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The 24th EGOS Colloquium 2008  

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Postdoctoral pre-colloquium workshop

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Sub-theme 29:

Risky Organizations and the Organization of Risk Management



Sytze F. Kingma
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (The Netherlands)

Robert P. Gephart, Jr.
University of Alberta (Canada)

Arjen Boin
Leiden University (The Netherlands)

Call for papers

The thematic of the Risk Society, parented by Ulrich Beck (1992) and Anthony Giddens (1990), has evolved into a new paradigm for social analysts investigating how outputs from the wealth society have gained the potential to 'bite back'. Organizations that produce wealth also tend to produce risks, which, paradoxically, undermine a society's health and wealth. The prevalence of risk in a wide range of organizational contexts has, in turn, been identified as an important mechanism behind upsetting organizations. Risk and uncertainty disrupt rational management planning and day to day organizational functioning. They often lead organizations to undertake unique, uncommon or even risky activities to prevent or mitigate risk.

The field of organization studies has a rich and lively history of research into accidents, disasters and crises that result from the organizational pursuit of otherwise legal and ethically acceptable goals. Various perspectives on risk have been developed in distinguished studies on for example 'Normal accidents' (Perrow, 1999), 'Shared risk' (Comfort, 1999), 'High reliability organizations' (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001) or 'Megaprojects and risk' (Flyvbjerg, 2003). One of the main objectives of this sub-theme is to deepen the inquiry by connecting various theoretical perspectives and types of risk, and by bridging the gap between macro analyses of the risk society and the study of risk and crisis at the organizational level.

An important topic is the analysis of risk perception. Organizations play a significant role in the definition and distribution of risks. Risks are not equally distributed across organizations, and not all organizational actors have the same conceptions or understanding of risks. Further, risks are to a considerable extent negotiated, performed and constructed in organizational settings. Risks, and related concepts such as 'dangers', 'harm' and 'hazards', or counterparts like 'protection', 'safety', 'confidence' and 'trust', are the outcome of negotiations and disputes between diverging parties. The negotiation of risks links specific definitions of risk to power relations.

Risk is not simply equated with dangers or hazards. Risks exist in terms of the scientific or anti-scientific knowledge about them. The involvement of science in the construction of risks is particularly relevant here. The systematic incorporation of risks in government policies, organizations and life worlds, may raise (sub-)political and ethical questions regarding risk. But organizations not only produce risk; risks also pose challenges to organizations, which must try to prevent the impact of risks on their core operations, prepare for the moment when risk does materialize (business continuity) and consider ways in which the organization can recover from crises and disasters. Moreover, organizations often play key roles in the management of risks, crises and disasters – either by designation (emergency services) or by situational contingency (think of the many organizations involved in the wake of Hurricane Katrina).

Against the background of these considerations we propose the following questions for reflection and debate in this sub-session of the conference:

  • What does risk mean to organizational actors?
  • How are risks defined and distributed in varied organizational contexts?
  • How do organizations detect emerging risks and crises in their production processes?
  • How do risks affect organizational reputations and identities?
  • Which kinds of (sub-)political and moral/ethical issues are associated with organizational risks?
  • How do organizations deal with the consequences of accidents, crises and disasters?
  • What is the role of science and expert knowledge in the construction and management of organizational risks?
  • How do prevailing organization theories address risk and related topics?
  • What are the major methodological issues involved in risk-analyses and risk-management strategies?

For this sub-theme on risk we welcome participants and papers that specify, reflect upon or challenge risk as a concept used by organizational actors, as a consequence of modern organizations and as an object of organizational intervention across a variety of organizational contexts. Indicative subjects for papers include:

  • Empirical analyses concerning organizational risks, crises and disasters. These could involve case studies, discourse analyses and qualitative research as well as quantitative designs, surveys and risk assessments.
  • Evaluations of risk management, crises management and (human) aid in the case of organizational crises and disasters.
  • The sub-politics, moral issues and ethics involved in organizational risk-analyses and prevention- or relief programmes.
  • The theoretical and methodological aspects of (scientific) research regarding organizational crises, disasters and risks.

Key readings

Adam, B., U. Beck & J. van Loon (1999): Positioning Risk. London: Sage.

Beck, U. (1992): Risk Society. Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.

Comfort, L.K. (2001): Shared Risk: Complex Systems in Seismic Response. Oxford: Elsevier Science Ltd.

Flyvbjerg, B., N. Bruzelius et al. (2003): Megaprojects and Risk. An Anatomy of Ambition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giddens, A. (1990): The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lupton, D. (ed.) (1999): Risk and Sociocultural Theory. New Directions and Perspectives. London: Routledge.

Perrow, C. (1999): Normal Accidents. Living with High-Risk Technologies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Turner, B.A. (1978): Manmade Disasters. London: Wykeham.

Weick, K.E. & K.M. Sutcliffe (2001): Managing the Unexpected. Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

About the convenors

Sytze F. Kingma is Lecturer in the field of organizational space and technology at the department of Culture, Organization and Management, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. His research interests involve the confrontation between the 'material' and the 'virtual' dimensions of organizational networks, and the way 'risk' is implicated in contemporary organizational contexts. He published a book (in Dutch) on The Gambling Complex (2002). His major recent international articles appeared in International Gambling Studies, Journal for Strategic Information Systems, and Culture and Organization.

Robert P. Gephart, Jr. is Professor of Strategic Management and Organization at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. He received his PhD from the University of British Columbia. Dr. Gephart has published his research in a number of scholarly journals including Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal, American Behavioral Scientist, Journal of Management, and the Journal of Management Inquiry. He is the author of Ethnostatistics: Qualitative Foundations for Quantitative Research and a co-editor of Postmodern Management and Organization (both published by Sage Publications). Dr. Gephart also serves on a number of Editorial Boards including the Academy of Management Journal, Organization & Environment, Organizational Research Methods, Journal of Organizational Change Management, Revue Sciences de Gestion, and Tamara: Journal of Critical Postmodern Organizational Science. His current research interests include sensemaking, and technological and environmental risk management.

Arjen Boin is a research fellow at Leiden University's department of Public Administration (The Netherlands) and director of the Leiden University Crisis Research Center. Boin has published widely on such topics as leadership, prisons, crisis management and institutional design. His most recent books include Crafting Public Institutions: Leadership in Two Prison Systems (Lynne Rienner), Managing Crises: Threats, Dilemmas, Opportunities (Charles C. Thomas Publisher), The Politics of Crisis Management and Governing after Crisis (both Cambridge UP). He is the co-founder of the European Crisis Management Academy (ECMA).