Sub-theme 51: The Surprising Nature of Resilient Organizations

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Rómulo Pinheiro
University of Agder, Norway
Mitchell Young
Charles University, Czech Republic
Uyarra Elvira
University of Manchester, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

Resilience, it could be said, is the ability to deal with surprise. The concept, borrowed from the natural sciences and more specifically from complex systems theory, is used to describe social phenomena and organizations that are able to recover from shocks, adapt, and maintain themselves despite external threats to their existence (Kayes, 2015). Broadly speaking one could argue that there are two main aspects of resilience: survival and adaptation, and that these correspond to two different functions which resilience serves. We label these functions ‘resilience as survival’ which is about constraining surprise and ‘resilience as adaptation’ which is about enabling it. The latter is particularly daunting in the context of a public sector that is highly regulated and thus exposed to all kinds of constraints when it comes to enabling surprises.
In this sub-theme, we are interested in understanding how different types of public organizations, particularly knowledge-intensive ones, both embrace and foster resilience. The concept of resilience rests on the idea that organizations must be prepared for the unknown, but not in the traditional way of planning for the unknown. Planning comes from a Newtonian understanding of social phenomena; i.e. the idea that there are simple and linear causal mechanisms that an organization can use to improve or reshape itself. Knowledge-intensive public organizations, including but not limited to universities, stand-alone research units, hospitals, schools, museums and arts organizations, are complex multi-actor, multi-level organizations that exhibit properties such as emergence, self-organization, and co-evolution, that cannot be explained in linear models (Karlsen & Pritchard, 2013).
Complex systems theory offers concepts to explain non-linearity, emergence, self-organization, and co-evolution among other phenomena. The theory was developed in the hard sciences, but more recently has been applied to social scientific phenomena (Urry, 2005), such as organizations and markets (Padgett & Powell, 2012), structural change (Beinhocker, 2006; Hartmann, 2014), institutions and public policy (Room, 2011; Geyer & Cairney, 2015) and processes of discovery (Stanley & Lehman 2015). Similarly, strategic management research is increasingly interested in the micro-foundations of organizational change, namely how the “interaction of individuals leads to emergent, collective, and organisation-level outcomes and performance” (Felin et al., 2015, p. 586).
This sub-theme is interested in building on those works and applying complexity theory to organizations operating in highly complex and dynamic organizational fields (Pinheiro et al., 2016). Innovation, creativity, and discovery are central to achieving the missions of many public organizations (Trippl, 2013). These organizations have, however, in the past few decades been subject to strong external pressures to become more accountable, efficient, and productive (Whitley, 2008; Potts, 2009). Many of the primary tools for enacting this – metrics based systems of evaluations, performance based funding, and strategic planning – rely on setting objectives, forecasting, and planning. The emphasis on strategic planning, or acting strategically, occurs not only in the central management core, but is often also internalized by the organization (e.g. in the form of tighter structural coupling) and dispersed even to the individual level where strategic behavior is encouraged to align individuals and maximize both their outputs and rewards. These, we contend, are in contradiction to surprise. As Potts (2009; p.39) suggests, such demands of efficiency and accountability “quietly, and with all best intentions, slowly strangle the ongoing possibility of innovation”.
In this sub-theme, we are particularly interested in papers that use the core concepts of complexity theory to address core questions surrounding the organizational underpinnings (and the interplay between internal and external factors) of different types of knowledge-intensive public organizations currently experiencing disruptive change. Pertinent queries include but are not restricted to the following aspects:

  • Is surprise antithetical to a managerial culture? Does managerialism undermine resilience?

  • Is a resilient organization more able to promote innovation, creativity, and discovery? If so, how and under what ‘ideal’ circumstances?

  • What are the characteristics that make knowledge based organizational forms resilient?

  • What can biological models of complexity tell us about organizations? How do the concepts of evolution and niche finding fit (if at all)?

  • Does the trend towards standardization, driven by rankings and global organizational archetypes, damage organization’s resilience?

  • Do metrics (rise of performative regime) make resilience more difficult?

