Towards a network approach to organizational resilience

June 4, 2014

ierp, kuala lumpur, risk management, institute of enterprise risk practitioners, brian gray

These are my background notes for the presentation I made at the IERP Global Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 4 June 2014.

I have written elsewhere in this space that emergency managers face four different types of problems:

  1. Simple
  2. Complicated
  3. Complex
  4. Anarchy

and that, “the solutions to Simple and Complicated problems should be the focus of planning and plans.”

Traditionally approaches to emergency management have been processed-based: a set number of sequential steps that generate the action necessary to prepare for and respond to crisis events, in (hopefully) a virtuous cycle. These approaches are suitable in situations where we have a comprehensive understanding of the factors that underlie the crisis and the way it impacts organizational systems. The question then is what do we do when we do not?

This is a story about complexity and how to deal with it in the context of emergency management.


Complexity permeates our lives – like the air around us, we cannot avoid it – and has unique characteristics:

  • The output of component systems cannot be anticipated nor controlled
  • Component systems interact to produce new equilibria

Under complexity circumstances literally emerge. This means that cause and effect can only be understood retrospectively. Without the ability to expect how systems will interact and how this will impact operations, plans can quickly lose their relevance, like a weather forecast the accuracy of which erodes by the second. We can predict the primary impacts of an event, but doing the same for the secondary and tertiary impacts is difficult. In these circumstances a traditional, process-based approach to emergency management alone is inadequate.

complexity superhero approach to emergency management

Superheroes can’t do complexity

Towards a Network Approach

In a previous post I described and advocated that a dynamic approach to crisis management be adopted, in which constant situational awareness identifies risks and triggers an appropriate organizational response to them. The key crisis leadership tasks the underlie this model are detailed below.

Key Crisis Leadership Tasks


Sense Making

Identify that there is a developing situation that warrants the attention of executive management, and determining how the situation will progress and impact the organization.

Decision Making

Once it has been determined that something is afoot, executive management require support to decide what to do about it.

Meaning Making

After deciding the organization’s response, executive management must present a persuasive account of the situation, what will be the organization’s response and gain support for the chosen course.


Transition from an emergency to a normal footing, and providing a retrospective on the situation and gaining consensus around it.


Following the termination of a crisis it is imperative that a formal after-action review process be established, and lessons learned identified and integrated into policy, procedure and organizational learning.

Adapted from Boin, Arjen, et al. (2005). The Politics of Crisis Management [Kindle version] (pp. 217-285). Retrieved from Amazon.com

This dynamic model scaffolds the network approach to emergency management, which recognizes how networks are central to how an organization functions.

Output is produced not just following steps in a business process, but through the interaction and collaboration between networks, formal and informal, within and without the organization. As argued by Dave Gray, a ‘line of interaction’ has supplanted the ‘line of production’ model.

Crises disrupt these networks, or at worst, they collapse, so the aim of the network approach is to develop and nurture them, creating multiple redundancies across organizational and thematic lines.

In practice this means alignment and harmonization in four areas:

  1. Common understanding of risks that can lead to crises
  2. Plans and planning processes
  3. Governance and implementation structures
  4. Behavioural change.

Under this approach:

  • Decentralize risk management, but govern it centrally
  • Risk management dynamic, focused on identifying vulnerability in operational risk areas (people, processes and systems)
  • Integration, integration, integration

A network approach to emergency management is not only effective in circumstances of complexity, but it generates value for an organization by:

  • Creating serendipitous effects
  • Improved risk management
  • Increased efficiency from process re-engineering


A process-based approach to emergency management has intuitive appeal because it has a defined, limited scope with discrete, measurable deliverables. Conversely, a network approach is messy and its components, especially the informal collaboration networks, are unknowable, meaning that measurement is almost impossible (I qualify ‘impossible’ because you can hold out examples of serendipitous effects as evidence of value). And yet it is clear that an emergency management programme is vulnerable it does not include an emergent strategy to nurture and strengthen collaboration networks.

Related stuff that I am working on

  • How do you govern a network?
  • How do you value the output of a network?
  • How do you cost a network?



2 Responses to “Towards a network approach to organizational resilience”

  1. carolinee06 Says:

    There is a tension between a process approach & a more dynamic approach to both crisis planning & response. In addition to the drawbacks noted above, an overly process-focused approach can lead people to defer making timely decisions when the situation doesn’t fit the plan or scenario exactly.

    This is not to say that a plan is not important. It’s key to have a framework so the crisis response team can be built, changed and broken down as the situation changes. For example, this gives an organisation the ability to quickly respond to a situation without wasting time debating whether the given situation is, for example, ‘big enough’ to merit invoking the crisis team.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kjeannette Says:

    I liked how you folded in the idea of networks into the organizational management process. I read a lot about needing networks and moving away from hierarchies, but little about the specifics of how the two could work together. Thanks for spelling this out. In the future, I think having a model like this could be helpful for showing others how we could use networked approaches within the work that is already being done — it doesn’t have to always be one or the other (network vs. hierarchy) both can work together in a useful (or perhaps more useful) way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 528 other followers

%d bloggers like this: