Thursday, August 16, 2012

Do the informal social networks in airports affect security judgments?

How far do social networks and informal interactions affect the judgments made by airport security personnel during times of crisis? Quite a lot, according to recent research carried out by an international team of specialists in security matters. They say that informal social networks in airports are just as powerful as the formal set of rules and guidelines laid out in specific security directives.

The groundbreaking research, which was published recently in the Journal of Transportation Security, was carried out by Alan Avi Kirschenbaum, Michele Mariani, Coen Van Gulijk, Carmit Rapaport and Sharon Lubasz and is based on survey data collected from a sample of airport employees in several European Airports, as part of the BEMOSA Project.

During their analysis of the findings, the team noted that both formal and informal sources of security information have an impact on the employee’s decisions to comply with the security rules and directives. This is especially noticeable during times of crisis.

The research found that alongside the formal administrative structure of airports, there also exists “a diverse and pervasiveness set of informal communications networks that are a potent factor in determining airport security levels.”

“These two work in tandem and both serve as conduits for the selective flow of information that will ultimately affect airport security,” researchers wrote in the article.

“An airport can no longer be solely viewed as a strictly formal organization governing the security behavior of its employees by imposing administrative directives,” they said. “Rules and protocols are being bent, broken and disregarded.”

And they added: “Apparently there is a vibrant set of informal social networks in airports that provides alternative paths for accessing information and, more importantly directly influence the degree that the security protocols will be followed.”

The article describes airports as “complex social organizations,” characterized, for the most part, as having strong formal social structures that bolster the legal set of administrative rules that affect operational maintenance and continuity. However, little attention is paid to the rich fabric of informal networks that also play a critical role in airport management.

This, say the researchers, is a mistake because both formal and informal structures in airports are important.

“In cases when a security decision needs to be made, it would seem that formal sources of information — given its legal and administrative prerogative — should marginalize information generated through informal social networks. Yet, recent ethnographic evidence has shown that informal social interactions in airports are alive and have an impact on group based security decisions making, along with a great deal of bending and even breaking the rules,” they write.

While it is still not clear to what extent such informal sources of information impact on security decisions, the new research raises serious questions as to the veracity of official formal sources as the sole determining factor is such decisions.