A Systems Approach to Crisis Preparedness and Organizational Resilience

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Matt Keating's Topic Page


Personal Crises and Personal Disasters

Are organizational crisis management and resilience techniques useful for the individual?

Adopting a personal methodology of crisis prevention, mitigation and preparedness not only benefits one personally, but would also have benefits to any organizations that an individual is a member of.


Charles Perrow’s Normal Accident Theory may be very applicable to individuals. Perrow analyzes accidents in terms of systems, sub-systems and parts.

A person’s life might also be viewed in this way . For example, your health is a system made up of many subsystems: 


  - the nervous system

  - the digestive system

  - the circulatory system

  - the musculo-skeletal system

  - the respiratory system

All of these subsystems have parts – organs, nerves, blood vessels, lungs, the brain, etc. All of these parts have a function and a role, all are interdependent and the proper working order of all these parts, in all these subsystems, determines the operation of your overall “health system”

A person also operates a financial system, likewise made up of subsystems and parts: your job, your bank account, credit cards, investments, retirement plan or savings, property, etc.

These separate systems interact in complex ways: for example, losing one’s job affects their financial system and may also affect their health: loss of a healthcare plan leads to delay in seeking treatment, mental stress, and so on.

Perrow defines systems as linear and complex.  Linear systems tend to be spread out, spatially or in time. Failure in one step of a linear system may stop the process, or if not, the effect of failure may be predictable.

Complex systems have multiple interactions and multiple links between action and effect. Failure in one step does not necessarily shut the system down. It can proceed with unexpected results and can also magnify the failure, creating second and third order effects.

Both types can be loosely or tightly coupled. What this means is the degree to which steps in the process are linked. A loosely coupled system has “slack”, additional resources or time built into the system that allows an error to be spotted and possibly corrected before it goes too far. A tightly coupled system not only has less slack, but the number of links makes it very difficult to monitor them all. An error or failure in one aspect of the system triggers, very quickly, problems that may not be understood or realized.

Here is how Perrow explains coupling in systems: ( the material below speaks in terms of manufacturing or chemical processes, try and interpret it in terms of the various personal things people do in their lives)


  1. Tightly coupled systems have more time-dependent processes. Chemical reactions will proceed at their own pace; there may be no opportunity to store intermediate stages' output; the material may not permit cooling and subsequent re-heating; etc. Loosely coupled systems are more forgiving of delays. There may be standby modes; intermediate stages' output may be stored readily for variable periods; etc.


  2. In tightly coupled systems the sequence of steps in the process exhibits little or no variation. A senior major's course in a department will typically have as prerequisites one or more intermediate-level courses in the discipline, and they will have one or more introductory courses as their prerequisites. The courses in the academic major are fairly tightly coupled. By contrast, it typically doesn't make much difference when, or in what order, the distributional requirements are met; those are loosely coupled (both to each other and to the major).


  3. In tightly coupled systems, the overall design of the process allows only one way to reach the production goal. You can produce a car in many different ways, contracting out the production of a subsystem or substituting different materials or methods. A hydroelectric dam or a chemical plant provide far fewer alternatives in their operation.


  4. Tightly coupled systems have little slack. Everything has to be done and to go just right, or it doesn't work at all. Loosely coupled systems permit degraded operation to continue, with correction or rejection of substandard product as needed, without having to shut down the whole operation.


The focus of my interest in crisis management is to develop ideas, techniques and strategies that prevent or lessen the impact of potential crises in individuals. A person so armed then becomes an asset to any organization they are a member of, both from a leadership standpoint: assisting the organization in managing a problem, and also a teaching standpoint: being able to embed crisis management and prevention strategies in their organization. In a sense, an individual may be a "part" or "subsystem" of the organization they are a part of.

Governmental organizations have, as a part of their disaster preparedness plans, a concept called Continuity of Operations, or "COOP". Business uses a similar set of concepts and techniques called "Business Continuity Planning". The aim of both COOP and business continuity planning is to ensure that the organization preserves the capability to fulfill their essential missions, under any circumstances, after experiencing or even in the midst of a disaster.

The plans, strategies, resources and techniques used in implementing a COOP plan, I believe can be translated to an individual level, what I call "Personal COOP" or "P-COOP". As I develop more information about how organizational crisis management and resilience can be applied to help individuals prevent, prepare for and mitigate the inevitable crises and emergencies that confront them, I will post it here. The ultimate goal is to integrate preparedness and resilience: a person is prepared to address challenges that are foreseeable and is resilient in the face of challenges that are not forseeable.


Matthew J. Keating


University of Pennsylvania, DYNM 672, Spring 2011


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Date Page Created: Apr 20, 2011 Last Page Update: Jan 30, 2011