  • What are the effects (if any) of loose and tight coupling in resilience?

  • How do the actions of certain agents within organizations affect their overall resilience?

  • What kinds of emergent properties are present in resilient public organizations?

  • What are the micro-foundations of organizational change in knowledge intensive public organizations? To what extend are they suitably explained by complex systems theory?

  • Is resilience context/sector specific or do resilient public organizations share a set of core characteristics and behaviours?

  • What conceptual models best help us to understand Innovation and resilience in public sector organizations?

  • How can public policy support resilient organizations?

In addressing these (and other queries), we appeal to social scientists working across disciplinary boundaries and resorting to innovative methodologies that move beyond the traditional linear approaches of science, in an attempt to provide a more holistic understanding of the co-evolution of, and interplay between, systems or fields, organizations and organizational participants. The panels will shed light on the complexities associated with resilient organizations and provide insights for the practice of managing and leading public organizations that are experiencing disruptive pressures.



  • Beinhocker, E. (2006): The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity and the Radical Re-Making of Economics. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Felin, T., Foss, N., & Ployhart, R.E. (2015): “The Microfoundations Movement in Strategy and Organization Theory.” The Academy of Management Annals, 9 (1), 575–632.
  • Geyer, R., & Cairney, P. (eds.). (2015): Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.
  • Hartmann, D. (2014): Economic Complexity and Human Development. How Economic Diversification and Social Networks Affect Human Agency and Welfare. Routledge Studies in Development Economics, Vol. 110. London: Routledge.
  • Karlsen, J.E., & Pritchard, R. (eds.) (2013): Resilient Universities: Confronting Changes in a Challenging World. Oxford: Peter Lang.
  • Kayes, D.C. (2015): Organizational Resilience: How Learning Sustains Organizations in Crisis, Disaster, and Breakdown. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Padgett, J.F., & Powell, W.W. (2012): The Emergence of Organizations and Markets. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Potts, J. (2009): “The innovation deficit in public services: The curious problem of too much efficiency and not enough waste and failure.” Innovation, 11 (1), 34–43.
  • Pinheiro, R., Geschwind, L., Ramirez, F., & Vrangbæk, K. (eds.) (2016): Towards a Comparative Institutionalism: Forms, Dynamics and Logics Across the Organizational Fields of Health Care and Higher Education. Bingley: Emerald.
  • Room, G. (2011): Complexity, Institutions and Public Policy: Agile Decision-Making in a Turbulent World. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.
  • Stanley, K., & Lehman, J. (2015): Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Trippl, M. (2013): “Islands of innovation as magnetic centres of star scientists? Empirical evidence on spatial concentration and mobility patterns.” Regional Studies, 47, 229–244.
  • Urry, J. (2005): “The complexity turn.” Theory Culture and Society, 22 (5), 1–14.
  • Whitley, R. 2008. “Constructing universities as strategic actors: limitations and variations.” In: L. Engwall & D. Weaire (eds.): The University in the Market. London: Portland Press Ltd., 23–37.


Rómulo Pinheiro Professor of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Agder, Norway, where he co-heads the research group on Governance and Leadership in the Public Sector (GOLEP). His research interests are placed at the interception of public policy and administration, organizational theory, higher education and regional science and innovation. Rómulo is particularly keen to undertake comparative studies across sectors and disciplinary fields, and has previously co-hosted a panel at EGOS (2013) on comparing universities and hospitals (see “Research in the Sociology of Organizations”, Vol. 45, Emerald).
Mitchell Young is Assistant Professor of European Studies at Charles University, Czech Republic. His research interests are in public management and the institutional context of research with a particular focus on the effects that policy tools for evaluating and funding research have on the micro-level behavior of researchers and institutions; science as a complex system; and the process European integration in higher education and research.
Uyarra Elvira is Senior Lecturer in Innovation Management and Policy at Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, UK. She is also a director of the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research. Her research interests centre on regional science and innovation policy; spatial dimensions of knowledge and innovation; evolutionary approaches to public policy and the role of universities and regional development. She has published widely on these issues in international journals and edited books.
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