When organisations face disruptive events - natural disasters, accidents and other crises - the implications of the shock are felt across societies and economies. Negative impacts and costs spiral and multiply. Even more difficult can be market evolution and disruptive innovation that render business models obsolete.

Traditional risk and crisis management comes into play, but these approaches are only focused on vertical risk frameworks, a limited range of identified disruptions and the potential impact on individual system. When an incident occurs, investigations and inquiries typically result in recommendations for the redesign of procedures and more training. But, do they actually make organisations less likely to fail again?

Research work led by Professor David Denyer over 15 years has resulted in a new model for organisational resilience that takes a strategic, enterprise-wide, performance-based view to resolve underlying systemic issues, based on insights from the nuclear, oil and gas, fire and rescue, financial, and healthcare sectors.

Faced with uncertainty, more organisations are favouring nature’s ‘freeze’ response, rather than fight or flight. Like a tortoise, they’ve developed an ever-harder shell of defences, under which they sit when they’re threatened. This works well with expected threats, like a cat, but they’ve lost the ability to be dynamic and agile. A shell provides a feeling of protection for the tortoise, but offers nothing more when it’s in the middle of a road with a lorry coming.

Key Facts

    Professor Denyer’s approach, built on an inter-disciplinary perspective on change, has highlighted the importance of leadership in addressing tensions between priorities and enabling the behaviours and cultures that lead to resilience. His research has helped organizations to manage uncertainty, build situational awareness, encourage people to speak up, engage in innovative problem solving, and develop staff commitment and empowerment.

    “Organisations need to become more agile and flexible,” said Professor Denyer. “Solutions are rarely purely technical, but social. In other words, employees across organisations need to be ‘mindful’, alert to emerging problems and willing and able to act.”

    Cranfield’s research has been used by Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge in developing its patient safety strategy; for the Bedford and Luton Combined Fire and Rescue Service investigation procedures; Centrica Storage’s reliability programme; and, safety assurance at the Civil Aviation Authority; as well as improving practices at Broadmoor Hospital, and the Sellafield nuclear plant. A partnership between Cranfield and the British Standards Institution has led to a joint executive education programme to bring together academic thought leadership and industry best practice to help organisations become more resilient.

    “The work has led to a change in attitudes. 15 years’ ago I would have been directed to the risk manager, now I am working with the senior management team - they realise that planning for extreme events is a strategic priority.

    “We’re having new enquiries from the banking and financial sector, for example. They are conscious of the need to provide regulators and customers with organisational resilience assurance by building the ability of firms and the financial system as a whole to absorb and adapt to shocks, rather than contribute to them.

    “For organisations in all sectors it is often difficult to see the big picture, navigate change and prosper without tripping over what is right in front of them. Without a firm-wide and systematic approach to organisational resilience, these uncertainties and vulnerabilities will drive commercial risk and threaten growth and brand.”