Organizational resilience as a dialectical synthesis

September 30, 2019
Interview Open Society
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In terms of professional and academic growth, how should a researcher act in choosing what and where to publish? In other words, what choices must he make in order to build his academic career? Should he always move in the same research area or is it better to diversify?

I could give two kinds of answers to this. The  instrumental answer would be that each academic system has incentives and disincentives, or things that are appreciated and others that are not or that can be neglected by the related academic community. Even at international level there is no “commonality of intent” in defining what is the best thing to do at the beginning of an academic career as opposed to what is appropriate to do at later stages.

As regards the Anglo-Saxon world, for example, young researchers are encouraged to examine a research topic that takes form during their doctoral thesis. This is only later analyzed in depth at a more mature stage of their career, generally when they are already beginning a tenure and are encouraged or have the freedom to explore other lines of research. In terms of research results, in the early stages of a career, there is a tendency to give precedence to the publication of articles in scientific journals. The   main target of researchers is thus the scientific community, and only in later stages of their career do they consider the issue of transferring their knowledge through other didactic schemes. In many cases, for example, books are only written by academics at the end of their career, as publishing academic papers is no longer necessary for them, and also because they are mature enough not to “simplify” per se but rather to render more understandable certain concepts that might be difficult to understand those outside the academic community. The reasons for such a lack of understanding are many, and concern the absence of  the basic knowledge necessary to appreciate some topics: the basics of philosophy and sociology, a comprehension of the complex mechanisms of the economy, and so on.

On the other hand, in the Italian system as it existed a few years ago, before the Gelmini reform came into force, young researchers were encouraged – and this is what I did at the end of my doctorate – to immediately transform their doctoral thesis into a monograph, and this was their entry ticket to the academic community. In many national academic systems, the need to inform the local community of scientific activity through monographs is still very much alive. As for Italy, therefore, it is clear that today ours is a hybrid system that looks at the Anglo-Saxon model while still suffering from the legacy of our past.

But this is a strictly “instrumental” question, aimed at understanding the competitive arena that one wants to position oneself within and adjust accordingly. We encourage young PhD students to compete internationally and to develop a research topic which they will delve further into during their studies. They should begin to be as visible as possible within the scientific community, which means starting from the most prestigious international conferences, presenting their works there, and then sending them to the most prestigious journals.

If I were to answer the same question in a more “romantic” way, however, looking at academia as something that can genuinely excite people, my suggestion for a young researcher is to start his career by focusing on a topic that interests him, not because it has not been explored before, but because sooner or later it will help to improve the world in which we live. This does not necessarily mean managing to reduce environmental pollution or to cure cancer, but it might mean understanding aspects of the human being to a greater extent than has been considered before, whether considered as an individual or as part of a collective. Naturally, it is not possible to only follow one’s passions, because there is the risk of running into two scenarios. The first is not being able to fully realize one’s research potential, which means never turning it into important publications. Secondly, if a researcher is highly curious, he would tend to have an eclectic approach, and will focus on a series of research themes without mastering any of them (which is to say, he will become “a jack of all trades and a master of none”).

Another suggestion that does not go against the “romantic” interpretation of the academy is to always remain “whole”. I do believe that, sooner or later, an honest person manages to achieve results from his efforts. It is just a matter of time. If he deals with an interesting topic, and conducts his research rigorously, this research will eventually lead to a solution and he will thus draw satisfaction from his work. If, on the other hand, you compromise your integrity, or you think too “instrumentally” and try to maximize your return from the various evaluation systems, in my opinion you are adopting a very short-sighted strategy, and you will not go very far.

The text describes organizational resilience as a dialectical synthesis between adaptation and proactivity: what is the dynamic interaction between these two models?

There is a component of resilience which involves “re-acting”, and there is a component of resilience which concerns “adapting”. If we look at figure 6.1,


img1

we find a component called “adaptive” [adaptive resilience, 1], which is the one that resists to shocks, and another called “reactive” [reactive resilience, 2], which is the one that learns from the shock itself. If you take them as two independent alternatives, then you either follow path [1] or path [2]. In other words, if I see a wave coming, then I either prepare to swim, which would be the adaptive resilience, or run away, which would be the reactive resilience. On the other hand, for those who choose a simple dialectical approach, or organizational resilience [3], without becoming too philosophical we could say that this is like a Hegelian synthesis. In this way, resilience emerges from two opposites that foster each other; as we have theorized, “organizational resilience” is the [3] dialectic resultant from the first two [1, 2], both of which are indispensable but which can be mutually exclusive from a Hegelian perspective. If we do not reject the paradox, and therefore accept that these two components, however much they might be opposed, can coexist rather than exclude each other, the organization enters a virtuous circle, so that relying on these two components becomes increasingly resilient. This is the theory… for practice, we must refer to figure 6.3, in which the most typical components that concretely characterize the “adaptive part” and the “reactive part” of resilience are represented:

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In the “adaptive part” we have the sense of the intention of the organization – the medium and long-term objective – planning, protecting, and perfecting, which is the effort to improve what exists in an incremental way. The “reactive” approach provides completely different things, namely the rethinking of the organization, responding interpreted as learning, relating, which means connecting the components of the organization, and resolving, intended as searching for the solution even if it is not known. This latter issue brings us to another theme, that of so-called serendipity, the fact that if you ask yourself questions about what you can do with an object, even if the object does not seem to work immediately, you can find yourself inventing something completely new. This synthesis is thus not only a “philosophical” synthesis, but a concrete synthesis, meaning that it can be expressed through real actions, if we consider what the aspects of both adaptive and reactive resilience may be. And a manager must be able to activate both levers at the same time.

 

So, what are the determinants of a resilient organization?

