On the west side of the city sits an outfitting shop that sells everything a person needs to survive in the wild; to the owner, resilience means being able to live without modern conveniences. On the east side, a psychologist helps survivors of sexual abuse and trauma; for the psychologist, resilience means learning to function, and maybe one day flourish, in daily life. Finally, there is a large insurance agency downtown; to them, resilience means an organization that does not have to file an insurance claim after a significant incident.
One thing is clear: Even in daily life, there is no common definition or shared understanding of the term “resilience.”
Organizational resilience is growing in popularity. The driver for this mounting interest is uncertain. It may be that the term itself is malleable and has a rather universal appeal. It may simply be a fad, the latest new trend in the preparedness industry. Or perhaps there is something new and important held within the concept.
Regardless of the causes of its increasing adoption, for resilience to endure, it faces at least three significant challenges: A clear definition of scope, an accepted set of measures, and a value that is more than the sum of its parts. It seems very unlikely that resilience will be able to overcome even one, let alone all three, of these challenges, especially in the short time it has to take advantage of current attention.
Challenge One: Scope
The nature and scope of resilience remains undecided. Researcher Stephanie Duchek states it simply: “There is no consensus about what resilience means and which elements it contains” (Duchek, p. 2). In her 2019 article, “Organizational Resilience: A Capability-Based Conceptualization”, Duchek surveys the short history of resilience in academic and business literature, concluding, “it remains unclear what resilient organizations actually do and how organizational resilience may be achieved in practice” (Ibid).
If professionals and practitioners cannot agree on what resilience means, it is unlikely that it could become a widely accepted practice. If your organization and my organization are performing vastly different activities under the banner of resilience, and we do not have a common framework of reference, who is to say which one of us is doing it right? If you think resilience is made up of three sub-disciplines, and I think it consists of twenty-three, how do we agree on best practices? In short, how do we know what “counts” as resilience and what does not?
We can consider the problem of scope across three different dimensions: Stages, disciplines, and objectives.
Most business professionals agree that a resilient organization must at least be one that is good at coping with significant incidents and events. In other words, a resilient organization is one that can successfully deal with chaotic, tumultuous, and unexpected situations that could potentially threaten its existence.
But there are two additional possibilities. On one hand, an organization could prevent such situations from happening, ensuring that problems never turned into crises. On the other hand, an organization could adapt to such situations so well that the organization improves its very nature overall and ends up in a better position than before an incident. These two additional options lead to a total of three possible “stages” that could be required for resilience. Duchek names them anticipation, coping, and adaptation. We can adopt Duchek’s terms and briefly describe the three stages as:
- Properly anticipating and preventing the manifestation of an event,
- Coping with the event once it manifests, and
- Adapting to the situation to such a degree that the “new normal” is a better situation for the organization than before the event.
The key question is this: Does an organization have to be skilled in all three stages in order to be considered resilient? There is no consensus in the literature, practice, or research. Moreover, and more importantly, any answer seems arbitrary. It is possible to imagine an organization that is not good at preventing problems but is so good at coping with them that the organization will always overcome significant adversity. Likewise, it is possible to imagine an organization that is so good at anticipating and addressing problems before they become crises that it never needs to evolve into a better organization.
It is very unclear how practitioners could come to a definitive conclusion with regard to the proper scope for stages of resiliency. It is difficult to see what sort of argument or experiment would settle the matter. To compound the problem, it is unclear as to the proper scope of each of these three stages themselves. Is every skill that could contribute to resilience required for resilience? This leads to the next problem of scope, namely disciplines.
Resilience is likely best understood as an “inter-discipline.” An inter-discipline does not represent a discipline in its own right but pulls from a set of disciplines in what should be a unique way. It is hard to imagine what resilience would be without the many disciplines it incorporates, like business continuity, crisis management, emergency management, and risk management, to name a few.
This brings up two problematic questions: Which disciplines are required to contribute to the constitution of resilience? And to what degree? In addition to the disciplines mentioned above, consider the following potential candidates:
- Cyber Security
- Decision Making Theory
- Finance, Accounting, and Investments
- Government, Political Science, and Lobbying
- IT Disaster Recovery
- Leadership Theory
- Management Theory
- Organizational Development and Change Management
- Sales and Marketing
- Social Media
Each of the disciplines on the list have been associated with resilience at some point. A quick Google search reveals many other possibilities. But must an organization be, say, self-sustainable to be resilient? Must it employ people that evince a certain set of psychological predispositions and characteristics? Become Lees certified and limit its carbon footprint? Adhere to a particular economic viewpoint? Nurture and sustain a certain culture? Again, what argument could one make or experiment could one perform that would provide a definitive scope? It seems consensus is a likely impossibility.
