Creating resilient organisations more important than creating good plans, researchers find

Researchers find that disaster plans do not produce better responses to surprising crises, but that the processes of preparing them, does.

A researcher from the Arizona State University, Scott Somers, published a somewhat interesting  article in the latest issue of the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (abstract, full text PDF).  In it he reports the results of a survey of 96 public works directors in the United States, evaluating each organisation on their level of crisis preparedness, crises preparation techniques, and organisational flexibility and resilience.

He found that traditional crises management approaches that create detailed, step-by-stop operating procedures produced less resilient organisations than expected.  Instead, he argues that it is more effective to, “create internal processes and organizational structures that build latent resilience within organizations so that they demonstrate positive adaptive behaviors when under stress.”

What does this mean?  Somers evaluated each organisation on six dimensions:

  • Level of perceived risk
  • Degree of managerial information seeking
  • Organisational structure
  • Amount of continuity planning
  • Levels of participation, and
  • Departmental accreditation

The strongest correlate to organisational resilience (by his measures) was the presence of strong continuity planning.  Somers also found that managers who actively sought out varied and diverse information sources were found to be more likely to lead resilient organisations.  Somewhat surprisingly, the research also found that managers which had higher levels of perceived risk were only slightly more likely to head more resilient organisations, and that organisational structure (in terms of levels of hiearchy in the agency) did not correlate very well.

What does this mean?  Somers concludes by suggesting that the plan itself is not as important as the capacity-building process of planning.  This seems to be due to the nature of complex crises; they are often a surprise, often something that cannot be trained for, and often disrupt traditional communication and decision-making frameworks.  Thus any plan which requires following “standard operating procedures” will be less flexible and adaptable than those which encourage more innovative, adaptive behaviour.

The paper concludes by suggesting that highly resilient organisations exhibit the following traits:

  • Teams are trained to systematically improvise solutions
  • Employees are encouraged to address problems with minimal supervisor intervention
  • Has staff whom constantly gather information and consider consequences of alternative actions
  • Fills its key positions with generalists, not specialists
  • Has low reliance on supervisor-centric knowledge and gives its employees access to and involvement in critical knowledge
  • Has work teams which are authorised to purchase materials and access resources without centralised approval

Compare this template to any humanitarian organisation you’ve dealt with lately; or any organisation for that matter.  How does it map?  Comments welcome.

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