Organizational resilience at the United Nations Secretariat

October 31, 2013

Notes for my presentation at the BCM World Conference and Exhibition in London, on 6 November 2013

BCM World Conference and Exhibition


The evolution of emergency management in the United Nations has tracked to the risks faced by the Organization.  Before 2005, the emergency landscape was primarily comprised of security and humanitarian contingency planning.  The emergence of the pandemic influenza risk brought the establishment of business continuity as a discipline in the United Nations, with strong links to disaster recovery, but it was the tragic earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, that spawned a major change in the way in which the United Nations approached emergency management.

While considering establishing a dedicated unit to support staff and their families injured by malicious acts or natural hazard events as part of the internal response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the United Nations General Assembly requested the Secretariat to develop a framework that would describe the relationship between the various emergency management actors and how they work together.  At that time, the practice was to pursue a programme approach to preparedness, characterized by responsibility for emergency management functions spread among different units.

Although the Organization managed to set up significant capacity for crisis response this way, the programme approach has the potential to compromise the overall effectiveness and response and recovery through process duplication and incoherence. It may also lead to increased cost to implement and support different initiatives, and an increased burden on offices to develop and carry out different preparedness plans.

The General Assembly approved the Organizational Resilience Management System (ORMS) in June of 2013 under resolution A/RES/67/254.  This marks a transformational change in the way in which the United Nations Secretariat approaches emergency management – including prevention, preparedness, response and recovery – and manages operational risk.

Why does the United Nations need ORMS?

In addition to meeting the request of the General Assembly to do so, adopting a systems approach, inherent to ORMS, satisfied another need: to reduce the burden on offices to implement emergency management.  As one would expect, the United Nations has offices around the world, and these offices vary in size.  In contrast to major United Nations offices, like those in Geneva and Nairobi, with the exception of Security, United Nations satellite offices do not have dedicated emergency management experts.  A systems approach, with harmonized emergency management plans, structures, and exercises and testing are easier to implement in offices with limited resources and capacity.

Emergency management lends itself to harmonization and integration because its constituent parts are linked by a shared understanding of risk, and they share a common goal to enhance management of specific operational risks.

Finance and Hazard risks, which are measurable, are typically well-managed in organizations that have dedicated experts to identify and treat these risks.  Strategic risks – risks related to the relevance, alignment and quality of the programme – and Operational risks – those related to people, processes and systems – however, are difficult or impossible to quantify, and responsibility to control them sits in different departments, requiring collaboration across organizational lines to manage them effectively.  If this did not complicate things enough, Strategic and Operational Risks pose the greatest threat for significant disruption.

Figure 1 – A Taxonomy of Risk

 Operational Risk Enterprise Risk Management

ORMS makes a major contribution to managing Operational Risk by:

  • Encouraging a shared assessment of risk;
  • Providing a mechanism to jointly identify and control Operational Risk; and
  • Harmonization and integration of plans and structures minimizes the unintentional transfer of risk within the organization.

What is ORMS?

ORMS is a risk-based emergency management framework, bringing together integral actors across prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.   The aim of ORMS is to enhance the Organization’s ability to deal with crises to protect staff and assets, and allow the United Nations to continue to deliver its critical mandates.  A description of the elements comprising the ORMS framework, and the ORMS Processes by Phase, are detailed at Figure 2 and Figure 3, respectively, below.

Figure 2 – ORMS Elements

 Organizational Resilience Management System ORMS

Figure 3 – ORMS Processes by Phase

 ORMS Organizational Resilience Management System United Nations

To be effective, ORMS must be applicable in all United Nations duty stations, regardless of size, organizational structure and culture, and risk exposure.  At its essence, ORMS involves:

  • Harmonization of emergency management planning and plans
  • Common governance and implementation structures for emergency management
  • Jointly conducted emergency management awareness, training and exercises

This will be achieved by develop guidance that describes fundamental roles and responsibilities, and principles, which can then be applied to meet local conditions.


Development of ORMS was done primarily at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.  For this reason, the framework was piloted at Headquarters, beginning in 2011.  It was later decided to phase ORMS implementation, first to the other United Nations Secretariat offices – the United Nations Office at Geneva, the United Nations Office at Nairobi, the United Nations Office at Vienna, the Regional Commissions in Addis Ababa, Beirut, Santiago and Bangkok, and the field missions of the Departments of Peacekeeping Operation and Political Affairs – then to the agencies, funds and programmes, such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme.

ORMS will be implemented through a combination of a formal, project management approach and an informal, emergent strategy.  Under the formal approach:

  • A Steering Committee, Project Owner, and Project Team have been assigned; and
  • Key deliverables that scaffold the theoretical and practical elements required for implementation – such as the policy, implementation standards and self-assessment tools – have been programmed for presentation to the Steering Committee.

Although the emergent strategy is informal, this is a misnomer as its application requires a putting in place fundamentals that generates opportunities for collaboration, and the ability to exploit them.  This process is not accidental, but the result of careful strategic communications planning.  The key components of the emergent strategy are as follows:

  1. Establish and nurture an ever-expanding network;
  2. Provide a mechanism to give everyone affected by ORMS a voice and the ability to share and capture knowledge;
  3. Partnerships with academia, the private sector, civil society and governments at all levels; and
  4. Nimble decision-making.

In developing the ORMS governance model, we wanted to find the balance between being vapid and overly prescriptive.  A Responsive Regulation approach is being adopted, whereby policy, governance and implementation support is guided by the premise that staff and management want to do the right thing, and improve emergency management.  Under this dynamic approach, ORMS will be embedded in the Organization’s culture, and solutions to issues will be derived and communicated through the network.  The network is also a source to discuss deficits in capacity in a given place


ORMS is a resource multiplier as it facilitates leveraging and sharing existing capacity, knowledge, experience and skills of United Nations staff working in the emergency management field.  Experience to date indicates that the extension of ORMS across the Secretariat and the UN System is expected to yield significant economies, as follows:

  1. Harmonization of deliverables will make them more effective and reduce the time and resources required to produce them;
  2. Clear roles, responsibilities and integrated workflows will speed agreement between organizations when establishing operations in new environments;
  3. Providing a common language and common definition of concepts will reduce the need for meetings, speed implementation and unleash innovation;
  4. Working across departments encourages silo-busting, which inevitably leads to innovation and improved use of resources;
  5. Increased awareness of ongoing activities and projects across organizations yields serendipitous effects from organic collaboration, supporting the implementation of linked projects and overall change management;
  6. Overlaps between initiatives will be eliminated whenever possible;
  7. Interoperability between organizations will be improved; and
    1. Integral after action and lessons learned provides a sound basis to continually adapt and improve risk prevention and emergency preparedness and response.

Want to know more?

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Organizational Resilience Management System United Nations

3 Responses to “Organizational resilience at the United Nations Secretariat”

  1. […] Again this year, I made the pilgrimage to London to attend the BCM World Conference and Exhibition; a link to the background paper for my presentation is here. […]


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