Why Resilience? Why Now?

May 12, 2017

This week’s bulletin has been written by guest author, and BC Training tutor James Royds.

Many organisations have tried to define resilience. The British Standards Institute offer us “the ability of an organisation to anticipate, prepare for, and respond and adapt to everything from minor everyday events, to acute shocks and chronic or incremental changes” (BS 65000:2014). The Technical Committee (TC 292), responsible for ISO / DIS 22316, define resilience as “an ability of an organisation to absorb and adapt in a changing environment to enable it to deliver its objectives and to survive and prosper”. Not to be left in the shade, the Business Continuity Institute fix on, and align with ISO, stressing the “adaptive capacity of an organisation in a complex and changing environment”. So far, so good; a nod to adaptability, complexity and a changing environment. In this context, disambiguation is a positive. Who would argue with that?

What these (and other) helpful definitions strive to do, is to present us with some context, structure and meaning to help us master something of the abstract. Context is key for resilience (and the resilience practitioner), since the subject is something of a slippery beast – not easily pinned down – and means different things to different people. Nor is it easily bottled, labelled and stored for the right moment. It’s not something we can pull off a shelf, plug in, switch on, then sit back and relax. Interestingly, even today, there is no literal translation of the word in some languages, which means it must, for its utilitarian purpose, be adapted to fit a local circumstance. Adaptation; that’s a good start, but amidst all the chatter, what interests me is why resilience has become such a topical issue now. I mean, it’s not as if it’s a new word is it? It has lain largely undisturbed by Latin lexicographers since the second or first centuries BC and is derived from “resiliens” meaning to “jump back”.

So, why resilience and why now? Is it because threats, exposures (or vulnerabilities, if you prefer) and expectations are widely reported to be on the increase? Or is it something more profound, more momentous, uncertain and fundamental? Doubtless you will have a view, but what strikes me is that the faster the world turns, (figuratively, not literally speaking), the more we try and cling to the sureties once offered by certainty. Does the act of becoming resilient, for example, offer us the same certainties as a ship’s life raft might? Only time will tell. In the meantime, the real problem is that the certainties we take (or more accurately once took) for granted, struggle to be heard above the aching din of change and the clarion call of disruptors, who shape the modern world in their image.

Consider this, so admirably captured by Caitlin Moran (The Times, 3rd December 2016), “sometimes the world seems to move so fast, it’s not a question of dealing with crisis. It’s a much deeper question: of knowing what the crisis actually is”. What then, is the crisis?

Well, it can be partly answered by the world in which we now live, which didn’t exist 25 years ago. A world where access to nearly everything is unsatisfyingly instant, and paralysed by too much data – 2.5 quintillion bytes of the stuff created and collated every day. Far from helping us, it makes the task of navigating “momentous, unpredicted upheaval” even more precarious. We are living through the largest migration in human history – not across traditional borders as many might claim – but from the real world to a digital world distorted by dystopianism. And yes, it was unpredicted; that’s the key point! Who really foresaw the unintended consequences of a connected world; lawlessness, improvisation, fear and dangerously bereft of any credible oversight, regulation and sense of proper community? That abuse on the internet would not be considered real crime; that cybercrime isn’t really crime at all; that news is only news if it’s fake news; that influence is no longer measured in carefully choreographed words but on how many hits, re-tweets and social media friends we have. 

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Make no mistake, the disruptors are in the driving seat, turning everything upside down from discursive politics to business process, relational commerce to legal control and, worryingly, knowledge to nothing. In times of uncertainty and great upheaval, humanity searches for guidance and a band aid. Where is the map to chart our way through this upheaval? Is becoming more resilient the answer, for people, for communities, for humanity? Only time will tell, but it’s as good a place as any to start. Enjoy the journey. Full steam ahead…

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