The situation is made even worse by the fact that there may not be consensus as to the scope within each potential discipline. How can an organization best become self-sustainable? What constitutes a resilient person? What are the most efficient environmental practices? What are the most effective economic investments? Given that there is often no overall agreement to the proper scope within each discipline, it seems doubtful that the inter-discipline of resilience would be able to construct a clear scope.
Perhaps the most elusive problem of all is the answer to this question: In reaction to what, exactly, do we want organizations to be resilient? In other words, what sorts of change does the organization need to be able to handle in order to be resilient? The scope that results from the answer may well prove to be immense.
On the narrower side, one interpretation is that the scope of change refers only to sudden, acute, and unexpected change, the kind that results from natural disasters and catastrophic incidents. In this case, the organization needs to absorb (and possibly anticipate and adapt to) potentially disastrous situations that threaten its survival.
But on the more expansive side, the organization could be expected to continue and flourish given any situation whatsoever. Consider these potential changes:
- Artificial intelligence and automation
- Disruptive innovation
- Dramatic increases in resource costs
- Economic destabilization
- Environmental shifts
- Increase or decrease of competitors
- Loss or gain of market share
- Negative publicity or scandal
- Overly successful or failed product launches
- Resource scarcity on a global scale
- Societal destabilization
There is no agreement, nor is agreement likely, with regard to the overall objective of resilience. A precise answer seems arbitrary, as it seems any position along the spectrum could be defensible. It is easy to imagine that “narrow” and “expansive” camps might arise to defend different interpretations.
Considerations regarding the scope of objectives lead to a very worrying argument against any value of “resilience.” If an organization ceases to exist, does that mean it was not resilient? Considering the thousands of businesses that eventually go out of business, should we say every one of them eventually failed because they became non-resilient? If so, this may lead us to a reductio ad absurdum where to be “resilient” simply means “to be.” If an organization exists, it is therefore resilient; if it goes out of existence, it was de facto no longer resilient. Indeed, resilience quickly loses its meaning if the purpose of business is simply to stay in business, and the purpose of resilience is also just to stay in business.
These three considerations of scope raise very significant issues for the future of resilience. If resilience is to persist, it must come to some widely acceptable definition of its proper scope, a definition that seems extremely unlikely. But scope is only one of three significant challenges to the meaning and value of resilience.
Challenge Two: Measures
In a world where metrics rule, measuring resilience may present the greatest challenge. A true measurement of resilience requires clearly defined scope. Put simply, if we cannot agree on the scope of resilience, we will not be able to measure it. In a traditional business environment, metrics consist of tracking, examining, and quantifying business processes. If there is no common understanding of what constitutes resilience, it will be a great challenge to measure the degree to which a person, process, or organization is resilient.
Even if we could agree on scope, measurement might still be nearly impossible, because measurement is often debated and unclear within each discipline. It has been notoriously difficult to quantify factors like preparedness, psychological health, readiness, risk appetite, safety, and others in the industry. It is even harder to measure counter-factuals, in particular, disasters and crises that never happened because mechanisms were in place to keep them from manifesting. For example, consider Emergency Management’s challenge to demonstrate all the fatalities that would have taken place without them, or Public Safety’s challenge to demonstrate all the burglaries they prevented simply by presenting a deterrent. To truly measure resilience, one must measure each sub-discipline in the context of the scope of resilience, a challenging goal that may not be achievable.
Finally, measurement requires different levels of precision. With that requirement comes a weighting issue. What component or discipline within the scope of resiliency carries the greatest weight, and to what exact degree? What indicators or metrics will tip the scale to a resilient organization?
Not only will measurement continue to be a challenge within resilience itself, along with all its sub-components, problems of scope will compound the problems of measurement. But even if these seemingly insurmountable problems could be solved, is there a real value to resilience?
Challenge Three: Value
We noted above that resilience is best thought of as an inter-discipline or “umbrella”. An inter-discipline does not represent a discipline in its own right but combines a set of related disciplines in a unique way and therefore warrants its own sphere of study, practice, funding, and subject matter experts. However, it is unclear whether resilience can even claim to be an inter-discipline; it is doubtful that resilience does, in fact, pull from a set of disciplines in some way that is particularly unique.