The determinants of a resilient organization are many. I will try to describe them as succinctly as possible. The first is to understand at which level resilience can be expressed. There are several levels: the individual level, the team level, the organization level (such as, for example, companies, associations, public bodies), up to the entire community level. For instance, there are studies about the resilience of entire populations or ethnicities. First of all, it is necessary to understand that there is a possible but not automatic concatenation between these different levels (we have already said that resilient individuals do not necessarily generate resilient teams). In another chapter, chapter 5, we explained the mechanisms that activate these concatenations, the bonds between the individual, the teams and the organizations.

 

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As shown in figure 5.3, a component of this concatenation is, for example, “psychological security”: that is, if an individual works in an environment in which he can express himself freely, and can express his opinions, and explore, without incurring penalties, this psychological security ensure that there is a greater likelihood of these individuals creating resilient teams. Another component, moving from team level to organization level, is that of “improvisation”. Now, “improvisation” does not mean “extemporaneous problem solving”. “Improvisation” means that I know the basics of the trade, and I am able to apply them even when there is no programming. One example of this might be a jazz orchestra, in which there is no director but where the musicians coordinate among themselves by improvising, which means respecting some rules but also giving vent to their freedom to perform, without necessarily having a score.

Then there are two other components. The first one consists of “positive interactions”, meaning those in which one does not judge one another, one does not exclude others from decision-making mechanisms simply because they think differently, and there is respect for the opinion of others which ensures that differences do not degenerate into prejudices. The second is the element of learning that we have already mentioned, which is called “organizational learning”, meaning that if one person learns something and shares it with others, the team learns collectively and, collectively climbs higher, enabling the entire organization to learn.

The last ingredient that we add, and which we wrote about in chapter 7, is “respectful engagement”, namely respecting one’s neighbor at any level. This, in our view, is a “holographic component”: in astrophysics, the “holographic principle” predicts that all the information contained in a volume of space can be represented by a theory located at the edge of the examined area; as if to say, by trivializing, that the single component of a system expresses the characteristics that are found in the entire system. So, to our mind, if the organization aims to be resilient, the respect for interaction with others, for relating to others should have “holographic connotations”, which means it must permeate the organization at all levels of aggregation. And, in fact, organizations that have proven to be resilient are those in which people were most listened to, most able to propose proactive solutions, and less subjected to judgment even where the solutions they proposed did not turn out to be successful.

 

The phenomenon of resilience has been analyzed from different points of view over the years, however many questions still remain. In your opinion, where should the focus of research on organizational resilience lie?

This is a good question. Most studies on resilience involve extreme cases: for instance, the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York. This is because, methodologically, understanding in depth extreme cases allows us to extract indications for cases that are less extreme. The point is that, given that the so-called “one best way”, or the perfect way to organize, simply does not exist, organizations can be tested only a posteriori and not a priori; that is, we can give indications a priori, but we can only judge a posteriori if organizations work or not. It is very difficult to measure the components of resilience under normal conditions, whereas they are much more visible in extreme cases. For example, those who owned an office in the Twin Towers and in a couple of days managed to restore business operations in another place even though they did not have all the necessary instruments, showed themselves to be extremely resilient, while those who didn’t make it were vulnerable, meaning that an extreme shock caused extreme consequences.

Therefore, one research trajectory is to try to understand how resilient organizations are when they are not subject to extreme cases, that is, not subjected to highly traumatic and devastating shocks, but rather exposed to more “regular” shocks. In simple terms, if I observe a community exposed to a tsunami, the speed with which this community recreates itself expresses its resilience. Nevertheless, as a manager, I would also like to understand how many people in everyday life are able to swim and how many people are not, without having to wait for a tsunami. But these things are much less noticeable in organizations, so this could be one research perspective.

Another perspective is certainly related to how resilient organizations can be in a “hyper-connected” world. “Hyper-connected” means at least two things. The first is that today, with Industry 4.0, companies are no longer isolated within their perimeter but interact increasingly often and to a greater extent with other companies. It follows that we can no longer speak of “single companies” but of “business networks”, even if some individual companies are not fully aware of this. This naturally imposes new resilience challenges upon a company or an organization.

A second trajectory of Industry 4:0 is related to “crowd engagement”, or involving indistinct subjects, reachable through the Web, in order to shape parts of the organization. For example, if I produce basketball shoes, I can ask my regular customers to help me design them, or I can expose the preview of my products to the opinion of the crowd. This creates advantages and opportunities, but also poses potential threats to the organization. Therefore, another trajectory of the expansion of resilience is to understand the functioning of those organizations exposed to the interaction with indistinct subjects, namely a “crowd-based approach”.

All this without mentioning  – but I can only partly see this as it is not an issue concerning my research interests – the new resilience of the organization subjected to media judgment from other people. The existence of the Internet and the social media ensures that the organization is subject to the judgment of people who may never have purchased its products, or have never taken advantage of its services. Therefore, the organization can be boycotted, rightly or wrongly, by subjects who have never purchased one of its products, but who simply wake up in the morning and decide to express their opinion, and sometimes these individuals also have a certain following. The organization is thus much more vulnerable than it might have been ten years ago, when it communicated only through certain channels and had to deal almost exclusively with whatever was expressed through these lines.

Therefore, resilience related to media overexposure of the organization is, in my opinion, another trajectory for possible exploration. In addition, and here I conclude, the research opportunity we have outlined the most in the text is to understand how the principles we have systematized in our research can be translated into organizational design, or rather, into mechanisms, procedures, evaluation systems, in order to render the organization more resilient as a whole.

“Elgar introduction to Theories of Organizational Resilience”, by Luca Giustiniano (with Clegg, Stewart; Cunha, Miguel Pina e; Rego, Arménio). (2018). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

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Luca Giustiniano is professor of Organization Studies at Luiss


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