A Systems Approach to Crisis Preparedness and Organizational Resilience

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A Systems Approach to Crisis Preparedness and Building Organizational Resilience Course Information / Syllabus

Crisis and Resiliency = Change and Changeability = Life

This course gives a broad introduction to Crisis Preparedness (CP). Although we do cover basic CP, as well as Crisis Management, Emergency Preparedness and Organizational Continuity Planning, we go beyond these technical protocols in three ways:

Emphasis on Resiliency  

Our approach to CP [1]relies on two distinct strategies:

Predict and Prevent (PaP), i.e., try to predict potential crises so as to either prevent them or at least mitigate the effects. (This is more-or-less standard CP, although we look at a broader range of crisis); and

Developing Resiliency, i.e., generalized capacities to cope with unforeseen, even unforeseeable, adversity. In general, educators and bureaucracies have a much easier time with PaP than with resiliency. business schools can teach and and bureaucrats can understand spreadsheets, estimating probabilities and developing protocols. In contrast, resiliency -- strong core values, independence, organic structure, slack resources, -- resists simple algorithms. Rather, becoming resilient usually demands vigorous swimming against the tide of contemporary theory, education and practice.[2]

Systemic Perspective

Some organizations prepare well for technological crises and natural disasters, but few do for macro events that could be just as devastating. We try to think about CP systematically – by identifying the larger systems in which an organization is contained and the associated vulnerabilities (warning: this will likely be very alarming!)

Attention to Opportunity

Crisis usually entails not only danger and vulnerability, but also opportunity. Indeed, opportunities arise only as a result of change. If nothing changes, nothing will change (you can quote me on that); at the other extreme, the best opportunities generally arise from the most extreme changes, i.e., crisis. The benefits of this perspective are transformative:

  1. if we can see a silver lining – or gold filling! – in crisis, perhaps we’re more likely to prepare for a threat, rather than just hope it doesn’t happen.
  2. CP is no longer an expensive insurance policy and tiresome protocols one hopes never will need to be enacted, but rather at the center of business development efforts.
  3. Top officers will no longer relegate CP to lower, technical levels, but rather treat it as the top priority its importance warrants.
  4. Feeds directly and effectively into Organizational creativity, innovation and entreprenuerial initiatives. [3]

Meets: Wednesdays 6:30-9:30 pm  Fisher-Bennett Hall 025

Professor: Steven F. Freeman ; (215) 802-4680, 3440 Market Street, Suite 100

First Class: Wednesday, Jan 9. Dinner at 5pm, Faculty Club (Inn@Penn, 3600 block of Walnut/Sansom) preceeding class (or just come directly to class at Fisher-Bennett Hall 025)

Official University of Pennsylvania Organizational Dynamics program course website: DYN 672

Educational Objectives

1. Awareness of:

  • crisis as a part of life and social systems
  • macro-level crises that could effect you
  • organizational/individual crisis vulnerability
  • types of organizational crises
  • group, family and individual crises

2. Understanding of:

  • nature and phases of crisis
  • what to do before, during and after a crisis
  • crisis psychology / decision-making
  • security strategies-anticipation v. resilience
  • Skills, models and practices of resilience
  • systemic vulnerability/systemic resilience

3. Enhance ability to:

  • think critically
  • develop expertise
  • adopt a systems perspective
  • articulate and communicate your thoughts cogently, concisely and compellingly

4. Apply course-related knowledge to be able to sucessfully foresee and weather crises.

General Educational Philosophy

Useful assignments: The effort you put into getting a degree represents a significant portion of your life and a very large proportion of time not obligated to family or employer. As such it's precious, and the time spent on assignments should reflect that value. So I strive to help you to do useful assignments. But this does require you to reflect on what would be of value.

Adaptable syllabus: students can maximize the value of a course is through a flexible, adaptable syllabus. If there is any topic you want to cover or anyone you'd like to invite, I try to make that possible. I also try to incorporate relevant current developments and unique opportunities.

Critical thinking: Meaningful learning is not being able to parrot what an author or speaker says, but results from thinking critically about a thought, challenge its veracity and relevance, and bringing your own experience, analysis and intuition to bear on the question. "The educated person is not the person who can answer the questions, but the person who can question the answers.” T. Schick (see quotations page, Section 370, Education)

Collaborative learning: cooperative teams achieve at higher levels of thought and retain information longer than learners who work quietly as individuals. Active exchange of ideas increases interest among the participants andalso promotes critical thinking. Shared learning provides an opportunity to engage in discussion and can lead to new insights and the need to reflect on unquestioned assumptions.

Sensemaking: Graduate level courses are not simply about transmitting a given body of knowledge; it's about reflecting on important questions, looking at the big picture and making sense of it.



Class Participation (30% of grade): Class attendance and participation is required. Think about, reflect on, and try to apply course material. Think critically about what you read and hear, both in the course and outside of it. And use the classroom to display and develop your ability to analyze, summarize, evaluate, and argue positions. Life is not a multiple choice test; it's all essay questions! For particulars, see handouts:

Class participants should help lead in areas related to their core interests.

Topic Development (30% of grade): 1st half of course: Choose a potential crisis and develop a course webpage about it (e.g.,Famine). 2nd half of course: develop a course webpage on a solution, i.e., a potential course of action to prevent or cope with a given type of crisis or some aspect of general resilience.

Your webpage could be something like a Wikipedia article, but you do not have their style or NPOV restrictions. In fact, you should have a point of view and make an implicit argument as to why your topic is or is not a potential crisis. SourceWatch is a better model. It's standard is "fair, accurate and fully sourced," which better lets the truth come through by making points while insisting that every piece of information have an external, verifiable source. [4]

Webpages should be short and to the point, but if you're inspired you can do a series (or web) of pages.

Content is the most important thing! But if your content is good, and you're up for it, graphics, pictures, videos, etc..., can make a page far more effective. The more creative and aesthetic the better. We want people to want to visit your page and the site.

Course Project (40% of grade): Consider why you have enrolled in the course and what you hope to get out of it. What would be the best possible outcome of having taken the course? Is there anything you really want to do or accomplish towards which this course may be helpful? Examples of course projects could include:

  • A crisis case study: What was the crisis? How was it handled? What was the outcome? How does what you've learnt compare with extant theory and knowledge?
  • An organizational crisis audit. What are its vulnerabilities? Does it have a crisis management plan? Does it have the capabilities of resilience?
  • A full academic paper on one of the topic areas, including a thorough literature search
  • Design a research project to better understand a problem area or some aspect of it.
  • Design a research project to investigate a potential solution to a crisis-related issue
  • Write an article for publication summarizing course-related knowledge or insights that might be useful for a particular audience.
  • Develop a full-blown scenario of a potential crisis
  • Make a video or create a work of art related to course material
  • Further develop a website, "hub" or interest group around a particular issue
  • Engage in some other means to promote understanding of a potential problem or a solution 

This could be a smaller stand alone project, a piece of a larger project or a team effort. Ideally course projects are identifiable as components in your overall educational program. Do something you WANT to do, it's not (just) a test or yet another burden. Consider me, your classmates and the OD program as means to pursue and accomplish something uniquely valuable.

By the end of the course, you must turn in a paper and/or give a presentation about your project. If you choose to write a paper, please read my Guide to Developing and Writing a Research Paper and attend my research writing workshops. If you choose to do a presentation, please read my Guide to Presenting a Course Project.

Grades and course credit are awarded as directed by program guidelines.



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Date Page Created: Feb 9, 2014 Last Page Update: Mar 31, 2020