Let us briefly examine fruitful inter-disciplines by looking at interdisciplinary research. In the case of recognized interdisciplinary research, such research:
integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice (Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, p.2).
What is important to note is the requirement to create knowledge or understanding that could not otherwise be had without bringing together a specific set of sub-disciplines.
Quantum computing might serve as a good example of productive interdisciplinary research. The solution to quantum computing problems will require a combination of subject matter experts in computer engineering, computer science, cryptography, quantum physics, statistics, and other disciplines. No one discipline by itself will be able to address the necessary and complex problems inherent in quantum computing; an interdisciplinary approach will be required to create new knowledge and understanding.
Resilience does not appear to be analogous to quantum computing or any other successful interdisciplinary research. In short, resilience as an inter-discipline does not seem to offer any new significant knowledge or understanding over and above the contributions of each of the sub-disciplines. It seems only to serve as a convenient label, one that may sound more proactive and be more appealing than derivations of “management,” “preparedness,” or “readiness”.
Consider a hypothetical example to clarify the issue. Suppose that Organization A creates a preparedness committee composed of some combination of individuals in charge of various preparedness departments such as emergency management, business continuity, risk management, and the like. Suppose that Organization B creates a “Center for Resilience” that is made of the same combination of equivalent individuals. It is unclear that there is any difference between the committee and the “Center.” Both can help coordinate activities and serve as a clearinghouse for information. Both can share resources, organize personnel, and organize responses to threatening situations. There is little that a Center for Resilience has to offer any more than a preparedness committee. While “Centers” are popping up and garnering attention, risk and preparedness committees have been around for years with no particular fanfare or thought that they offered anything more than simple coordination and information sharing benefits.
It is hard to see what resilience has to offer that is not simply the sharing of ideas and coordination of resources in the face of potential or actual significant events. It is unclear what value resilience could provide over and above the contributions from each of its contributors that would not be similarly gained from a simple committee. To summarize: No unique “whole” seems to emerge from the combination of parts.
Conclusion: Make the Most of Current Visibility
If resilience is to survive as a meaningful concept for more than the next few years, it must answer the questions of scope, measurement, and value outlined above. These three topics drive to the core of what will most assuredly give rise to critical questions from leaders, Board members, and policy makers. Imagine a damning article in a future Harvard Business Review that seriously calls into question the need for investments in resilience. To avoid such criticism, we must address the scope, measurement, and value questions in a timely and meaningful manner.
The issues presented are not merely academic in nature. An organization will have to invest significant additional resources to build up and maintain any additional capabilities in the pursuit of resilience. For example, if anticipation capabilities are required, the organization must put monitoring, communication, and prevention systems in place to ensure that problems are detected and dealt with quickly enough to avoid crises. If adaptation capabilities are required, the organization must become more flexible at its very core, possibly reinventing operational processes and procedures in line with Agile, Lean, and other methodologies that allow for quick pivoting. Given the enormous breadth of skills and the associated costs required to be proficient in a wide scope of resilience, it seems unlikely that any, but a very few, organizations will be willing to strive for full resilience status if they understood the full costs involved.
The main benefit that an increasing interest in resilience provides right now is visibility. Executives, leaders, and policy makers are paying attention to the often-overlooked areas of preparedness. This attention affords an opportunity for preparedness disciplines to improve themselves and to band together for better coordination and information sharing. This situation will likely only last a little while. If the challenges presented in this article are indeed accurate, then a robust understanding of resilience is either impossible or likely to require many years. Our conclusion is to recommend that practitioners use the next few years carefully and strategically, focusing on quick wins, big gains, further consolidation, and additional funding. If, in the meantime, an industry consensus is reached as to the scope, measure, and value of resilience, then effective programs will be best situated to take advantage of it.
Duchek, Stephanie (2019). “Organizational resilience: a capability-based conceptualization.” Springer online publication, January 14, 2019.
Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (2004). Facilitating interdisciplinary research. National Academies. Washington: National Academy Press.
About the Authors
Dr. Lindstedt is a speaker, author, and champion for business continuity. Along with Mark Armour he founded AdaptiveBCP.org and authored Adaptive Business Continuity: A New Approach. He is the founder of Adaptive BC Solutions (AdaptiveBCS.com). He consults, teaches, and advises on project management and business continuity.