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Crisis as a Learning Inducement Essay

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Updated: Apr 14th, 2022

Introduction

The literature that has been presented by researchers in the field of organizational learning has, to this point, been not clear and hard to define. The guiding concept of this literature is marked with disorder and the researchers find the trend, as pointed out by Common, difficult to be defined, separated, measured and applied1.

However, in the recent times, there has been a sharp rise in the number of the studies that have been conducted in the field of organizational learning. But on the other hand, the literature that has been presented about organizations learning from crisis has remained to be inadequate.

In order to bring up the level of theoretical and practical understanding of the “organizational learning” process and the way it is linked to the management of the crises in organizations, this paper seeks to explore the experience of crisis as learning inducements by setting up solid theoretical and empirical frameworks for carrying out researches on organizational learning from crisis.

Literature Review

Crisis and learning

Deverell defines crisis as “a situation that subjects a community of people, such as an organization, a state or a municipality, to a serious threat to its basic structures or fundamental values and norms which, under time pressure and uncertainties, necessitates making crucial decisions”2.

Basing on a definition that was given out by Schwab, organizational learning is observed to come about “when the experience systematically alters behavior or knowledge”3.

This view gives a distinction between behavior and cognition in a clear manner which, basing on several views, is the real meaning of learning4. Moreover, this definition does not, in a similar way as other definitions, give a distinction between lessons seen which do not alter the actual behaviors and lessons implemented.

The link that exists between learning and crisis is not very clear in the existing literature that has been presented by scholars. The organization researchers give a highlight of the effect which crises have on learning as well as on change.

Studies that have been carried out in the field of public administration as well as in the field of policy analysis seem to consider crisis as being an opportunity for learning which “may open windows of reform required for change”5.

However, the evidence that has been given out in the recent times in the literature of crisis management indicates that learning does not essentially come out of crisis6 7 8. Therefore, the literature that has been presented in the field of crisis management as well as in the fields of organizational learning and public administration give out varied views on the possible effect crises may have on learning.

In addition, rarely is there looking in to the issue of what the organizations learn and a time they carry out the learning9. According to Boin, ‘t Hart and Sundelius, the studies that have been carried out to this end draws a conclusion that crisis and learning “remains an open question whether crisis triggers learning and change”10.

It can be clearlyy seen that there is need to raise the level of knowledge concerning the link between crisis and learning.

A conceptual framework for crisis triggered learning

A study was recently conducted by Lalonde in which he set up a platform for a learning model for “organizational resilience” and raised the level of crisis coping capabilities. This researcher presented claims that the “management studies do not seem to lead to a crisis management learning model that fosters organizational resilience in coping with crises”11.

What is learned

There are two types of learning are presented by Deverell as; single-loop learning and double-loop learning12. According to Argyris and Scho’ n, a distinction between these two types of learning is possibly the most powerful classification of organizational learning13.

The achievement of the single-loop learning is realized at a time members within an organization engage in the detection and correction of divergences and mistakes in the organization as well as in the organization’s procedures, without looking in to the fundamental norms and premises of the organization.

Therefore, “single-loop learning” processes makes it possible for organizations to undertake operations and attain the objectives as well as policies of the day in the organization. Learning of this kind operates in the best way when the changes in the outer environment of the organizational environment are slow or at a time the organizational premises aren’t conflicting.

However, during the periods of drastic change, those who manage organizations may have a feeling of the urge to engage in inquiries that pose questions to the status quo of the organizations. The double-loop learning inquiries like these may assume the form of reforming the norms of the organization as well as strategies that are linked to such norms.

This deep-rooted learning “presupposes that error detection becomes not only connected to strategies and assumptions for effective performance, but also to the very norms which define effective performance”14.

Under the double-loop learning, those who participate in it are supposed to engage in the detecting and correction of the mistakes by engaging in the inquiring in to the modification of the motivating norms as well as goals and policies that the organization has set15.

This fundamental change implies that the former understandings are not regarded while there is addition of fresh ones. It can be very hard to operationalize these concepts. To illustrate this, a process of learning that may commence as single-loop learning may eventually become a double-loop learning, and the reverse can be the case.

