Nurturing organisational resilience


What is resilience? And why is it so important? 'Bouncing back', the essence of resiliency, is something that humanity is collectively pretty good at. So a good place to look for an answer is in the aftermath of natural disasters, when we can get a clear sense of what makes organisations and individuals resilient and why it is so important that organisations have both the mechanisms and staff to enable them to recover after a crisis.

A useful analogy to help us understand the features of a resilient organisation and the characteristics of resilient staff is that of a tree, an idea put forward by New Zealander post-disaster researchers and experts in organizational resilience, E.Britt, J.Carter, D.Conradson, A.Scott, J.Vargo & H.Moss, in their report into the 2010-2012 New Zealand earthquakes.

Any gardener who is familiar with fruit trees knows that certain conditions are required if they are to thrive. A tree might appear independent, but it is part of a complex ecosystem. It gives and takes - a bit like an organisation.

The ground provides nourishment in the form of the cultural environment; the roots are those sine qua non factors pertaining to the tree's existence; the trunk represents the socio-political environment; the branches provide support and shape the resilience of both individuals and the organisation itself; the foliage, represents the psycho-social factors, which also influence overall resilience.

Britt et al identified thirteen resilience indicators in those organisation in which the individual is viewed as an integral part of the system as opposed to being seen as an unfortunate necessity. That's why human resource strategies for resilience can be implemented in the same way as they are for quality or performance management.

Of course, any analogy has its limits and in an organisation, human resource techniques and practices can be leveraged to increase an organisation's resilience. So as we explore the parallels between a tree and an organisation, bear in mind those areas where effective HR practices can contribute to organisational resilience. These are underlined below.

The ground: fertile or sterile?

Before planting your tree, it's vital to know whether the soil and environment is appropriate or not for your chosen species. It is very difficult and costly to change the nature of the ground, so adaptation and accommodation are essential.

  • Customers: how resilient are they, or are they inflexible?
  • National cultural variables: at the most basic levels, is change possible? Do senior management and employees believe they have any control over circumstances? Is there any urgency? Is there a timeframe?
  • Societal sub-systems: kinship, education, health, religion, economics & politics, social associations, recreation & leisure
  • Regulators: how resilient are the governing bodies?
  • Dominant power holders' value systems: owners, majority shareholders

The roots: deep or shallow?

If there is good quality soil in sufficient quantity, your tree will flourish because the roots will grow down easily and find a permanent water supply for growth and health. Make sure you weed out any parasitic plants with shallow root systems which come to compete for the topsoil's nutrients.

But if the root system comes across the bedrock after a few years of growth, it does not matter how much manure or lime you put down, or how much you care for the tree, it will not prosper. You will need to experiment with other husbandry techniques and remain hopeful and optimistic to move on!

  • Hope
  • Optimism
  • Unity of purpose
  • A proactive strategy
  • Communication

The trunk: free flow or constricted flow?

The trunk will grow during the winter if you have paid sufficient attention to let the sap flow freely. If for any reason the sap does not flow freely (through the growth of ivy for example) then branches will begin to die. Keep an eye out for pests, parasites and fungi which will always exploit any weaknesses in the bark.

  • fairness & equity (procedural & distributive justice): candidly auditing HR policies, procedures, documentation, systems and practices.
  • trade unions: managing the interface; respecting representation yet encouraging individual empowerment.

The branches: strong or weak?

You need strong, healthy branches for your tree and any dead wood needs to be eliminated and burnt to destroy parasites. Branches die slowly and the cause is often unclear, so careful, regular inspection is needed. Pruning can invigorate growth, but you only want growth which is fit for purpose.

  • External institutional affiliation & partnerships
  • Internal operational systems & processes
  • Strategic industry community affiliation & memberships

The foliage: blooming or withering?

As spring moves into summer, you will have clearly see whether your tree is blooming or withering. A lot of spring blossom is likely to mean plentiful fruit in the summer - but only if pollinated by bees or other insects, a reminder of how dependent you are on external factors.

Try to learn as much as possible about looking after your tree and share this information as much as possible. But remember that the right techniques will only give results if used at the right time. You will also need to be ready to improvise, so learn to use your gardening skills and tools in many different ways. This will save you time and money.

Examine individual leaves to ensure that they are not diseased. If they are, diagnose the cause as scientifically as possible and choose the right treatment. You may need expert advice for this to save you time.

1. The leaf (the individual)

  • Scope of empowerment
  • Individual change self-efficacy
  • High self-esteem, perceived internal locus of control & optimism. Selection for resilience through non-discriminatory personality tests
  • Individual awareness
  • Stress management and coaching for resilience
  • Competence: effective training
  • The skill of bricolage and improvisation training.
  • Acceptance of reality
  • Understanding the meaningfulness of life

2. The leafage (collective):

If you treat the leafage as a whole, the leaves will likely look after themselves. However, this is where the gardener's decisions on how things are done are so fundamentally important. For example, the gardener decides whether the tree should be productive or esthetic.

What's more, fruit trees can be grafted to another species (assuming they are compatible). A successful graft will allow a tree to adapt to changes in the environment, become more productive and hopefully, more esthetic as well.

  • Quality of leadership: effective coaching
  • Organisational structure (decision-making, horizontal communication)
  • Organisational culture (adaptive capacity)
  • Innovation & creativity: strategic compensation packages that reward new ideas
  • Values provide 'meaning'
  • Relational reserves & financial reserves
  • Social networks
  • Allocation of resources
  • Collective competence: training for group/team resilience
  • Succession planning and career management
  • Knowledge management

Don't be too disappointed if your foliage comes under attack and is not productive, that's life! Try and learn from any mistakes you made previously and decide to do better next time round by experimenting with alternative techniques and treatment.

For practical purposes, then, what we see from this is that resilience can be nurtured if the issue is approached holistically. In most organisations, the systems or processes mentioned above are already in place and we are already familiar with them, so it is a question of making resilience a strategic priority by integrating the multi-dimensional and interdependent nature of the concept, focusing on existing practices and adjusting emphasis.

In the aftermath of the earthquakes and other disasters, the pervasive relevance of nurturing resilience is now established as an integral part of recovery. That's why the lessons are pertinent for modern organisations operating in a complex, volatile and low-capacity environment.


About The Author

Malcolm Parker
Malcolm Parker

Malcolm Parker is an Associate Professor of HR Management at SKEMA Sophia-Antipolis in France and Head of Business-Bachelor programmes at the School.