Organizational improvisation, resilience and vulnerability

14 March 2019
Versione stampabile

Venue: Conference Room, Department of Economics and Management, via Inama 5 - Trento

Time: 2 PM



While some risks are broadly predictable, the specificity of their occurrence remains unpredictable, hence the value of combining strong anticipatory and contingency planning with robust improvisatory skills. The pervasiveness of catastrophic risk has motivated the creation of complex, sophisticated and expensive sociotechnical systems to minimize, predict and mitigate the impact of the unpredictable and thus reduce the dangers of risk. Nonetheless risk management apparatuses sometimes fail. In this paper we address how systems designed to deal with the unpredictable become unpredictable themselves and how coordination and ineffective improvisation contribute to failed outcomes. We do so by analyzing the tragedy of a massive wildfire heppened in Europe (2017). We dissect the unfolding of the crisis from an organizational perspective, showing how severe conditions caused a communications technology breakdown in the context of rapidly unfolding and unpredictable events. The breakdown resulted in coordination and knowledge failures that diminished the system’s resilience by impeding effective improvisation. The result was the most lethal and tragic forest fire in Portugal’s history in terms of fatalities. The implications for managing predictability and surprise extend to risk society contexts beyond wildfires.