In reality, however, it is very rare for instructions not to be obeyed. Flin et al. (1996) suggest that disregarding advice from superiors during emergencies is “not widely regarded as a career-enhancing strategy” in the offshore industry. One such rare case is a fire incident in which two members of the response team were instructed to fight a fire, but despite being well trained for the job, refused to obey legitimate instructions. According to the OIM in charge:

On this occasion, I am talking about two people who refused to go fight the fire; they were part of the fire team and they refused to go … it's not that they were being horrible; they were just petrified; they were just scared stiff, couldn't do it. [They had] gone through all the training [but] when the real thing was there, they were scared stiff. (i7)

The OIM points out that the two team members were simply terrified rather than being obstinate, or, as in the Mann Gulch case, being unable to make sense of the instructions. On the surface, the above-mentioned example suggests a primary contradiction entirely within the subjects alone, i.e., in their emotional and cognitive response. As we have argued in the previous section, however, such primary contradictions are not common in the offshore context. It appears that the instinct for survival is a greater motivator than fear is a paralyzer; as the team leader in another fire incident argued: "you had better fight the fire offshore than the fire roasting you” (i6).

Speaking further on the incident, he noted that “nobody in the team showed any sign of fear. So, you know, both teams were quite courageous and they did what was expected. It was a marvellous job” (i6). Another interviewee, an OIM, suggests that he would only be emotionally distressed if he knows that help from onshore support is not forthcoming in the event that they cannot contain the emergency. According to this OIM, the promise of help

[h]elps [the OIM] in his own emotional response as well. If you were alone and you were not sure what's going to come to help you or advise you on what to do, then you immediately have a problem; your stress increases. (i10)

The same argument can be extended to other team members offshore. They should be really terrified only if they knew that they were on their own without the help and support of other team members. So, in the unlikelihood of a primary contradiction, we take a closer look at the secondary contradictions. Despite receiving appropriate training, the team members were overcome by fear and were unable to apply this training during a real emergency. This indicates a secondary contradiction between the rules of the activity and the two subjects, i.e., their personality traits. Studies have looked at the relationship between personality traits of emergency commanders and their ability to perform well under stress (Flin & Slaven, 1995, 1996). It could be argued, therefore, that in the selection and training of emergency response team members, personal characteristics could be as relevant as, if not more than, the training provided.

Another secondary contradiction would be between the subjects (the OIM or the two responders) and the tool, e.g., training. When a legitimate instruction is not followed, as in the above case, we suggest a (less obvious) secondary contradiction between the rule, tool, and subject. We direct attention to how the instruction was issued.

We argue that had the team leader's (or OIM's) instruction been conveyed through “a certain commanding presence; a commanding voice; a reassuring presence; a reassuring voice” (i19), or otherwise in a manner that sought to allay the fears of the two members, it could have motivated them to action. Similar kinds of reassuring oral exchanges are practiced by air crews in emergency situations (Ginnet, 1993). The absence of such an exchange is also evident in the Mann Gulch tragedy, as it is clear that the imperative of “drop your tools or you will die,” which Weick (1996) examined in another paper, was not effectively conveyed to the fire fighters. We therefore suggest that the manner in which the instruction was issued may have partly been responsible for the subjects’ inability to comply.

Resolving a contradiction such as the one above would involve ensuring that superiors not only issue appropriate instructions, but also do so using language that would motivate subordinates to action and reduce the likelihood of noncompliance. This may ultimately involve addressing the historical bases of the contradiction, for instance, through amending procedures (rules) and training (tools). Davenport and Hall (2002) suggest that employees are more likely to be encouraged to share knowledge if they know it is a requirement of their job. Similarly, it is suggested that incorporating similar information exchanges into the rules would make it more likely that a superior would go the extra mile to encourage subordinates to comply with instructions. The next section discusses the information sharing and trust relationship in more detail, with more theoretical support from the literature in several fields, including the organization, information science, and communication domains.

Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Context
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References

The effectiveness of teams responding to catastrophic events and their success in buffering the uncertainty in such events has been attributed to trust among individuals (James, 2011). However, even when trust appears to be missing or not fully developed, it could be instilled or enhanced in extraordinary circumstances, albeit temporarily but to the extent that it motivates people to action and eventually safety. The key question to ask then is: How can this trust be instilled? As suggested earlier, through better information sharing. Indeed, Marks, Zaccaro, and Mathieu (2000) suggest that communication and team-interaction training that focuses on how to handle novel, rather than routine, situations has a stronger link to team performance. Both the quantity and quality of communication processes are crucial determinants of emergency response team performance (James, 2011). However, the argument we are making here relates more to the quality of the information being shared, which, we are in agreement with Marks et al. (2000), is more crucial.

Previous trust studies have showed the effect of trust on information sharing (Dirks, 1999; Dirks & Ferrin, 2001) and the role of hedging and improvisation in trust resilience (Meyerson et al., 1996). However, in hectic situations such as emergency response there is a likelihood that communication may decrease among team members (Kleinman & Serfaty, 1989), or team members may erroneously believe that they have shared some information (Sonnenwald, 2006) that they have not shared effectively. Landgren and Nulden (2007) argued, in their study of the emergency response to a chemical accident, that the “capacity of the actors increased and the visibility of the situation improved” when more information became available.

The Mann Gulch fire disaster (Weick, 1993, 1996), in which 13 firemen perished, provides an example of the type of primary contradiction described as unlikely in the offshore context in the previous section. Weick's central argument is that the firemen died because they could not make sense of their foreman's instruction and had refused to comply. When Dodge (the foreman) saw “that the fire had crossed the gulch just 200 yards ahead and was moving toward them … at 610 feet 217 per minute,” he had told them to drop their tools and lie down in the area burnt by a fire he had deliberately lit (Weick, 1993, p. 629).

If a role system collapses among people for whom trust, honesty, and self respect are underdeveloped, then they are on their own. And fear often swamps their resourcefulness. If, however, a role system collapses among people where trust, honesty, and self respect are more fully developed, then new options, such as mutual adaptation, blind imitation of creative solutions, and trusting compliance, are created. (Weick, 1993, p. 643)

From an activity theory perspective, the behavior of the firemen who refused to obey their foreman's instruction to drop their tools and join him in an area where he had lit a fire and burnt is an example of a primary contradiction in the activity system. There was an apparent contradiction in the object of that action (i.e., fighting the fire), which was to survive the fire, and the object of their subsequent action (i.e., flight), which was to escape the fire. Both actions could be considered to have shared the same ultimate objective of the activity, which was to put out the fire safely or escape from it safely. However, the imperative of trust and common danger appears not to have been communicated effectively.

The analysis of contradictions in the previous section indicates a counterintuitive relationship between information sharing and trust. This suggests an alternative (but not mutually exclusive) explanation to Weick's collapse of sense making as the overriding factor in the Mann Gulch disaster. The analysis suggests that, at least in some emergency response contexts, the lack of trust could be a more crucial factor than the collapse of sense making or could even be the cause of the collapse of sense making in the first place. Although Weick (1993) also discussed the role of fear, it was found to play a less crucial role in the current research context, as mentioned in the preceding section. Weick's sense-making thesis is very compelling, and so is the temptation to analyze every aspect of organizational crisis, disaster, or other emergency response through its prism. However, reechoing March and Olsen (1989) and Reed (1991), Weick (1993) cautioned against entrenching orthodoxies, citing the overstretched use of the concept of decision making in analyzing organizational phenomena. In the same vein, in analyses of organizational responses to disasters, emergencies, or crises, we argue that the sense-making argument may not be entirely adequate in every context. One such context is that of offshore emergency response.

In several well-documented disasters, “faulty interaction processes led to increased fear, diminished communication and death” (Weick, 1993, p. 643), and trust, honesty, and self-respect were “conspicuously missing.” This is consistent with what happened in the Mann Gulch fire. Because the role system had collapsed, Dodge could not rely on his crew members to “trust him, question him, or even pay attention to him, because they don't know him and there is no time to change this” (Weick, 1993, p. 644). Furthermore, little communication had taken place during the 3 1/2 hours of this episode. Of the three attributes (i.e., trust, honesty, and self-respect), it could be argued that trust has the most potential to be influenced by the actions of others over time, while the other two might be seen as personal attributes that crew members posses in varying degrees.

