UPDATED 00:26 EDT / APRIL 10 2020

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How to ensure organizational resilience in the age of COVID-19

Even before the ravages of COVID-19, organizational resilience was vital to any business. But now — with a possible recession on the horizon — resilience is a strategic imperative for business survival. 

As a term, “resilience” is often subject to misunderstanding. Gartner defines organizational resilience as “the ability of an organization to resist, absorb, recover and adapt to business disruption in an ever-changing and increasingly complex environment to enable it to deliver its objectives, and rebound and prosper.”

Organizational resilience isn’t synonymous with information technology disaster recovery, or IT DR, nor business continuity management, or BCM. In practice, organizational resilience can be seen as a lens on enterprise risk management or ERM programs.

Organizational resilience is the hallmark of successful enterprises, informing their leadership, culture, governance and all their business interactions. It is a continuous commitment that enables businesses to resume peak performance quickly after a shock or upset — such as the one we’re going through now. 

It’s time to reassess your resilience

Resilience acknowledges the present but looks forward. The World Economic Forum’s annual global risk reports have tracked five types of organizational risks — economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological — for more than 10 years. Their 2019 report notes: 

“The world is badly underprepared for even modest biological threats, leaving us vulnerable to potentially huge impacts on individual lives, societal well-being, economic activity and national security.” 

Given the present circumstances, IT and business leaders alike must reassess their resilience. Just 12% of more than 1,500 people polled in a Gartner business continuity webinar in early March believe their businesses are highly prepared for the impact of coronavirus. Timely investments, people engagement and infrastructure redundancy across all phases of the organizational resilience life cycle are crucial.

The five organizational resilience layers

Even without the specter of COVID-19, businesses face many organizational risks ranging from natural disasters to human-made disruptions, equipment failure and operational errors. 

All of those risks remain — along with the new risk of the novel coronavirus. Addressing these risks requires an organizational resilience program implemented across five layers, as shown in the below figure.

gartner2

Layers No. 1 and 2: Leadership and culture

Leadership is responsible for establishing the culture of an organization. Resilient leaders are communicative, and their resilient corporate culture can withstand adversity while also maintaining performance. Afterward, because the culture and leadership are durable, they can resume in a “new normal” environment. 

Within the context of COVID-19, strong leaders create a central and clear list of priorities, pursue a nonbinary approach to problem solving, and remain honest and empathetic. Effective leaders create resilient cultures when they communicate in a way that does not let them appear to be a victim of panic or hype, but instead lays out explicit actions for what to do and when.

Layer No. 3: People

Individuals must be able to maintain emotional, mental and physical stability despite adverse stressors. In our present case, this could mean having to work remotely while caring for sick family members. Studies find that chief information officers who create psychological safety – or the shared belief among team members that they feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks – drive increased engagement and performance, as employees bring their authentic selves to work. This is essential during the coronavirus pandemic as staff turn to their employers for information and guidance to quell the anxieties that come with uncertainty.

Layer No. 4: Processes 

A system is resilient if it can adjust its functioning to internal and external events. It can sustain essential operations — whether at the same, degraded or enhanced level under expected (and unexpected) conditions.

Contribute to the process of increasing business model resilience by presenting the framework to, and engaging with, senior business leaders to fully understand current business models, potential uncertainties and the impact of those uncertainties. Resilience can also be increased by designing and executing IT’s change plans and strategies to offset the impact of uncertainties. 

Layer No. 5: Infrastructure 

Resilient infrastructure — inclusive of IT/OT/IoT, the physical infrastructure and suppliers — manages disturbances and performance impacts. It then restores its structure and capabilities. Resilient infrastructure quickly adapts to new levels of operational requirements from cyber, IT and physical infrastructure perspectives.

Infrastructure and operations or infrastructure and operations leaders specifically struggle to meet the increased demand for at-home infrastructure support as the majority of citizens are teleworking indefinitely and globally.  Protective measures such as establishing a workforce resilience program, building an infrastructure response plan and using scalable architecture to support business continuity.

The tenets of resilience

There are several characteristics that have a significant scope of applicability across all five resilience layers and are paramount throughout the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

Your organization must be adaptable — capable of delivering iterations for continuous improvement. It must be also able to change direction depending upon rapidly evolving situations, like the spread of COVID-19, and circumstances. 

Your company must be responsive and able to identify risk. It must be able to react quickly and appropriately in a manner that matches the seriousness and impacts of the situation at hand.

Your organization must be proactive, able to predict, detect and respond to early warning signs in the organization’s internal and external operating ecosystem before it escalates into a business disruption.

Your company should be interdependent and integrated — processes, systems, technologies or teams are not siloed — and staff should be trained and prepared. Doing so ensures the workforce is proactive in identifying organizational risks — before they are exploited. 

There must also be a unity of purpose and a shared vision throughout the organization so all individuals can rally and support one another through these difficult times. Being united in purpose includes the ability to identify, negotiate and resolve current and future disruptions that coronavirus brings.

Finally, your organization must be collaborative, communicative and cooperative. This is integral to achieving success. Create mechanisms for sharing ideas on how to address family needs, acknowledging employee fears and stress, using online forums. Address employee concerns about their livelihood by providing transparency around business conditions and performance.

The resilience premium 

It is essential to understand that resilience represents both a cost and a benefit. Resilience as a cost means that it may require investment beyond what is necessary for normal business operations. Reputation enhancement, customer retention, competitive advantage and long-term viability are examples of resilience as a benefit. 

Consider organizational resilience as a strategic imperative. The characteristics of a resilient organization are impossible to implement in a business environment focused on short-term benefits only. Investments in time, people and infrastructure redundancy at all phases of the organizational resilience life cycle will ensure our businesses can rebound and prosper once this crisis has passed. 

Roberta Witty is a vice president at Gartner Research and part of the Security and Risk Management Programs group. Her primary area of focus is business continuity management. She wrote this for SiliconANGLE.

Photo: 272447/Pixabay

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