Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The resilient organisation

The concept of resilience, essentially the capacity to adjust, is a useful one in considering organisational change and indeed survival.

Resilience is a very different concept from the popular focus on risk management. In risk management we try to identify and manage specific risks. Risk management aims to make things more secure in an uncertain world. By contrast, resilience deals with the capacity to adjust to change whether foreseen or not.

All organisations are complex systems constantly adjusting to a changing world. If change out-runs the capacity of the organisation to respond, then the whole system may collapse. One problem here is that complexity makes the adjustment process itself complex and difficult to see. A second problem lies in what I see as the growing rigidity of modern organisations.

A few years ago I was running a planning workshop for a major organisation. Those present suggested that their organisation's IT system had become a barrier to change and growth. Leading edge in its day, there was now a growing gap between the IT system and the organisation's changing business needs.

The problem faced by those in the room lay in the fact that the IT system was absolutely central to company operations. Its replacement would be disruptive as well as very expensive. So for the present at least, they had to find ways of working round the problem.

This is an example of an identified rigidity. The problem is at least known. Others are less recognised.

In Problems of redundancy and systemic failure I suggested that there was a growing disconnect between modern organisational structures with their focus on measurement and the way people actually worked. In Systemic Rigidities in Modern Management 1 - Setting the Scene I extended my argument with a generalised public sector case study. Then in End of the IT revolution - organisational rigidity I extended the argument further looking at features of organisational IT systems.

There is nothing especially profound in these posts. However, they all deal with often un-recognised hardening of organisational arteries that work to reduce organisational resilience.

As I write this post, the Australian airline Qantas has been experiencing a series of equipment and maintenance problems. This is an airline recognised for its effective management and high safety standards. However, it is also an airline that has gone through a constant business change and cost cutting process.

The airline's profit performance has been outstanding by global standards. Now, for the first time, people are asking whether the changes within the airline have reached the point that they are creating systemic failures.


After writing this post, I did a web search on resilient organisation. Quite clearly, the concept itself is a popular one!

Postscript 2

The Australian Civil Aviation Authority has released the report of its inquiry into Qantas's maintenance standards. While praising the airlines willingness to cooperate, CASA concludes that the airline is now falling behind its own maintenance benchmarks, recommending a range of corrective actions.

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