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Organisational Resilience: 'Stop playing hurricanes'

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

Reflection from the RISE Talk given by Professor David Denyer on Organisational Resilience: Challenges and Opportunities

The inaugural series of RISE Talks (Resilience, Innovation, Strategy and Ecosystems) was kicked off by , Professor David Denyer from Cranfield School of Management, on 7th October, 2021 at Durham University Business School. The series of RISE Talks is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and hosted by the Centre for Innovation and Technology Management. The aim of the initiative is to facilitate an interdisciplinary conversation and exploration of how the role of Resilience, Innovation, Strategy and Ecosystems (RISE) can help to address some of the challenges and issues faced by business and society, in achieving sustainable development goals.

In the first talk, our distinguished speaker, Professor David Denyer presented the state-of-the art research, practice, methods and pedagogy on organisational resilience, including the challenges and opportunities, based on his experience over two decades in academia, industry and consultancy. Resilience has become an incredibly popular narrative, which has been used by governments and organisations in many countries around the world. UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to incorporate resilience into the aforementioned current term being used. In the UK, resilience strategy aims to approach resilience throughout society and this has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, during which people started talking about resilience more than ever before, which has given rise to a heightened awareness of the fact that, there are going to be more disruptive events in the future, as has always been the case throughout history. Building resilience is now at the forefront of the UK government’s agendas and in this regard, the government is hoping to include resilience statements in the annual statements that every organisation needs to make concerning the immediate period, for the coming five years and for the long-term aims.

The overall trend towards resilience in recent decades has encouraged us to think, and research about resilience, this involving academics, practitioners and policy-makers, in terms of the causes (e.g., social and technological changes), mechanisms for resilience in relation to disruption, the capabilities of implementing resilience into the future and dealing with future disruptions. In spite of this, more empirical studies are needed and in this regard, we have observed three common practices of organisations in terms of how to build resilience into an increasingly interdependent and complex systems, which are susceptible to disruption and changes:

  • Option 1: creating better mitigation through addressing causal factors

  • Option 2: learning to adapt and better preparing for disruptions that may come

  • Option 3: doing nothing, that is usually what organisations do; they either dwell on the past successes, which creates the illusion of a secure future or creates an organisation where they can’t imagine a future failure, thus resulting in overlooking the warning signs of disruptions; or this may be attributed to organisational culture where people feel unable to speak up

Most development interventions fail, however, to meet their objectives but why? Firstly, they focus on what (information, technical skills and competencies) but not how to re-configure resources in responding to adverse situations; Secondly, learning takes place in isolation, thus failing in developing a shared mental model needed in forming strategy and collective actions in response to disruptions. Thirdly, these interventions are detached from the context/problem. The effectiveness of the prescribed processes in responding to one disruptive situation may not work in another situation. Finally, the effect of disruption can last for a very long-period time. The existing emergency programme is too short to be effective or adequate.

What challenges do we face?

A ‘black swan event’ is an unpredictable event with a low probability, which, thus, comes as a surprise when it happens. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic is considered as a black swan event. It is, however, high on the list of relatively highly probable events, which were also discussed by Bill Gates and other years ago (see the report to former President George W. Bush). The failure of translating possible thought into resilience raises the first challenge in terms of the conceptualisation of resilience: what is resilience? The concept of resilience is defined and operationalised differently across different disciplines: engineering, business and management, and the ecology. Resilience that differentiates itself from risk management is not only concerned with mitigation but also about absorbing and adapting to disruptive and changing situations; it’s not just about surviving but prospering in these situations. Secondly, when we define resilience with the absence of context, it then becomes problematic. The importance of understanding the context is similar to the situation where property builders need to know the location and the surrounding environment in order to decide where to safely and successfully build a house. Thirdly, and relatedly, measuring organisational resilience is a challenging task in achieving the validity policy, even although the first two challenges are hypothetically resolved. One way to understand this can be to draw on an umbrella concept, where we appreciate that the umbrella can be dysfunctional in protecting against rain, if we break down its interconnected components. Similarly, the traditional rule of the validity, on the one hand, challenges the umbrella-like phenomenon of resilience, and on the other hand, offers an opportunity for us to think about how we can move beyond the conventional way of developing measurements.

What are the strategic choices for organisational resilience?

Mapping essential aspects of resilience in organisations includes (1) ‘meeting productivity and efficiency goals’; (2) 'keeping pace within technology, business models and consumer trends'; (3) ‘taking ownership of emergent problems and formulating creative solutions’; and (4) ‘assuring compliance with a prescriptive system of rules, regulations and standards.’ These four aspects compete with each other through two dimensions of orientation: progressive and defensive orientation on mindset, logic and mental model; consistent and flexible orientation on organisational structures, systems, routines, and behaviours. The juxtaposition of the two dimensions forms four types of resilience strategy:

  • Performance optimisation (improvement, efficiency/productivity)

  • Adaptive innovation (innovation, collaboration, agility)

  • Preventative control (compliance, safeguards, controls)

  • Mindful action (problem solving, options/alternatives)

Notably, the approach of adopting these strategies varies depending on the characteristics of organisations, situational contexts and time, amongst others, which could be ‘either/or’ or ‘both/and’. Over-emphasising any of these strategies is, however, likely to put organisations in vulnerable positions (e.g., brittleness, disorder, stagnation and fragmentation), when crossing a threshold of strategic functioning. Thus, finding the right balance is essential for organisational resilience.

What do we need to do?

  • To understand, we need to bring together disparate but connected disciplines into one leading-edge research trans-disciplinary field.

  • There is a need for academia, government, business, and society to work together to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper (BS65000).

  • We need studies of resilience linking context, mechanisms and outcomes in diverse kinds and levels of system, ranging from individuals, communities, organisations, to economies and societies

  • Development for resilience will likely be more complex and collaborative involving heated experiences, colliding perspectives and elevated sensemaking (CCL).

How to cite: You, J. J. 2021. "Organisational resilience: 'stop playing hurricanes'". RISE Talk

This blog expresses the author’s views and interpretation of comments made during the talk. Any errors and omissions are the author. Dr. Jacqueline You is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow at Durham University Business School, UK. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on organizational resilience and disruption in the context of business ecosystems. Prior to entering into academia, she worked for multinational corporations, primarily in the department of global supply chain networks and strategic procurement in China, the US, Canada and France and then, as an international entrepreneur based in the UK.

RISE Talk (Resilience, Innovation, Strategy and Ecosystems) is an academic initiative funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and hosted by the Centre for Innovation and Technology Management (CITM), Durham University Business School, in partnership with the Global Citizenship Programme, Ustinov College.The aim is to facilitate an interdisciplinary discussion and exploration of how conventional theories inform our understanding of the phenomenon of RISE and how the role of RISE can help to address the pressing and complex issues faced by business and society, including governance and systems for sustainable development.

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