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International terror and the paradox of being connected

FEATURES: Line of Defence, April 2016

Digital billboard in Brussels: "Stay where you are, avoid all movement, prioritise communications by SMS or social networks." Source: Miguel Discart on Flickr.Digital billboard in Brussels: "Stay where you are, avoid all movement, prioritise communications by SMS or social networks." Source: Miguel Discart on Flickr.

Dr. Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor

Recent events such as the recent bombings in Brussels, the Paris terrorist shootings in January and November 2015, and the similarly motivated mass killings in San Bernadino, California, in December 2015 have tested the strength and resolve of governments, organisations, and citizens alike. Researcher Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor says these human tragedies have highlighted the need to develop resilient capabilities in the context of an interconnected world.

The aftermath of these sudden and extreme events have revealed how contextually dependent business recovery is, says Sullivan-Taylor. It is influenced by factors such as the nature of the government's response and whether or not the situation is deemed to be a national crisis. In the case of France, for example, the history of similar events influenced the decision to immediately increase the level of military engagement abroad and of police activity at home. The "quietly measured" response of New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, by contrast, focused on undertaking reviews of national and aviation security measures.

"When it comes to the private sector, all organisations have a range of dependencies. These relationships can be more easily managed in the context of growth when there is slack in the system to allow for more adaptable responses," says Sullivan-Taylor.

She says that where resources have been diminished following the Global Financial Crisis, these dependencies can become vulnerabilities.

"Organisational resilience focuses on taking a strategic approach to managing uncertainty and preparing for extreme events. Such events, by their very nature, can test organisations to their limits. The fact that they are unexpected, and produce unintended consequences, mean that even the best operational plans can quickly unravel in practice."

The unfolding nature of these events leaves managers struggling to make strategic level decisions when confronted by immediate threats, with only minimal real-time information, she says. This can result in poorly informed decisions that have long-term consequences.

Further, managers might assume that other organisations in their sector, supply chain, or immediate proximity all have access to the same or higher-quality information to inform their decisions, and that they will have rehearsed recovery scenarios and trained and developed the capabilities of their frontline staff to cope with such events. These can be flawed assumptions that leave an organisation exposed in the face of an actual crisis situation.

Many New Zealand companies strive to succeed internationally, and start-ups often aspire to be ‘born global’ or at an early stage to become part of a large global supply chain. However, this desire to be globally connected through information technology and international supply chains exposes companies to real risks in the face of extreme events, whether natural or effected by human agency. This was convincingly demonstrated by the 2008 milk and infant formula scandal in China that originated with the state-owned dairy products company Sanlu, in which Fonterra held a 43% stake.

Paradoxically, small companies with limited resources can be more immediately exposed to global threats such as cyber terrorism than large organisations that have greater capabilities to manage and mitigate them. Nevertheless, the formalised and bureaucratic nature of large institutions can make them slow to adapt and change. In highly uncertain contexts these organisations rely on government intervention to provide the inter-organisational support that smaller companies usually sustain through their reliance on third parties for information and intelligence.

"Threats that occur on the opposite side of the world are indiscriminate and can rapidly affect institutions, organisations, citizens and other stakeholders in New Zealand. How companies plan to deal with such events needs to be carefully weighed up when developing their international strategies," says Sullivan-Taylor.

She doubts that many private sector organisations are aware of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, agreed in Japan in March 2015, which 1515 was developed to guide the integration of national strategies to minimise and mitigate risks.

"How many companies know, for instance, that the government could support them in their endeavours to become more prepared for events which connect us all in the face of a real crisis? And are the private-public sector 'joined up' approaches being cultivated at the local level and reflected in organisational strategies and in the long-term plans of local councils?"

She says that the global nature of the terror threat means that overcoming the tyranny of distance exposes us to new levels of risk.

"The paradox is that as global citizens we may now need to accept government interventions that once would have seemed intrusive. In time, however, such measures may become as accepted as our present airport biosecurity operations."


[The original version of this article appeared in the University of Auckland Business School Monthly Newsletter, December 2015. Reproduced here courtesy of the University of Auckland.]


Dr. Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor is senior lecturer at the University of Auckland’s Graduate School of Management. Previously, she was based in the UK for the last 18 years where, among other things, she worked with the UK Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat at establishing public-private partnerships in the context of extreme events.

Dr. Sullivan-Taylor’s research focuses on managing uncertainty and developing organizational resilience. Her research has informed the development of UK policy as an advisor and through events she has held at the House of Commons and Number 10 Downing Street focused on national security as well as critical national infrastructure related concerns.

She is a member of the UK ESRC Peer Review College, an Associate Fellow of the UK Cabinet Office: Emergency Planning College, and a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge Judge Business School and the Warwick Institute of Advanced Studies. She is now extending her research to develop a UK/Australasia comparative research programme.


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