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Cultural implications of multi-stakeholder resilience building initiatives

By Mark Clegg.


Enhancing resilience requires a detailed understanding of the character of organizations. Culture is at the heart of organizational identities; it is part of what characterises organizations and, by association, what brings strength and success. It comprises perceptions of norms and standards and it encapsulates ‘ways’ of doing things largely based upon locations, organizational structures and interpretations of shared experiences. It is built from the aggregation of sub-unit standpoints as well as the interactions between those sub-units. Culture evolves in response to experiences as the perception of what occurred during particular episodes becomes part of the grain of an organization. More often than not, culture is thought of in positive terms, differentiating one organization as better or stronger than another.

When attempting to improve resilience, a ‘start state’ is an important feature in order to fully understand the scale of the task in attaining the desired end state. This is a truism which is equally relevant whether one is dealing with a single small organization or a grouping of states containing hundreds of millions of citizens. In both cases, cultural considerations are of the utmost relevance.

International multi-stakeholder resilience initiatives are usually predicated on the notion of interconnectedness and of the nature and reach of modern-day resilience challenges. This is driven by the fact that neither man-made nor natural disasters acknowledge traditional state boundaries; yet the aftermath often has consequences for near neighbours. Furthermore, distant crises have been shown to impact many miles away from the initial occurrence. As such, participating stakeholders in these initiatives are brought together to share knowledge and capabilities during training and exercises in order that operational effect is enhanced and resilience is built.

European Union civil protection is just one example of many multi-stakeholder groupings which have been formed to enhance resilience. Such cross-sector collaborations can be motivated, at the macro level, by geography, diplomatic gain and individual national strategic interest and, at the micro level, by commercial objectives such as aiming to gain or maintain competitive business advantage. However, no matter at what level such collaborations are brought together, an important influencing factor within this journey is culture. It is important to note, however, that culture impacts on resilience initiatives in both negative and positive ways.

Cultural hurdles

Multi-stakeholder cooperation in resilience initiatives appears to be fraught with difficulty. The experiences which contribute to shared cultures are often absent and in their place is a reinforcement of differences. Organizational objectives, strategic aims, short term goals and measures of success can all appear inconsistent with partners. Risk is likely to be assessed differently, and similar risks can be perceived as having varying levels of likelihood and potential impact on different organizations. Moreover, appetites for risk are likely to differ from one organization to another and there is potential that embarking on multi-organizational dialogue aimed at discussing such issues can serve to amplify and reinforce traditional cultural standpoints. Consequently, bringing organizations together to pursue resilience looks set to fail as it appears to be beyond the natural order of things. It suggests that the only way to succeed in such circumstances is for culture to be somehow sacrificed and new objectives allowed to usurp old ones in a bid to achieve a nebulous new target.

At first glance, it appears that culture represents a central inhibitor to multi-stakeholder resilience initiatives. This friction can be seen as departments struggle to maintain influence within an organization and, on a far grander scale, as neighbouring partners remain focused on individual self-interest.

Some advantages of culture

Nevertheless, organizations with distinct cultures often exhibit strengths of considerable utility to multi-stakeholder resilience initiatives. Indeed, it is precisely the commonly-held view of culture being a kind of stoic characteristic of organizations, one which resists change, which is at the same time, a significant asset in countering other external threats. This is because at the heart of such cultures is a level of understanding by members of how things are done or at least which department or individual usually does things. Furthermore, there is an understanding and acceptance of overarching aims; aims which serve to guide activity at various levels.

Validating such an organization’s ‘way’ is a cultural memory of an historical example when a challenge was dealt with.

Importantly, the level of success in this previous challenge is less relevant to culture than the widely-shared acceptance of the lessons learned which are used to guide a subsequent unified action.

The key contribution of such self-aware organizations is that, by having a comprehensive understanding of their own ‘ways’ they are able to identify resilience opportunities in broader multi-stakeholder initiatives.

Managing culture in resilience initiatives

Culture should be seen as a key strength when embarking on new or revised multi-stakeholder resilience initiatives. It forms the core of the most important capability for resilience practitioners – people. Effective employees who are culturally aware and who understand the benefits of enhanced resilience maintain the competitive edge. Although each organization has a different culture based upon its experiences, aims and objectives, common ground across all stakeholders must be identified and shaped into a shared strategic vision for resilience. But how can we reconcile the varying individual cultural influences in a way that avoids resilience paralysis and supports efforts to enhance group objectives?

This is best achieved by, first, acknowledging individual aims and agendas.

Open dialogue enhances trust and full explanations serve to dispel myths which might otherwise stifle progress. Understanding local points of view also uncovers key strengths as well as potential areas to be targeted for development. Most importantly, this process is likely to highlight common ground - resilience concerns which are shared between groups, perhaps based upon actual experiences of failure (and a fear of repeat), risk assessments, contextual shifts or evolving organizational agendas.

This common ground, which can be illustrated by the centre of a multi-ring Venn diagram, can then serve as a useful, indeed crucial, unifier of resilience actors. Moreover, it can inform a clear and shared articulation of the overarching resilience objective.

At base in this process is the importance of communications.

Acknowledging cultural origins is important, yet enhancing communications in pursuit of shared resilience goals results in the emergence of group-level resilience cultures. It is important to note that such cultures are not necessarily harmonious; frictions and disagreements form part of cultural identities just as much as seemingly smooth inter-organizational relationships. However, if properly addressed, such frictions can serve to stimulate further development of robust resilience frameworks.


Just as the interconnected nature of global business allows us to benefit from networks which transcend traditional geographical boundaries, the interconnected nature of contemporary resilience challenges draws us to act in international, multi-stakeholder environments. This can highlight cultural differences. However, cultural differences are at play even in inter-departmental relations within individual organizations.

Although culture is often tainted as an inhibitor to change of any kind, it represents the core strength of an organization. Admittedly, work is required to draw out and identify shared objectives; yet, enhanced resilience can be obtained as an output of the actual process as well as the overall initiative.

If managers are to capitalise on the latent resilience potential of multi-stakeholder networks they should seek to understand the broadest contextual factors as well as individual pressures and issues of the varying stakeholders involved. In so doing they will be best placed to recognise and treat culture as a key enabler in devising and implementing robust resilience initiatives.

Author: Mark Clegg has been involved in resilience management for over 23 years. He is a former UK course director of the European Community Mechanism Introduction programme and possesses a PhD which focuses on International Relations and Risk. Contact: markclegguk1@gmail.com

•Date: 3rd May 2013 • World •Type: Article • Topic: BC general

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