Evidence suggests that individual actions have a greater influence on the trust relationship than do personal attributes. A study on trust in an organizational context (Martins, 2002, p. 763) indicated that the trust subordinates have in their superiors “is to a large degree not influenced” by “the big five” personality traits of the superior: These are, conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, resourcefulness, and extraversion (Martins, 2002). This suggests that there is a stronger relationship between what the superior does and the trust existing between him and the subordinates than between his personal traits and the trust existing between him and the subordinates.

Martins (2002) suggests that information sharing, along with three other managerial practices, influences the trust relationship existing between superiors and subordinates (the others are credibility, team management, and work support). It could be argued that in the time-constrained context of an emergency, swift trust (Meyerson et al., 1996; Tatham & Kovacs, 2010) is the only alternative to trust developing gradually. However, the actions of the superior can help in instilling it. The leader in such unpredictable and complex situations acts as a boundary spanner who “must effectively make sense of the surrounding context and communicate this mental model to team members” (Marks et al., 2000, p. 983). In any case, in the Mann Gulch disaster, Dodge exhibited some of the “big five” personality traits but to no avail.

For Weick (1993), the key question to ask is as follows: When formal structure collapses, what is left? He suggested that the answer lies in four follow-up questions, the first of which is related to the size of the crew and how that affects their communication. Small informal groups communicate directly, whereas large formal groups have mediated communication. Although the Mann Gulch crew was small, they had very little communication, which is even worse than the often problematic mediated communication of a large formal group. It could be argued that the conclusions that Weick came to were as a result of the key question that he asked. Another question worth asking, perhaps, is as follows: When formal structure collapses, how can it be rebuilt? By asking this additional key question, it is hoped that more insights can be gained, as Weick (1993) himself suggested how linking Mann Gulch with other concepts could guide future research.

The aviation industry, which has been the subject of perhaps the most studies on the functioning of crews in dynamic and stressful situations, is instructive in furthering our understanding of the role of information sharing in building or instilling trust. Weick (1993) noted that excellent air crews understood the importance of effective communication. The captain and his crew “expect one another to enact any of these four information exchanges: (1) I need to talk to you; (2) I listen to you; (3) I need you to talk to me; or even (4) I expect you to talk to me” (Ginnet, 1993, p. 88). These exchanges operationalize the spirit of Campbell's (1990) social imperatives of trust, honesty, and self-respect. They also indicate “the importance of enquiry, advocacy, and assertion when people do not understand the reasons why other people are doing something or ignoring something” (Helmreich & Clayton, 1993, p. 21).

The argument made here is that in emergency situations, the relationship between effective information sharing and trust becomes even more important. It is argued that a more effective method of sharing information should have included any of the following (or similar) assertive exchanges: (1) I need you to listen to me; (2) I need you to trust me; (3) Trust me, I know what I'm doing; and (4) Trust me, I've done this before. Dunn, Lewandowsky, and Kirsner (2002) argued that a critical factor affecting the functioning of teams in emergency response is “the nature and timing of verbal exchanges among team members”. As argued previously, the analysis of contradictions indicates a relationship between information sharing and trust in the performance of offshore responders. Similarly, in the Mann Gulch incident, it is suggested that enacting one or more of the above exchanges would have likely increased the responders’ capacity to trust and act, even if their capacity to make complete sense of the situation and/or instructions was diminished.

Sonnenwald's (2006) challenges to the effective sharing of information in command and control settings are instructive in elaborating on the above-mentioned argument; these challenges are as follows: recognizing differences in the underlying meanings of shared symbols; sharing implications of information; understanding the role of emotions in sharing information; and reestablishing trust. All of these challenges were evident in the Mann Gulch incident. It could be argued that the above-mentioned four exchanges implying or expressly requesting trust could have helped in addressing them as elaborated below. Figure 2 depicts this conceptual relationship between information sharing and trust (as well as other likely motivators), action, and sense making. The “sense making” rectangle is made smaller than the others to reflect the possibility of a diminished capacity for sense making.

figure

Figure 2. Information sharing and trust, action, and sense making. [Color figure can be viewed in the online issue, which is available at wileyonlinelibrary.com.]

