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Learning how to cope with uncertainty: Can high-reliability organizations be a role model for manufacturing companies?

Klaus-Peter Schulz (Department of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, ICN Business School, Metz, France)
Silke Geithner (Department of Organization Studies, TU Dresden, Dresden, Germany)
Peter Mistele (Department of Talent and Organization, Accenture Germany, Kronberg im Taunus, Germany)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 10 April 2017




Manufacturing companies increasingly have to deal with uncertainty and complexity without being sufficiently prepared for it. High-reliability organizations (HROs) successfully deal with dynamic and unknown situations. The authors ask the question whether learning concepts of HROs can be a role model for manufacturing companies and if their learning principles can be successfully applied there. The paper aims to discuss these issues.


The authors’ research is based on high-reliability theory and former qualitative empirical studies on learning and development of mission-based HRO. The authors compare their learning practice with learning and development demands of the own empirical cases studies of three manufacturing firms.


Learning concepts in the manufacturing firms are disconnected from their practical demands. In HRO in contrast, learning and development follows a distinct choreography, with a focus on collective reflection. Manufacturing firms can learn from HROs about learning principles especially with respect to collective reflection-on-action in order to develop situational awareness. However, the HROs’ learning should not be seen as a strict role model as their work organization differs significantly from that of manufacturing firms.

Research limitations/implications

The research is based on in-depth case analyses (e.g. interviews and observation). The outcomes are case specific and focus on manufacturing firms. Hence, only patterns or principles can be generalized. To gain a more complete picture, the authors suggest further case analyses in different industries.

Practical implications

Manufacturing firms can benefit from learning principles of HROs, like combining formal and informal learning and collective reflection on practice.


The paper connects previous research on HRO with original empirical research on manufacturing firms. Through the matching of data, the authors contribute to the discussion on whether the concept of HROs can be seen as a role model for learning and development in manufacturing firms.



Schulz, K.-P., Geithner, S. and Mistele, P. (2017), "Learning how to cope with uncertainty: Can high-reliability organizations be a role model for manufacturing companies?", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 30 No. 2, pp. 199-216.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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