ORGANISATIONAL RESILIENCE

Worrying threats and stretched resources are challenging us like never before, at a time when no formal National Resilience Strategy has yet been published by the Government. Peter Power writes

As we attempt to absorb the huge array of fast moving and often existential threats now blinking away on our corporate radars, I am reminded that crisis management is not so much about good versus bad, but more about preventing the bad from getting worse.

This is precisely why, when a group of consultants and I worked with the UK Government to write British Standard BS 11200 on Crisis Management, Guidance and Good Practice, we were so keen to include the detail that “crisis decision-making is typically characterised by ill-formulated dilemmas, for which apparent solutions are not right or wrong, but better or worse, and where solutions to one problem potentially generate further problems or issues”.

These words can very easily be used to describe the situation in which the world currently finds itself.

Worrying threats and stretched resources are challenging us as perhaps never before. Just-in-time, in particular, has left us all with little or no flexibility to absorb any more shocks without robbing one business operation to pay another.

Above all, though, the greatest asset in any organisation, human capital, needs honest support and reassurance in an uncertain world.

So where might we go from here? First, I would recommend we apply some situational awareness. In BS 11200, the term is used to describe a best available appreciation of:

• What is going on and what the impacts might be?
• The degree of uncertainty
• The degree of mitigation and/or containment
• What are the exacerbating issues?
• What might happen in the immediate / longer term future?

Together, this information, understanding and foresight can hopefully inform crisis decision-making at all levels – whatever the size of the incident. This is particularly welcome in an age where incidents and crises are more disruptive, complex and sudden.

The speed with which an infectious disease can surge across the globe, creating a tidal wave of havoc such that we have not seen since 20th century world wars, is one such example. And the international supply turbulence after 300 cargo vessels were stuck behind a single ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal is another. And now, a 21st century leader with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council is waging a brutal war in Europe, and most recently threatens to use nuclear weapons as he runs out of conventional arms. Quite apart from the humanitarian crisis this has created, the ripple effects of this war are being felt strongly in energy and food security globally.

Across The Pond, a recent poll from the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics seems to suggest that nearly a third of the population there consider that it may soon be necessary to take up arms against their own government!

Of course, the UK has its own problems, with a revolving door at Number 10, as former chancellor Rishi Sunak becomes the country’s fifth prime minister in six years, but in the Land of the Free, that would be the equivalent of the entire population of Southern England, including all of Greater London, being prepared to march on Whitehall, all carrying guns (or in our case, pitchforks).

As I write, most socioeconomic threat dials are already in the red zone, and alarms are buzzing on numerous threat gauges and risk assessments. Various sentiment barometers already point to a vulnerable, angry and highly dissatisfied society, and this includes employees, their families and just about all stakeholders.

The escalating use of food banks means they now outnumber Greggs bakeries. Fears about food insecurity more generally could easily lead to panic buying. Meanwhile, energy insecurity is rising, as power outages, or at least brownouts, have been warned, as the UK power framework struggles to maintain a constant flow. Surely then, this is the time for a National Resilience Committee or Minister for Resilience to get to work? But we don’t have either. In fact, we don’t even have a published National Resilience Strategy.

I have no doubt our relatively new Government would wish it otherwise, but with so many conflicting demands on resources, time and money, it is too easy to put anything that hasn’t quite reached disaster proportions into the pending tray. This is despite some important reviews on our national state of resilience revealing a very troubling picture of UK preparedness (including the House of Lords in December 2021, and the National Preparedness Commission in May 2022).

The most recent report was published in October 2022 by a parliamentary committee on the National Security Strategy. It effectively damns the Government for not taking things seriously, especially on the impact of climate change and, as in previous reports, urgently calls for a Ministerial Committee on Resilience and a National Resilience Strategy. Meanwhile, there is an increasing sense of citizen rage across the country as the cost-of-living crisis shows no signs of abating and people have lost faith in the Government’s competence.

Regaining focus

Taking a broader focus, the World Economic Forum has quite rightly pointed out that organisational resilience is not a response to risk, per se, which can often be quantified, but rather to uncertainty, which most often cannot – therein lies the problem. The Government is still uncertain what the culmination of rising barometers and spinning dials will actually look like when it all erupts. Knowing our reaction to national dramas in the past has depended very much on certainty, which usually occurs well after the optimum time to intervene, it all becomes vastly more expensive.

So where does all this leave us? All organisations should now be firmly focused on organisational resilience that conflates otherwise discrete silos of risk, business continuity, HR, security and so on under a single umbrella with a shared doctrine and objectives where, to quote Aristotle, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A newly revised British Standard on organisational resilience, BS 65000, could offer guidance in this regard.

It is not too late to re-focus organisations to better absorb shocks, support people and thrive in altered circumstances. This means a shift from creating and executing steady plans, which work well when relationships are clear, predictable and unchanging. Organisational resilience deals with what is unknown, changeable, unpredictable and sometimes improbable. It promotes the capacity to anticipate, mitigate, cope, learn and adapt across organisations and their interdependencies.

As worsening crises loom, we need to move away from only reacting when events are clear and measurable. Decisions are now required when much of the ideal information might be misleading, elusive or uncertain, but the consequences of decision-making delay could be disastrous.

The Government, and in some cases industry, particularly needs to move the topic of uncertainty into the forefront of organisational strategy and implementation. In a world where terms like ‘black swan’ and ‘one in one hundred year events’ have lost all significance; recent lessons have accelerated the importance of replacing rhetoric and verbal commitments on organisational resilience with tangible action while the list of threats against us mount up.

At a congress held by the Resilience Association in the City of London in October, participants identified the following threats (in no particular order):

• Worsening probability of power cuts, leading to an array of serious/spreading incidents
• Increasing tension indicators of public disillusionment, frustration and anger
• Spreading impact of climate change
• Escalating examples of fake news, especially in the vast/expanding area of social media
• Exacerbating incidents that clearly point to a growing lack of faith in Government competence – and how that might manifest itself
• More commentators now highlighting prospects of subsea warfare (such as Russia cutting energy and data pipelines and communication cables that would seriously jeopardise power supplies and data transfer far more than people realise).
• Fiscal turbulence adding to a growing/profound sense of economic uncertainty
• Putin becoming increasingly belligerent and now uttering ominous threats to use weapons of mass destruction, thus creating a global worry not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
• The terrorist threat level remaining at ‘Substantial’, meaning an attack is ‘likely’
• Diseases showing resistance to antibiotics

A recent survey conducted by the Business Continuity Institute found that over 20 per cent of the organisations interviewed have created a new role of chief resilience officer in the past year. Good news, but CROs need to know that significant disruptions don’t just impact organisational structures: Predominantly they impact people, which in turns leads to anguish, fear and a worried workforce.

Organisational resilience today requires synthesis, not silos, shared doctrines, not scattered dogmatism. To be adaptive, agile and accessible to new ideas, but above all, realise that human capital is any organisation’s single most important asset.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Power is a past member of the UK National Security Commission (IPPR) that produced the report Shared Responsibilities: A National Security Strategy for the UK, and has been an international consultant on crisis, operational risk and business continuity for over 35 years. A past chairman of the World Conference on Disaster Management, Peter wrote the first ever Guide to Business Continuity, published by the UK Government and has sat on UK Cabinet Office committees writing standards on business continuity and crisis management. He is currently a vice-chairman of the Resilience Association. Peter will be speaking at CIR’s upcoming Resilience Series event in May 2023.

For more information, visit https://www.cirmagazine.com/resilience-series/

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