Focus of learning

The focus of learning that is triggered by crisis is basically, either on response or prevention. In regard to prevention, this involves finding out what caused the crisis and taking the necessary measures in order to ensure the same won’t happen again in the future. This involves learning about the way to evade being exposed to a similar crisis in the time to come.

Response involves bringing down the level of the consequences of a similar crisis by engaging in the enhancement of the crisis management capabilities. This kind of learning involves the way to offer a response to the crisis occurrences, both at the present time and even in the future. The response and prevention focuses are quite necessary for “organizational resilience’.

However Wildavsky, presented an argument that “a strategy of resilience is more efficient than spending resource on anticipatory measures to prevent accidents from occurring “16. On the other hand, Shrivastava pointed out that a dividing line between repeat risk minimization and consequences minimization is thin on some occasions17.

Looking in to the root causes of one crisis does not bear fruits at all times. In most cases, the crises are a product of a sequence of the occurrences that are interlinked as well as those mistakes and shortcomings that are also interlinked, which may be brought about by the technical causes as well as the organizational and human causes18 (Perrow, 1984).

Lessons learned: inter-crisis or intra-crisis

The difference between the inter-crisis and intra-crisis learning is comprehended as an issue of timing. According to Moynihan, the definition for the term inter-crisis learning is given as “learning from one crisis and making changes to prepare for another”19.

He also gives the definition of the term intra-crisis learning as “learning that seeks to improve response during a single crisis episode”20. According to this researcher, the research that has been carried out on intra-crisis learning has not been developed to the same level as that which has been carried out on inter-crisis learning.

The activation of the intracrisis learning is carried out in the middle of such unfavorable situations as uncertainty, need for drastic action, and stress among others. Those activities that bring about learning that is induced by crisis give a message to the members of the organization that they are supposed to have fresh routines as well new procedures in order to succeed in the management of the events facing them.

These severe characteristics of the crisis cause intra-crisis learning to be harder as compared to inter-crisis learning, which generally comes about at a time there is enough time to engage in contemplating21. However, some limitations should be pointed out.

For instance, it should be pointed out that these prepositions are applicable to “fast-burning” crises and not to the slow-burning ones “crisis after crisis where systematic flaws are incubated and eventually erupt to the detriment of public trust in authorities and institutions, or creeping crises like for instance chronic environmental crises that takes years to erupt and to solve22.

Another issue to be pointed out is that learning from crisis is a process that is not static but rather dynamic and can not be located easily at one point in time. The third point is that, the difference that exists between intra-crisis learning and creativeness turns out to be not clear. Intra-crisis learning and creativeness are both responses to the information that has just come up.

According to Miner, Bassoff, and Moorman, intra-crisis learning and creativeness are distinguished based on the fact that the intra-crisis learning is on the basis of the previous experiences while creativeness or improvisation is on the basis of “real-time experience”23.

In conclusion, the idea of when learning occurs is handled by coding lessons as on one hand, “intra-crisis learning, initiated during the crisis, and on the other, as inter-crisis learning, initiated after the crisis”24.

Lesson implementation

Giving a distinction between the implementing lessons processes and observing lessons has a relationship with differentiating between behavior and cognition25. A large number of organizational learning definitions are in agreement that learning involves cognition as well as behavior26. However, isolating cognition from behavior may bring in concerns at a time an analysis of real events as well as processes is carried out.

According to Boin et al, “we learn the right lessons but when learning from crisis does occur, it does not necessarily lead to performance improvement”27. In addition, behavior isn’t essentially a reflection of cognition that is precise.

However, there is distinguishing between “lessons implemented” concepts and “lessons distilled” concepts by linking the cognitive action occurring as limitations are seen to the behavioral action played out while there is acting upon lessons. In case the lesson was just seen but not acted upon to the level that it changed the behavior of the organization, this lesson is taken to be a “lesson distilled28.

On the other hand, in case the “case narrative” depicts evidence pointing out that the lesson was acted upon, in such a case, it is taken that there was implementation of a lesson.

Confirmation of implementation can be traced in statements that are made in research reports as well as in the media reports and also in the interviews. In conclusion, the issue as to whether the lessons were acted up or fruitless is dealt with by the coding of the lessons as “lessons distilled” or “lessons implemented”.

