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Towards resilient organizations and societies. A cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary perspective

What is resilience and how do different disciplines and fields approach it? What does resilience mean in different sectors? And what does resilience involve in times of global pandemic? These are some of the questions addressed in a new open access book Towards resilient organizations and societies. A cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary perspective, edited by Rómulo Pinheiro, Maria Laura Frigotto and Mitchell Young. In this Q&A, they tell about origins of the book as well as their findings and lessons for future research and practice.

 

Q1: What have been the rationales and origins of this book?

The book originates from a 2018 EGOS (European Group for Organizational Studies) panel on the topic. It became apparent in the discussions that there is a need to connect different streams of research alongside multiple theoretical and methodological traditions to both take stock of developments in the field as well as move forward in the context of a more integrative research agenda. This aim has become even more apparent following the COVID-19 health pandemic, where considerable policy attention has been paid to resilience at multiple levels; individuals, communities, territories, nations, world regions, organizations, and institutions, including political and economic ones. The book represents a first step in the rather ambitious effort to further develop and integrate novel conceptual as well as empirical insights on the complex and multifaceted phenomenon of resilience.

 

Q2: What is resilience and what does your book contribute to the studies of resilience?

Simply stated, resilience is the ability of an individual, entity or system to adapt to emerging circumstances whilst retaining both function and identity. In the introductory chapter for the volume, and after having systematically reviewed the existing literature and perspectives on the topic, we, the editors, refer to three basic principles at the heart of resilience as a property, process, and/or outcome.

First, the interplay between stability and change, with resilience being located at the intersection between the two.  Second, the relationship between resilience antecedents or triggers, what we term ‘adversity’, versus the degrees of change or ‘novelty’ that result from the adaptation to such internal or external adversities. In this context, we refer to three types of resilience per the degree of novelty, namely: absorptive (low novelty/a return to the old normal); adaptive (medium novelty/change within limits or threshold); and transformative (high novelty/renewal, including the delineation of new limits or threshold). Third, temporality, taking into account process-related aspects that occur before (foresight), during (mechanism) and following (outcome) a disruptive event or adversity. Finally, we note that resilience not only is a multifaceted phenomenon but also a multi-scaled one (macro-meso-micro levels), and thus there is a need to unpack how these levels co-evolve and influence one another over time.

As for the book’s unique contribution, it: a) advances a new conceptual framework (as described above), b) sheds light on a set of empirical cases from various sectors and levels, and (c) sketches out, in the conclusive section, a novel methodological framework for future inquiries involving scholars from various social science traditions and perspectives.

 

Q3: Your book looks at resilience across a number of sectors from a fire brigade and shipyard to universities. What commonalities and differences do you find across the sectors?

The empirical cases provide new evidence of the challenges facing individuals, organizations and systems while attempting to adapt to changing, often disruptive circumstances. They go about this process in very different ways depending on contextual circumstances, both local and global, of which historical path-dependencies, resource-dependencies as well as formal and informal rules were found to play a critical role. Whether an organization is either public or private seems to be less significant for resilience when compared to the extent to which their operations/functions are affected by the confluence of political constraints and economic events, what Barry Bozeman famously termed ‘publicness’. High levels of publicness, as is the case of transportation providers, universities, or the military, to name a few, result in growing complexity in processes of adaptation due to the multiple, often contradictory demands posed by stakeholders such as governmental agencies, funders and surrounding communities. Similarly, internal diversity – in terms of technology, values (sub-cultures) and functions – results in increasing complexity as regards adaptation to external events. Following systems theory, we found that ‘pre-requisite diversity’ is a necessary condition for adaptation under situations of considerable environmental complexity and turbulence. Likewise, in many instances leaders, both formal and informal, as well as the social capital (trust) they help nurture throughout the organization (and beyond) were also found to play an important role.

Turning back to our typology, most of the empirical cases in the book (6 out of 10) were characterized as pertaining to high levels of change or novelty, with the remaining four cases evenly distributed across the minor and medium novelty dimensions. As far as procedural aspects are concerned, 6 out of the 10 cases encompass more than one temporal dimension, with 4 cases illustrating resilience at all the three stages: from foresight to mechanisms to outcomes. What is more, in several situations, the authors provide critical evidence of the interplay between levels of analysis or resilience scales. Each cluster (total of 4), comprising different types of organizations (for a visualization, see Fig. 12.1, p. 316), is discussed in detail in the last section of the book, which is freely available as open access.

