Our research team has a long-standing interest in how societies collectively manage crisis situations. Themes and topics explored so far are as diverse as decision-making during the 2015 European Refugee Crisis; how and what we have learnt from significant fire events in Australia; or multimodal sensemaking in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. Read some of our published works here.
In a year of endless floods, why isn’t disaster governance front and centre in the election campaign? (Höllerer, M. A., Dwyer, G., Fourie, J., Spee, P., in The Conversation, 2022)
Article introduction: "Australia has recently experienced multiple natural and man-made disasters, creating overlapping crises, often disproportionately affecting disadvantaged populations. The situation is here to stay, and, worryingly, likely to worsen. But what are we doing to prepare? The federal election presents an opportunity to promote plans for improving national disaster governance and resilience. Yet, alarmingly, the governance challenges exposed by recent crises and the vulnerabilities they highlight in Australia’s preparedness remain unknown, unheard, and far from understood. The silence on these issues in political debates has been remarkable."
Making Sense of Natural Disasters: The Learning Vacuum of Bushfire Public Inquiries (Dwyer, G., Palgrave Macmillan, 2022)
This book examines the ways in which emergency management organizations make sense and learn from natural disasters. Examining recent bushfires in Australia, it demonstrates that whilst public inquiries that follow such disasters can be important for learning and change, they have ultimately created a learning vacuum insofar as their recommendations repeat themselves. This has kept governments and society focused on learning lessons about the past, rather than for the future. Accordingly, this book recommends a new approach to sensemaking and learning focused on prospective planning rather than retrospective recommendations, and where planning for the future is seen as the shared responsibility of the government, society, and the emergency management community in Australia and beyond.
Strategies for Distributed and Collective Action: Connecting the Dots (Kornberger, M., Oxford University Press, 2022)
The premise of this book is that the well-worn modes of collective action – from markets to hierarchies, from institutions to movements – provide a limited vocabulary to investigate, let alone invent new forms of open, networked and transsectoral collaboration. The promise of this book is to introduce a novel set of concepts – including shared concerns, symbols, interface designs, participatory architectures, evaluative infrastructures, network strategy and leading as diplomacy – that represent figures of thought which combine goal-orientated, purposeful action with scale, openness and creativity. The practical implication is that these new forms of distributed and collective action might help to address challenges and crises of our times.
Enacting safety: Firefighter sensemaking of entrapment in an Australian bushfire context (Dwyer, G., in International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 2022)
How do firefighting teams achieve safety when entrapped by flame? My case analysis of firefighting crews during the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 in Victoria, Australia, examines the ways that teams can negotiate and renegotiate safety when they encounter danger, through a social process of sensemaking and sensegiving. This study has important implications for fire crews that work in dangerous circumstances who have hitherto been found to struggle to negotiate safety when entrapped by flame in bushfire events.
‘Remaining the same or becoming another?’ Adaptive resilience versus transformative urban change (Leixnering, S. & Höllerer, M.A., in Urban Studies, 2021)
Structural change of cities has long been a central theme in urban studies. Recent manifestations of urban change have been described either as instances of ‘adaptation’, often associated with flexible adjustment and reorganisation, or of ‘transformation’, implying a deeper and more radical scope of change. The conceptual difference between these two ideas, however, remains surprisingly under-theorised and ambiguous in the extant literature. We find both notions casually (and at times even interchangeably) employed in recent debates on ‘resilient cities’. Addressing this conceptual imprecision, our commentary focuses on the structure–identity relationship, coupling resilience thinking with an institutional perspective that has provided the intellectual moorings for recent scholarly approaches to city identity. Through this prism, city identity is firmly conceptualised as a distinctive set of socio-political values; the structure of a city, then, provides the means to realise these values. In consequence, we are able to offer a precise conceptual differentiation between what we here dub ‘adaptive resilience’ and ‘transformative urban change’ as the two facets of change in city contexts: if structural change is accompanied by a shift in socio-political values (and thus a change in identity), we refer to this as transformative; if no such identity shift takes place, this is an instance of adaptive urban change, primarily on the level of structures. We illustrate our argument with the empirical case of the city of Vienna. Overall, our commentary’s ambition is to add nuance, clarity and conceptual precision to the debates on resilience currently raging in the field of urban change.
Struggling to make sense of it all: The emotional process of sensemaking following an extreme incident (Dwyer, G., Hardy, C., & Tsoukas, H., in Human Relations, 2021)
Organizations operating in extreme contexts regularly face dangerous incidents they can neither prevent nor easily control. In such circumstances, successful sensemaking can mean the difference between life and death. But what happens afterwards? Our study of emergency management practitioners following a major bushfire reveals a process of post-incident sensemaking during which practitioners continue to make sense of the incident after it ends, during the subsequent public inquiry, and as they try to implement the inquiry’s recommendations. Different varieties of sensemaking arise during this process as practitioners rely on different forms of coping to develop and share new understandings, which not only make sense of the original incident, but also enable changes to help the organization deal with future incidents. Our study also shows that practitioners experience a range of emotions during this process, some of which inhibit sensemaking while others – particularly different forms of anxiety – can facilitate it. Our study makes an important empirical contribution to recent theoretical work on varieties of sensemaking and provides new insights into the complex role of emotions in sensemaking in extreme contexts.