Learning from crisis in the real situation

The 2001 and 2002 Stockholm blackouts

In the year 2001, during the month of March, there was the occurrence of a technical failure in a local cable tunnel in northwestern Stockholm. The interpretation of this by the power company was that it was not a major failure. There was occurrence of another failure a short time thereafter and this was accompanied with interruptions in the communication cables29.

At that point, the operators had suspicion that this was not a usual event and alerted the Fire Department. The problem intensified as there was lack of redundancy in the local network. There was burning of connecting cables in a blaze.

The result of this was a blackout that went on for 37 hours which affected more than fifty thousand people living in the region as well as seven hundred companies having over thirty thousand employees.

An announcement was made by the power company that everything will be restored to normal by evening making people not to see this as a very grave situation. A disparity existed between “operational rescue service and societal coordination of crisis management efforts”30. The real gravity of the resultant damages came to the attention of the manager of the power company eight hours later during the blackout.

A fresh release by the press, which served to initiate “societal crisis management and coordination”, indicated that power would be restored on March 13, at 10 P.M. In the end, the operational professionals came up with a temporary technique of repairing the destroyed cables and as a result, the blackout was ended before the night of March 12.

However, “makeshift repairs became groundwork for crisis reoccurrence…the tunnel was not sufficiently decontaminated and the repairs were not adequately controlled”31. On 29th May, the following year (2002), there was sparking of a fire in the same tunnel following fresh errors. Once again, the event was interpreted as not being serious but additional problem indications contributed to high level of awareness.

The experiences that had been realized in the previous year caused it to logically clear that the fire from the cable had brought in grave damages. Where there was execution of rescue service mission, the fire chief together with the city manager came up with plans for a “coordinated response”32.

The response of the year 2001 was carried out again by the city command and control. The blackout went on for 52 hours and came to an end as operational professionals engaged in the temporary connection of the “local utility’s network to the national grid”33.

Organizational learning from the crisis

According to Deverell, by pointing out the processes of the crisis management utility in the course of the initial crisis occurrence, there was a disclosure of 20 lessons that were crisis-induced34. A large number of lessons came out from the operational stage.”

They were in general single-loop inquiries in to problems noticed by the management on how to minimize the consequences if a similar failure would occur again, rather than how to prevent a repeat of the failure”35.

The analyses of the “process-tracing” nature offered some proof of crisis improvisation at “Birka Energi” in the course of the initial crisis. However, they did not offer evidence for the intra-crisis which is on the basis of previous experience.

It is possible that, the inadequate “crisis experience” in the organization caused lesson learning in the course of the initial occurrence to be very hard and reflections were intentionally thrown aside up to the time of the crisis consequences. Moreover, there was no implementation of the single big lesson in crisis consequences which questioned lack of perfection in the design of the system as a fundamental cause of the crisis.

It is pointed out that “process-tracing narratives of the city command and control unit’s management of the events revealed nine lessons triggered by the 2001 blackout”36. The lessons were linked to bringing down the level of consequences in case a similar crisis occurs.

There were no prevention lessons possibly because, as Deverell points out, “capacity to really prevent a repetition lay within the powers of the utility, while the city could only call the attention to issues of preventing crisis repetition”37. The lessons learned by the city from the initial crisis which occurred in 2001 were of the inter-crisis nature.

A large number of lessons were taken to be “structural single-loop” learning related to the “rescue service mission, the structure of the coordination group or information and communication routines….all but one of the city’s lessons was codified either in planning documents or by decisions made during the 2002 crisis”38.

The “process-tracing” of the management of the city in the second crisis, which occurred in 2002, indicates five lessons that were learned by the “command and control unit” of the city from this crisis. The five lessons handled the subject of crisis response and the way to bring down the level of the consequences that can be brought in by a similar nature in the future.

Three of them called for investigations in to the routines of the organization in the course of a crisis and they were therefore, “double-loop” lessons. There was implementation of a larger number of them. The 2001 crisis also contributed to a remarkable learning program which took the form of the “city’s long-term crisis management investigation and overhaul of procedures and protocols”39.

