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An examination of the contemporary meaning and utility of resilience

Andrew MacLeod, MBCI, investigates the origins of the term ‘resilience’ and demonstrates how its meaning, context and utility has evolved in the last 30 years.  This is the second paper in a series where we are publishing the short listed entries in the Continuity Central Business Continuity Paper of the Year competition.

As Napolitano (2010), the US Secretary of Homeland Security observed,

“… we are a resilient nation. But … we can’t guarantee there won’t be another successful terrorist attack … if that attack comes, our enemies will still not have succeeded, because our nation is too strong, and too resilient, to ever cower before a small group of violent extremists.”

The burgeoning use of ‘resilience’ has created a “concept used liberally and enthusiastically by policy makers, practitioners and academics” (McAslan, 2010). A Google search returns over five million references for ‘resilience’, and even the laconic  Geoffrey Boycott, now refers to England’s cricket team as lacking ‘resilience in the middle order’. There has been significant debate about the relationships between risk, business continuity, disaster recovery and crisis management. Resilience has the potential to be an umbrella term which encompasses these disciplines. Therefore, precise understanding of the contemporary meaning of resilience is fundamental, lest it become an inappropriately applied term such as ‘strategic’. This paper will investigate the origins of the term resilience and demonstrate how its meaning, context and utility has evolved in the last 30 years. Resilience and its utility will be examined in relation to a number of sectors; environmental, individual, community, organizational, and national security. It will be demonstrated that there are numerous definitions of resilience, which are contextually sensitive. Nevertheless, the term resilience underpins a mind-set, a common set of characteristics and an ability to recover no matter the context.

Whilst the Oxford English Dictionary definition, “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape” or “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties” (2011) is widely understood, there is merit in investigating the origins of the term resilience and its evolution to offer a more complete understanding of its contemporary utility. Resilience first came to prominence in the English language in the early 19th century when Tredgold (1818) used the term to describe a property of timber. The term was further developed by Robert Mallet (1856) who, in the modulus of resilience, assessed the ability of materials to withstand severe weather conditions. Importantly resilience is not simply the strength in the materials, but rather, implies that something is absorbed before returning to its previous state. Thus the term resilience gained a conceptual meaning, the ability of a material to both absorb and release energy, which remains valid today.

The use of resilience in relation to the properties of materials may provide the origins of the contemporary understanding of the term, however, limiting one’s understanding of resilience in just that context is insufficient. To fully understand why resilience has become such a pre-eminent term, one must understand its modern applications. Semantic debate is polarised with critics contending that the term’s inherent meaning of a positive outcome to events is limiting. Kaplan (2005) states;

“A close examination of this idea, however, reveals a number of unresolved questions that at best render the concept less than useful, and at worse impede progress in understanding human adaptation.”

In contrast, resilience’s advocates propose it is not just a fashionable concept, but essential to understanding how societies can develop in confronting uncertainty and challenges. McAslan (2010) argues that “the resilient approach focuses on the interaction between periods of gradual and sudden change, and provides better understanding on how society should respond to disruptive events and accommodate change.” Sims (2012) argues that resilience has become a relevant term because of the ease with which it can be incorporated to promote national identity, “… (Resilience’s) success as a term lies in its ability to be mobilized in an explicitly political rhetoric of national identity.”

Like any term used in a variety of settings there are a number of nuances to resilience. However, resilience does have a number of fixed characteristics no matter what the context. McAslan (2010) suggests these can be summarised into seven characteristics, which are paraphrased below. Any definition of resilience refers to:

  1. Threats and events which are unexpected with impacts beyond that which would be considered normal.
  2. The need to assess the risk from threats.
  3. The ability to return or recover from a disruptive event – in essence that resilience requires a positive outcome.
  4. The capability to recovery from an abnormal event must be developed prior to the event; it is this preparedness that infers resilience.
  5. The desire to survive, coupled with a unity of purpose, tends to produce groups, organizations and communities that are more likely to succeed. Their ability to adapt in an evolving environment can also be deemed a measure of resilience.
  6. McAslan defines his 6th characteristic as ‘gaining experience’. For example, Nagl (2005) calls this the Institutional Learning Cycle and states that it was the US Army’s inability to capture lessons learnt that caused strategic failure in Vietnam.
  7. Resilient groupings tend to be well co-ordinated and share common values and beliefs.