Download figure to PowerPoint

First, the crew members are working together and communicating directly, rather than remotely. Unlike mediated communication, which may obscure or distort emotions, face-to-face communication enables the crew to take in aspects of nonverbal communication, thereby achieving intersubjectivity. Despite Weick's argument (1993) that intersubjectivity was lost on everyone except two people who stuck together and survived, Dodge would have been better able to share the information—that his action of lying down in the burnt-out area will almost definitely save all their lives—by engaging in one or more of the four exchanges listed above.

Second, in spite (or because) of the fact that the fire fighters did not know him well enough to trust him, the act of explicitly asking for their trust could have been more effective in getting them to trust him than him not saying it but expecting them to make sense of his instructions. It has already been argued well by Weick (1993) that sense making and role structures had collapsed. It was therefore not surprising that Dodge's solution was not recognized, while trying to find out how people could see the “escape fire as a solution or develop their own solution” (Weick, 1993, p. 638) would seem irrelevant. Through better information sharing, as depicted in the exchanges suggested above, the crew would have, perhaps, not needed to comprehend the solution or even try to develop their own solutions. They would have trusted and accepted Dodge's solution, akin to what Weick and Robert (1993, p. 375) describe as “heedful subordinating.”

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Context
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References

In this article, a counterintuitive relationship between information sharing and trust was proposed by way of interpreting the data through the prism of activity theory's concept of contradictions. Two of the four levels of contradictions, namely, primary and secondary, were discussed in aspects of the offshore emergency response activity. A key characteristic of offshore emergencies is that of a shared awareness of the common danger faced by responders and the difficulty of escape, hence the need to do all that it takes to resolve the emergency quickly. Apparent contradictions in the activity and behavior of emergency responders must therefore be analyzed and interpreted by taking into account this contextual characteristic. The absence or collapse of trust itself could be seen as a contradiction in this context, as suggested by the rarity or unlikelihood of it manifesting. In the time-bound, uncertain, and highly volatile context of offshore emergency response, if trust collapses, then it must be rebuilt swiftly and this can be done through more effective information sharing.

One of the most influential studies undertaken in an emergency response context, Weick's sense-making thesis (1993, 1996), was revisited and juxtaposed with the current research using the concept of contradictions. This suggests how even when the capacity for sense making has been diminished, effective information sharing could help instill trust, even in the crucial early stages of emergency response. When information is not effectively shared, collaborative group work fails (Sonnenwald, 2006). Weick had argued that the collapse of sense making was the major cause of the Mann Gulch and South Canyon tragedies in which 13 and 14 firemen lost their lives in 1949 and 1994, respectively. However, he also suggested that the collapse of structure (including trust) was a contributory factor. What emerged from our research strongly suggests that the collapse of trust, which could have been reestablished through better information sharing, may have been a greater contributory factor.

Admittedly, the indirect attribution of interviewees’ statements and concepts to trust could be seen as a limitation of the relationship we proposed. However, the analysis of contradictions in the light of contextual characteristics that heighten the trust imperative indicates that the relationship is very plausible. Nevertheless, future research with an alternative design may provide a different lens and illuminate different aspects of the issue.

The above-mentioned limitation notwithstanding, the proposed relationship has practical implications on the functioning of offshore emergency responders in the “golden hour” that follows a major incident. Information exchanges that explicitly invoke trust were proposed as potentially instilling a latent trusting predisposition, thereby encouraging action, in a manner similar to those enacted by air crews (Ginnet, 1993). This trusting predisposition would in turn be induced by the nature of the offshore environment, which exposes all personnel to common danger with nowhere to run. The action of explicitly sharing information in a certain way, by invoking trust, helps remind team members of the overriding motive of the activity. In other words, even when the capacity to make sense is lost or diminished, it could help bring them back to their senses.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research Context
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References

The authors wish to acknowledge the contribution of Professor Tom Wilson, visiting professor at Leeds University Business School, and Professor Alan Pearman, Pro-Dean for Research and Professor of Management Decision Analysis, Leeds University Business School, for reviewing early drafts of the paper. The first author wishes to acknowledge the support of the Petroleum Technology Development Fund, Abuja, Nigeria, who funded his PhD research.

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  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Methods
  8. Summary of Findings
  9. Contradictions in the Offshore Emergency Response Activity
  10. Instilling Trust Through Information Sharing
  11. Conclusion
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. References
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