Conclusion

Organizational learning is a very important current management issue that needs to be considered very seriously.

Carrying out adequate research in this field can go a long way in assisting organizations to be able to learn from the crises that they may encounter in the course of their operations in order to avoid the same in the future or for them to be able to have a clear understanding of how they can handle the same crisis if it comes about again in the future.

This study aimed to offer a theoretical analysis as well as an analysis of the real situation. However, more studies need to be carried out in order to bring up the level of the knowledge in regard to how to handle crises in organizations.

Bibliography

Argyris, C. and Scho¨ n, D.A., Organizational Learning: A theory of Action Perspective, Addison-Wesley, 1978.

Birkland, T.A., Lessons from Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events, Georgetown University Press, Washington, 2006.

Boin, R.A., ‘t Hart, P., Stern, E. and Sundelius, B., The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005.

Boin, R.A., McConnell, A. and ’t Hart, P., Governing After Crisis: The Politics of Investigation, Accountability and Learning, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.

Common, R. ‘Organizational Learning in a Political Environment: Improving Policy-Making in UK Government’, Policy Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2004, pp. 35–49.

Dekker, S. and Hanse´n, D, ‘Learning under Pressure: The Effects of Politicization on Organizational Learning in Public Bureaucracies’, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2004, pp. 211–230.

Deverell, E. ‘Crises as learning triggers: exploring a conceptual framework of crisis induced learning’, Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, vol. 17, No. 3, 2009, pp. 179 – 188.

Dror, Y., ‘Decision-making under Disaster Conditions’, in Comfort, L. (ed.), Managing Disaster: Strategies and Policy Perspectives, Duke University Press, Durham, 1988, pp. 255–273.

Elliott, D. and Smith, D, ‘Football Stadia Disasters in the United Kingdom: Learning from Tragedy’, Industrial and Environmental Crisis Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1993, pp. 205–229.

Hallander, L., Personal interview with the fire chief at the Stockholm Fire Brigade in 2001, 24 January 2002

‘t Hart, P. and Boin, A., ‘Between Crisis and Normalcy: The Long Shadow of Post-Crisis Politics’, in Rosenthal, U., Boin, A. and Comfort, L.K. (eds), Managing Crises: Threats, Dilemmas, Opportunities, Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL, 2001, pp. 28–46.

Hornyak, I., post crisis evaluation, Stockholm Fire Department, 28 June 2001.

Karlsson, I. Personal interview with the power company manager of operations, 5 February 2002

Lalonde, C. ‘The Potential Contribution of the Field of Organizational Development to Crisis Management’, Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2007. pp. 95–104.

Miner, A.S., Bassoff, P. and Moorman, C., ‘Organizational Improvisation and Learning: A Field Study’, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 2001, 2, pp. 304– 337.

Moynihan, D.P., ‘Learning Under Uncertainty: Networks in Crisis Management’, Public Administration Review, Vol. 68, No. 2, 2008, pp. 350–365.

Nohrstedt, D., Crisis and Policy Reformcraft: Advocacy Coalitions and Crisis-Induced Change in Swedish Nuclear Energy Policy, Uppsala University, Uppsala, 2007.

Perrow, C., Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Systems, Basic Books, New York, 1984.

Schwab, A., ‘Incremental Organizational Learning from Multilevel Information Sources: Evidence for Cross-Level Interactions’, Organization Science, Vol. 18, Number 2, 2007, pp. 233–251.

Shrivastava, P., Bhopal: Anatomy of a Crisis, Ballinger, Cambridge, MA, 1987.

Smith, D. and Elliott, D. ‘Exploring the Barriers to Learning from Crisis: Organizational Learning and Crisis’, Management Learning, Volume 38, Number 5, 2007, pp. 519–538.

Toft, B. and Reynolds, S., Learning from Disasters , 2nd ed., Perpetuity Press, Leicester, 1997.

Tunnel-branden, Power company in-house ad hoc company magazine published after the 2002 fire, 2002.

Wildavsky, A.B., Searching for Safety, Transaction Books, New Brunswick, 1988.

Footnotes

1 R. Common. ‘Organizational Learning in a Political Environment: Improving Policy-Making in UK Government’, Policy Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2004, pp. 35–49.

