How can we reach an objective assessment of organisational resilience?

17 December 2020


Reported by Alice Millington, CSaP Policy Intern

How can we reach an objective assessment of organisational resilience? For our fifth resilience seminar, Bill Hodson spoke to attending Policy Fellows about organisational resilience. Bill is the incumbent consulting director at Cambridge Consultants, and former business director at Fraser Nash consultancy.

Understanding organisational resilience was the subject of Bill’s original Policy Fellowship in 2012. Since then, substantive efforts to understand this “big, fluffy, emergent property” of organisations has been attempted by British Standards Institution (BSI), who in 2014 published sixteen ‘organisational attributes’ that could collectively build a picture of the resilience of a company. ‘Alignment’, ‘horizon scanning’ and ‘leadership’ are among these component traits. However, the importance of these attributes is not weighted, and, when asked to rank their contributions to organisational resilience, private sector respondents tended overwhelmingly to prioritise shorter-term traits and considerations. Of the 16 organisational attributes published by the BSI, those that elements that can be quantified or measured were favoured by the thousands of corporate respondents surveyed by the BSI. The organisation’s workplace ‘culture’, or the presence of ‘innovation’ were frequently neglected. Before the seminar, Bill circulated the same index to CSaP policy fellows, predominantly working in the public sector, whose responses almost polarised to the private sector’s survey. Might these sectors have different resilience needs and characteristics?

These tables were compared with the BSI’s compilation of the traits most associated with resilience performance. Those things such as innovation, adaptive capacity alignment, and horizon scanning – which tend to be associated with longer-term intervention – frequently won out. Not only did this parallel the Policy Fellow’s own responses to the BSI’s survey, it echoed themes in the wider conversations hosted in CSaP’s Resilience Seminars up to this point. Namely, that prioritising profit and efficiency undercuts efforts to ensure resilience; that the shorter-term outlook of ‘risk management’ is a poor substitute for fostering internal resilience; and that the inexorable fixation on quantification within policy frameworks may not be a suitable tool to assess resilience.

In the subsequent discussion, the Policy Fellows noted the importance of interdisciplinary perspectives in attaining something closer to an ‘objective’ assessment of resilience. Spotting vulnerabilities in a system may be easier for those from a sociological background in some instances, or an economic or scientific background in others. Only by pooling varied knowledge and perspectives can we achieve more accurate assessments – but this collective approach is often bypassed under the standard ‘service management’ lens. The BSI’s survey also underscored how challenging it can be for organisations realise their own ‘weak spots’. In the current moment, in the organisational crises that COVID-19 has inflicted on many businesses, short-term ‘firefighting’ has prevailed. Whilst it may be some time before longer-term horizon scanning and innovation can be prioritised in organisations, the Policy Fellows concluded that more robust organisations would be the outcome when this is the case.