 

Q4: What is a post-entrepreneurial university?

We coined the phrase ‘post-entrepreneurial university’ as a way of expressing a university model that encompasses elements of the entrepreneurial university but in a way that supersedes the strong inflections of New Public Management (NPM). This is similar to how public policy has in many sectors (though less so in higher education) moved to a post-NPM discourse.  In order to do this, we trace the entrepreneurial university discourse back to its roots in the works of two major scholars – Burton Clark and Henry Etzkowitz and their respective schools of thought over the concept – one sociologically and the other economically based. We show how the alignment with NPM co-opted and overrode many of Burton Clark’s original ideas, but contend that applying a post NPM understanding to the concept would resolve some of the inherent tensions (we identify three related to actorhood, efficiency, and diversity) to its implementation that have arisen largely due to the economic interpretation of the concept.

In short, we suggest embracing a resilient actor model of the university (as opposed to a strategic actor one), as we had originally proposed in a 2017 chapter (Pinheiro and Mitchell 2017) in Theory and Method in Higher Education Research, could re-engage and energize the entrepreneurial university concept by allowing it to embrace a more biological systems oriented strategy and positioning model; one in which slack, requisite variety, and loose coupling are engaged in an attempt to create a university that ‘thrives’ rather than ‘wins’.

 

Q5: Your book takes a multidisciplinary approach to resilience. Which scientific disciplines contributed to the book? What did each of them bring to the studies of resilience? Did you also see any tensions in how different disciplines approach resilience?

Resilience is a multidisciplinary concept in nature: first raised within the physical sciences, it has been subsequently adopted across a wide range of disciplinary fields and their respective epistemological, methodological and theoretical traditions. This has led to challenges when it comes to definitions and approaches, most notably as regards comparisons across disciplinary domains. Overall, resilience might appear as a concept that is in danger of concept stretching: as a buzzword that is not clearly analytically defined and poorly empirically studied. Even considering only resilience as a social phenomenon, each subfield has contributed to a progressive blurring of the definition, especially by relating resilience to different complementary concepts such as adaptation, fragility, flexibility, resistance, inertia, etc. Thus, while resilience has become specialized in each subfield, it has evolved within disciplinary boundaries along parallel paths with little cross-fertilization.

The chapters composing the bulk of this volume attest to this eclecticism: there are 11 different fields and sub-fields (organization studies, emergency management, high reliability organizations, sociology of professions, public management, human resource management, complex systems, higher education studies, organizational culture, performing arts management, regional studies) approaching resilience from perspectives of management, sociology, political science, economics and decision making. In the last chapter, we identified the limited overlap of references among the empirical chapters, signaling the low cross-fertilization of resilience studies across research areas, as well as a high specialization of studies in their respective fields: only 9 of the 114 references on resilience are shared between more than one chapter. This supports the claim that a stronger interdisciplinary approach to resilience is needed, beginning with the recognition of a common problem at the intersection of disciplines. Then, building on MacMynowski (2007), what is needed for a truly interdisciplinarity approach is to transcend the tendency to approach research questions from the standpoint of a single analytical framework associated with a specific disciplinary tradition, and rather to develop an integrative approach that takes into consideration synergies across the various traditions in a co-production and co-creation exercise. This did begin to happen at the meetings among the authors of this volume in the different stages of writing and preparation.

 

Q6: What are the main lessons from your book for practitioners and policy-makers?

The endorsement at the front of the book from Enrico Giovannini, currently Italian Minister of Sustainable Infrastructure and Mobility, captures very well the usefulness of this book for a practitioner audience, which is that it provides a framework and examples for designing policies, organizations, and systems that enable resilience. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, but especially now, resilience has become something of a buzzword, and we need to be careful about what we mean by it. Hopefully, we don’t want to simply go back to exactly how things were in 2019, but rather, to learn and change, while retaining the essence of living in a world where we could meet and move about freely without concern that our health was at stake. The European Union has referred to this as ‘bouncing forward’. The society we will live in post-Covid-19 has the potential to be safer, healthier and more sustainable than before, but we must understand in that case that resilience involves both stability and change.