2 E. Deverell, ‘Crises as learning triggers: exploring a conceptual framework of crisis induced learning’, Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, vol. 17, No. 3, 2009, pp. 179 – 188.

3 A. Schwab, ‘Incremental Organizational Learning from Multilevel Information Sources: Evidence for Cross-Level Interactions’, Organization Science, Vol. 18, Number 2, 2007, pp. 233–251.

4 S. Dekker, S. & D. Hanse´n, ‘Learning under Pressure: The Effects of Politicization on Organizational Learning in Public Bureaucracies’, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2004, pp. 211–230.

5 T. A. Birkland, Lessons from Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events, Georgetown University Press, Washington, 2006.

6 D. Elliot & D. Smith, ‘Football Stadia Disasters in the United Kingdom: Learning from Tragedy’, Industrial and Environmental Crisis Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1993, pp. 205–229.

7 B. Toft, & S. Reynolds, Learning from Disasters , 2nd ed., Perpetuity Press, Leicester, 1997, p.5.

8 D. Smith & D. Elliott, ‘Exploring the Barriers to Learning from Crisis: Organizational Learning and Crisis’, Management Learning, Vol. 38, No. 5, 2007, pp. 519–538.

9 D. Nohrstedt, Crisis and Policy Reformcraft: Advocacy Coalitions and Crisis-Induced Change in Swedish Nuclear Energy Policy, Uppsala University, Uppsala, 2007,p.17

10 R. A. Boin, P. ‘t Hart, & E. Stern, E. and B. Sundelius, The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005, p.134.

11 C. Lalonde, ‘The Potential Contribution of the Field of Organizational Development to Crisis Management’, Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2007. p. 95

12 E. Deverell, 181

13 C. Argyris, & D.A. Scho¨ n, Organizational Learning: A theory of Action Perspective, Addison-Wesley, 1978. P.20.

14 C. Argyris, and D. A. Scho¨ n, p.22.

15 C. Argyris, and D. A. Scho¨ n, p.22.

16 A. B. Wildavsky, Searching for Safety, Transaction Books, New Brunswick, 1988, p.88.

17 Shrivastava, P., Bhopal: Anatomy of a Crisis, Ballinger, Cambridge, MA, 1987, p59.

18 C. Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Systems, Basic Books, New York, 1984.p.65

19 D. P. Moynihan, ‘Learning Under Uncertainty: Networks in Crisis Management’, Public Administration Review, Vol. 68, No. 2, 2008, p. 352.

20 D. P. Moynihan, p.352.

21 Y. Dror, Y., ‘Decision-making under Disaster Conditions’, in Comfort, L. (ed.), Managing Disaster: Strategies and Policy Perspectives, Duke University Press, Durham, 1988, p. 255–273.

22 P. ‘t Hart, P. & A. Boin, ‘Between Crisis and Normalcy: The Long Shadow of Post-Crisis Politics’, in Rosenthal, U., Boin, A. and Comfort, L.K. (eds), Managing Crises: Threats, Dilemmas, Opportunities, Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL, 2001, pp. 28.

23 A.S Miner, P. Bassoff, & C. Moorman, C. , ‘Organizational Improvisation and Learning: A Field Study’, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 2, 2001, pp. 304– 337.

24 E. Deverell, p.182.

25 E. Deverell, p.182

26 S. Dekker, S. & D. Hanse´n, p.214

27 R. A. Boin, et al., Governing After Crisis: The Politics of Investigation, Accountability and Learning, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008, p.78.

28 E. Deverell, p.183.

29 I. Hornyak, post crisis evaluation, Stockholm Fire Department, 28 June 2001.p.1.

30 L. Hallander, Personal interview with the fire chief at the Stockholm Fire Brigade in 2001, 24 January 2002

31 I. Karlsson, Personal interview with the power company manager of operations, 5 February 2002

32 E. Deverell, p.183

33 Tunnel-branden, Power company in-house ad hoc company magazine published after the 2002 fire, 2002.

34 E. Deverell, p.183

35 E. Deverell, p.183

36 E. Deverell, p.184

37 E. Deverell, p.184

38 E. Deverell, p.184

39 E. Deverell, p.184

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