Resilience Roundup - Organizing for Resilience - Part 3 - Organizations - Issue #59

Hope all you US folks had a good holiday!


Organizing for Resilience - Part 3 - Organizations

This week is the final part of my analysis of Kathleen Sutcliffe and Timothy Vogus’ chapter “Organizing For Resilience,” focusing on resilience at an organizational level.

As you might expect, factors that encourage resilience at the organizational level parallels that of the other levels.

Broadly speaking, processes that help encourage growth and competence and allow learning from mistakes will help create an environment where resilience is more likely to arise.

Unfortunately, the authors tell us, there isn’t a lot of research around resilience from an organizational perspective. In order to learn about it, the authors drew on research focusing on organizational learning and high reliability organizations (see issue 9 for more about HROs).

Also, processes that “restore efficacy” such as quickly processing feedback and facilitating knowledge transfer will also create and environment for “positive adaptation.” Conversely, rigidity in processes or job roles, along with centralization, creates environments where resilience is less likely to arise. These recommendations and patterns remind a lot of devops methodologies.

The authors reinforce that resilience is more likely to arise when structures are created that “allow problems to flow toward expertise”. This is backed by research from nuclear power plants and disaster response teams (and matches my experience in disaster response type teams as well).

Unsurprisingly, the authors encourage continued learning, but caution the “superstitious learning” can encourage organizations to only focus on what they’re good at and ignore just about everything else. Which then leaves them in a place where they are unprepared for any sort of challenge outside of their narrow specialty.

There aren’t very many examples throughout the paper, but they do set aside space for one at the organizational level, specifically addressing “threat-rigidity,” the idea that if a given threat is big or stressful enough and organizational will automatically respond in a rigid way. This materializes as things like increased control structures, conserving of resources, or processing less information.

There are situations in which this sort of response could be effective or yield some sort of positive adjustment if the threat is relatively small, but when facing larger threats the organization is likely to be unable to have have the capacity to respond.

Past research in this area tends to ignore or overlook that some organizational attributes or capabilities make a non-rigid response more likely, such as those that contribute to resilience at all levels. This is partly because when an organization increases the collective skillset, they then have a broader range of actions that they can take in the face of challenges. Additionally, they will then be able to use and expand their prior knowledge to further expand the space in which they look for solutions.

The authors remind us that we can see and know that resilient organizations respond differently to challenges, but we don’t (yet) know if those same organizations see or interpret challenges differently. Perhaps further research will help shed some more light in these areas.

In the spirit of the holiday, I want to wrap up this series with a quote from the authors:

“Good outcomes are not enough to define resilience; nor is a single small challenge. We fear that resilience may run the risk of being an overused and meaningless construct unless scholars attend to these fundamental issues”

I believe that the resilience engineering community, students or otherwise are definitely attending to these issues. I’m thankful for the space in your inbox and time in your lives that you spend with me here.

Takeaways

  • Resilience at the organizational level has parallels to all other levels
  • Overall, process that help create growth and competence, especially learning from mistakes create an environment where resilience is more likely to arise.
  • Additionally, processes that allow for quick processing of feedback and knowledge transfer contribute as well.
  • Most research (that the authors analyzed at least) did not focus on group resilience directly, instead they had to look to organizational learning and high reliability organizational research.
  • Rigidity in response to threats creates environments where resilience is less likely
  • In the long term, organizations need to manage tradeoffs between growing and focusing on existing skills and competencies

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