The book provides a model for understanding resilience that can be applied practically by considering the three elements of resilience – time, adversity, and essence— when setting forth policy and organizational changes. Readers can refer to the chart in Chapter 12 to help guide them to chapters that address the types of organizations or systems and other key dimensions of resilience that they are interested in. The chapter further analyzes lessons learned from the other chapters, grouping them according to the dimensions of novelty and temporality. As practitioners attempt to build resilience into their own areas of responsibility, clarifying these dimensions should be helpful. The dimension of novelty refers to the question of knowledge and the extent to which the adversity or the triggers for resilience are known or unknown. The dimension of temporality asks about when and how we can build for and recognize resilience: resilience foresight attempts to address resilience before the adversity, mechanisms are about how it works in the midst of the adversity, while outcomes refer to the state of things after the adversity has passed. Finally, the book shows the value of working across boundaries, and the importance of a partnership between outsiders (researchers from multiple disciplines) and insiders (practitioners). Many of the chapters reveal that resilience is perhaps most effectively designed for in co-creation environments.

 

Q7: What would be interesting avenues for future research?

We argue that the most interesting and challenging avenue for future research is in the elaboration of an interdisciplinary perspective on resilience. This requires great openness towards different perspectives, approaches and traditions that might easily clash especially under typical publish-or-perish time constraints. Our experience working on this book for more than two years, shows that the process of discussing openly about the epistemological premises of our fields and our chapter contributions built awareness and co-operation for each-other’s work, and enabled us as editors to highlight the holistic understanding of resilience that emerges from the various chapters in the book. It is an eclectic representation, but not an inconsistent one.

Additionally, we proposed four possible directions for future studies. First, where collective actors are concerned, this volume focused on those characterized as having a high degree of publicness, and future studies encompassing a broader range of organizational types (public, private, hybrid, etc.) and degrees of novelty (low, medium and high levels) could shed light on the extent to which resilience antecedents and mechanisms affect and play out differently across a broader population. Second, the volume’s empirical findings lend support to the claim that resilient organizations are, in essence, learning entities—even if they resort to different strategies to learn about themselves and/or their surrounding environments. Future inquiries could, for example, shed light on the key actors, structures and processes associated with different types of learning (and their interactions) at different temporal scales—before, during and after the unfolding of major events triggering resilience behaviours. Third, following systems thinking, there is a need to continue to open the black box associated with nestedness between the micro (agents), meso (organizations) and macro (society) levels of analysis, both within organizations and across organizational fields. Most notably, it is imperative to understand how these levels emerge, coevolve and interact with one another in non-linear ways. Finally, methodologically speaking, future studies should seriously consider adopting both mixed methods and longitudinal design approaches as a means of capturing the complex and dynamic essence of resilience as a property, process and outcome.

 

Information about the book editors:

Rómulo Pinheiro is a Professor of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Agder (UiA), Norway, where he is also Deputy Head of Department of Political Science and Management and member of the Centre for Digital Transformation (CeDiT) and for Advanced Studies in Regional Innovation Strategies (RIS) based at UiA. Rómulo’s research interests are located at the intersection of public policy and administration, organizational theory, economic geography, innovation and higher education studies.

Maria Laura Frigotto is an Associate Professor in Organization Theory and Management at the University of Trento (Italy) where she is a member of the Department of Economics and Management, of the Institute for Safety and Security (ISSTN) of the School of Innovation and of the Ph.D. Program in Economics and Management. Her research focuses on novelty, especially in its unexpected and emergent form, in relation to resilience and innovation. She has studied emergency management organizations such as civil protection agencies and paradigmatic events such as the 911 terrorist attack in New York, but also very different contexts such as the operatic sector.

Mitchell Young is an Assistant Professor in the Department of European Studies at Charles University, Czech Republic. His research focuses on knowledge governance and science policy in the EU and Member States both internally through science diplomacy as a tool in foreign policy. He is chair of the ECPR Standing Group on Knowledge Politics and Policies. He teaches courses on EU policies, comparative political economy and European economic integration.

 

References:

MacMynowski, D. P. (2007). Pausing at the brink of interdisciplinarity: Power and knowledge at the meeting of social and biophysical science. Ecology and Society, 12(1), 1–14.

Pinheiro, R. and Young, M. (2017). The University as an Adaptive Resilient Organization: A Complex Systems Perspective, J. Huisman and M. Tight (eds.) Theory and Method in Higher Education Research, Volume 3, Emerald Publishing, pp. 119-136

 

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