To determine resilience’s utility to assist policy makers and practitioners, one must look at resilience in its most commonly deployed contexts. Many would argue that in a contemporary setting resilience was first introduced by Holling (1973) in his paper Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems; this described the concept of resilience to ecology and environment. Holling felt that a resilience framework in relation to ecosystems did not “require a precise capacity to predict the future, but only a qualitative capacity to devise systems that can absorb and accommodate future events in whatever unexpected form they may take.” Interestingly this phrase could equally be applied to business and other forms of resilience.

Holling’s core assumption, that ecosystems exist in an equilibrium to which they can return after experiencing a given level of disturbance (McAslan, 2010), has been disputed by a number of ecologists including Richard Klein. Klein et al. (2004) have argued that ecosystems are dynamic and incessantly evolving in reaction to external influences. This means that no original state of equilibrium can exist. However, resilience has endured as a term deemed fundamental to understanding ecosystems. This is demonstrated by the number of academic networks and communities that use the term resilience, for example the Resilience Alliance (

If resilient ecosystems are the macro level, individual resilience could be termed the micro level. ‘Resilient’ individuals are often admired for certain character traits that means they are able to cope well with adversity and continue to thrive. From an academic point of view, much of the work conducted into individual resilience has focused on the psychological reaction of individuals to disruptive events. Norris et al. (2009) analysed the reaction of individuals to potentially traumatic events and suggested there are a number of reactions; resistance, resilience, recovery, relapsing/remitting, delayed dysfunction and chronic dysfunction. Frequently, resistance, demonstrating little or no adverse feeling after a traumatic event, is mistaken for resilience. Thus, resilience in an individual implies that they have experienced some form of negative reaction but have quickly responded in a positive manner.

Norris et al.’s categorisation of individuals’ responses has been subject to debate, and some have questioned whether resilience is a concept appropriate to individuals. Current military teaching on post-traumatic stress suggests that individuals cannot be categorised as each incident will affect each individual differently, even to the extent of the same individual reacting differently to a similar incident at a different time. If resilience is to be considered in relation to individuals then McAslan’s (2010) assertion that temporary distress after an event followed by a return to normal functioning would seem slightly erroneous. A resilient individual would be someone who can return to a functional level, although the degree of their pre-event functioning may never be regained. There are parallels between this definition and commercial recovery.

The question of community resilience has received more recent attention than individual resilience. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is firmly rooted in the concept of community resilience, and Nigel Hall’s (2012) corollary belief that society requires community resilience to thrive are two examples of this. One of the reasons for the contemporary importance of community resilience has been put forward by Sims (2012).

“Resilience, on the other hand, implies a system where community members come together as equals to solve important problems and resolve deep anxieties in a cooperative, “pro-active” spirit, which is much more likely to be perceived as politically neutral.”

However, the definition of the terms community and resilience are themselves subject to debate. There is an inherent danger of illusion in attempting to group a community and seeking a measurable definition of its resilience. Communities will vary according to human, social, natural, financial and physical capital (Moser 2008) and this produces an “underlying assumption that people with more assets are more resilient as they have a range of livelihood options to withstand shocks.” (McAslan 2010). If the collective national assets spread over a variety of sectors determined community resilience, then today’s Britain would currently be at its most resilient. Edwards (2009) disputes this notion and believes Britain is now a brittle society as “our everyday lives and national infrastructure operate in a fragile union, vulnerable to even the smallest disturbance in the network.”

