Is top-down culture to blame for Asiana crash?

2013-07-11 17:23

Is culture to blame for Asiana crash?

Experts say evidence is ‘inconclusive’ to ‘stereotypical’
By Kim Young-jin
Did culture contribute to the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214?
Western media speculation appears itchy to point out that Korea’s top-down hierarchal ways caused communication problems in the cockpit, leading to the fatal crash at San Francisco International Airport last Sunday.
“Despite changes, including an improved safety record, Korea’s aviation sector remains rooted in a national character that’s largely about preserving hierarchy ― and asking few questions of those in authority,” an article by CNBC said.Some beg to disagree. One noted scholar called the speculation a case of “Orientalism.” Others said that while the local airline industry has evolved, there may be aspects of the culture that need to be looked into.
“I do not take all these theories seriously,” said Vladimir Tikhonov, an East Asian Studies professor at the University of Oslo. “You have militarized cultures in the cockpits in a host of places. It does bring problems, a lot of problems, but it is not necessarily related to a higher accident rate. For me, all this talk…smacks of Orientalism.”
It is still early in the investigation to draw conclusions, with the probe expected to continue for months. As details emerge, however, many expect Korean training and cockpit practices to be scrutinized further.
The speculation stems from Korean Air’s poor safety record in the 1990’s including a deadly 1997 crash in Guam. The problems, attributed to cultural issues, forced the airline to hand over its flight training to outsiders.
Many of the U.S. reports cited a 2008 book by Malcolm Gladwell, “Outliers,” in which the pop culture author points to a “cultural legacy” of deference towards elders to explain crashes by Korean Air up until the late 1990s.
But Gladwell also noted that Korean Air pulled off a “small miracle” and became “as safe as any airline in the world” by working to change the problem.
“There may still be Korean cultural factors that are cause for concern,” said Michael Breen, a former British reporter and long-term resident in Korea. “Deference to the pilot is no longer one of them. The track record of Korean pilots flying commercially, speaks for itself.”
A widely floated, anonymous email has added fuel to the fire, suggesting that the scrutiny might be better placed on the culture imbedded in Korean corporations, including airlines.
The email, supposedly written by a former expat simulator instructor for Asiana, describes a corporate climate that sought to accelerate pilots through the learning process. The writer said he lost count of the “number of highly qualified instructors I worked with who were fired because they tried to enforce normal standards of performance” and was shocked by the “lack of basic piloting skills shown by most of the pilots.”
Pilots kept a website and reported on every training session so that they would know what to expect during simulation periods, the email claimed. The author also said Korean pilots relied on rote memorization but had difficulty putting the knowledge into practice. Though the email has not been verified, it drew attention because the language was highly technical.
Tom Coyner, a longtime observer of Korea, said there has been a big improvement in cockpit education, but that it wasn’t unreasonable to probe the role of culture in the incident.
“The culture hasn’t changed. All the human inputs ― from the education to the military system ― have not changed,” he said.
Either way, investigators are poised to probe the role of culture in the crash.
”We are certainly interested to see if there are issues where there are challenges to crew communication, if there’s an authority break where people won’t challenge one another,” said U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, Wednesday.
Breen added that the focus on culture could simply be a reflection of the nature of media.
“The story is basically over and it’s going to take months, if not years, for a final result to come out, by which time news followers will have almost forgotten the event. So there is a certain desire to keep the story going,” he said.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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