Perhaps community resilience takes greater impetus in times of austerity as a way for communities to prepare themselves when economic funding is reduced. It could, however, be argued that community resilience should always remain a theoretical concept. Davis (2009) states, in relation to New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina;

“After all, the federal government was providing protection and shouldering most of the burden. The perverse result of this was a city that gained protection but lost resilience. The net effect was a city at higher risk.”

If Davis is correct, then the tools being developed to measure community resilience (McAslan 2012) and assist policy-makers could be inherently flawed. It can be argued that the measuring of community resilience can only be useful when it is used as a benchmark to encourage a minimum standard of resilience and to allow planning theory to be widely disseminated. Due to the difficulties in defining a community it is difficult to decide whether they can be judged resilient, however, any tool which encourages a collective body to be able to recover from a disruptive incident will always retain some value. As Star and Griesemer (1989) conclude, resilience works as a “boundary object, that is, an entity that has meaning and rhetorical utility for a wide range of communities.”

Resilience in organizations, particularly after the financial crash, has become a holy grail. The recently released BS 65000 Guidance on Organizational Resilience, in addition to providing a common reference standard, is indicative of organizational resilience encompassing more than risk, security and business continuity. As McAslan (2011) states “organizational resilience is a goal, whereas risk management and continuity planning are management tools which can be used to achieve that goal.”

This growing use of resilience as an overarching concept can be seen through the development of international standards (ISOs) which have sought to set auditable standards for resilience. These include ISO 28002: 2011 – Development of Resilience in the Supply Chain. However, it should be noted that the previously mentioned BS 65000 is a guidance standard only, and not a certifying standard. One could perceive this is because agreement on what constitutes a resilient organization and how that should be defined is still subject to too much debate.   

After the introduction of the UK Civil Contingencies Act 2004, a number of utilities and infrastructure providers were deemed Category 2 responders as they provide essential services and were mandated to demonstrate resilience, and the ability to function in the event of a disruptive event. It has become widely accepted that organizational resilience implies “a common property … is the ability to cope with unanticipated system and environmental conditions that might otherwise cause a loss of acceptable service” (Meyer 2009).

Frequently national security and resilience have convergent aims. The UK National Security Strategy exemplifies this with its first strategic objective; “Ensuring a secure and resilient UK” and its seventh national security task “provide resilience for the UK by being prepared for all kinds of emergencies, able to recover from shocks and maintain essential services.” This convergence of national security and resilience is also seen in the US requirement that they “enhance resilience - the ability to adapt to changing conditions and prepare for, withstand, and rapidly recover from disruption.” Bringing together national security and resilience can in some circumstances be advantageous. Predominantly there is a focus on, and therefore greater investment in, preparing for ‘the big bang incident.’ This enables the “hardening of the country’s critical national infrastructure including utilities and transport, is making the country more resilient” (McAslan 2010).

However, resilience and national security remain two different goals. National security is primarily about blocking threats to a country, whilst resilience has a broader focus in reacting to a wide range of risks and putting in place appropriate strategies to allow recovery to an acceptable level should a disruptive event occur.

In conclusion, resilience has become a popular term in a variety of contemporary sectors due to its positive notions of recovering should a disruptive incident occur. Whilst the definition of resilience is almost stubbornly contextually dependent, the ability to bounce back or recover is a common theme in most definitions. Ironically, the term resilience seems to be itself resilient, in that it has become deeply ingrained across environmental, individual, community, organizational, and national security. Resilience’s intuitive linguistic appeal presents the potential for it to be used as an umbrella term to unite business continuity, risk, disaster recovery and crisis management. Rutter’s (1985) definition of resilience holds well for its use in most contexts; “the ability to bounce back or cope successfully despite substantial adversity” and resilience’s utility is demonstrated by it being a “powerful and useful concept”.

The author

Andrew MacLeod BA (Hons) MBCI is an award winning business continuity and crisis management director with eleven years’ experience developed as a director at Needhams 1834, a leading independent provider of business continuity and crisis management consultancy, planning and training services. He can be contacted at or 02073539498. 


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