Hiding in plain sight: Vulnerability, public administration, and the case of Covid‐19 hotel quarantine (Dwyer, G., in Australian Journal of Public Administration, 2021)
I examine how failures surrounding a quarantine detention program for returned travellers from overseas brought a deadly second wave of the Covid-19 virus into existence in Victoria, Australia. In addition to providing insights into the ways in which public administration organizations (PAO) can plan for and respond to wicked problems, I propose that they can learn to manage latent failures and equivocal circumstances before, during, and after such crisis events. This is important as locally and globally PAO face emergencies, crises, and disasters triggered by natural and non-natural hazards which remind us that we need to find new ways of learning while living in challenging times.
Learning to learn from bushfire: Perspectives from Victorian emergency management practitioners (Dwyer, G., in Australian Journal of Public Administration, 2021)
The Black Summer Fires of 2019/2020 remind us not only that Australia is arguably the most bushfire prone area in the world but also that we have much to learn in terms of how we learn from such events. Bushfires interact with emergency management systems in a manner that is complex and unpredictable which all too often results in damages and losses, so significant that governments establish public inquiries to forensically examine what happened and why afterwards. Too often, such processes have resulted in emergency management practitioners (EMP) being blamed, not to mention scapegoated and even vilified for damages and losses from major bushfire events. With recent bushfire events (as well as other crises surrounding Covid-19) highlighting the excruciating demands placed on EMP and an escalating scepticism about whether public inquiries improve preparation for future bushfires, this paper explores the question: what can we learn about public inquiries based on the experiences of EMP?
Strategy as engagement: What organization strategy can learn from military strategy (Kornberger, M., & Vaara, E., in Long Range Planning, 2021)
Strategy process and practice research has illuminated the internal dynamics of strategy work – at the cost of backgrounding processes and practices that relate to engagement with external actors. In this conceptual paper, we argue for an extension of this body of work by shifting the focus of research from internal practices and processes towards externally oriented practices of engagement. We do so by critically building on the military strategy literature and develop the concept of strategy as engagement. This concept suggests understanding the role of strategy as bridge between policy and tactics; the importance of grand strategy as the making of policy; and the need to focus attention on tactics as distributed collective action. Thus, we contribute to strategy process and practice research through 1) extending its repertoire to practices of engagement and 2) broadening its epistemic foundation through a critical reading of military strategy.
Organizational strategy and its implications for strategic studies: A review essay (Hughes, J., Kornberger, M., MacKay, B., O'Brien, P., & Reddy, S., in Journal of Strategic Studies, 2021)
In this review essay, we investigate how organisational strategy can help refresh traditional strategic and security studies debates. Despite their shared history, both disciplines have evolved in silos, lacking interdisciplinary engagement. To foster dialogue and mutual learning, the paper uses four key themes familiar to ‘Clausewitzian’ strategic studies – ends, ways, means, and friction – and introduces key thoughts of contemporary organisational strategy that engage with these themes. Drawing on a specific school of organisational strategy – the Strategy as Practice (SAP) approach – we attempt to broaden the vocabulary of strategic studies. We conclude with implications for future research as well as some critical, practical applications that result from the interdisciplinary encounter between organisational strategy and security studies.
Post-inquiry sensemaking: The case of the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires (Dwyer, G., Hardy, C., & Maguire, S., in Organization Studies, 2020)
We examine post-inquiry sensemaking by emergency management practitioners following an inquiry into the most damaging bushfire disaster in Australia’s history. We theorize a model of post-inquiry sensemaking with four distinct but overlapping phases during which sensemaking becomes more prospective over time. In addition to providing important insights into what has, hitherto, been a neglected arena for sensemaking studies, i.e. post-inquiry sensemaking, we contribute to the understanding of sensemaking more generally. Specifically, we show the complex nature of the relationship between sensemaking and equivocality, explain how multiple frames enhance sensemaking, and explore temporality in sensemaking over time.
The logic of tact: How decisions happen in situations of crisis (Kornberger, M., Leixnering, S., & Meyer, R. E., in Organization Studies, 2019)
The mass migration of refugees in the fall of 2015 in Europe posed an immense humanitarian and logistical challenge: exhausted from their week-long journeys, refugees arrived in Vienna in need of care, shelter, food, medical aid, and onward transport. The refugee crisis was managed by an emerging polycentric and intersectoral collective of organizations. In this paper, we investigate how leaders of these organizations made decisions in concert with each other and hence sustained the capacity to act as collective. We ask: what was the logic of decision-making that orchestrated collective action during the crisis? In answering this question, we make the following contribution: departing from March’s logics of consequences and appropriateness as well as Weick’s work on sensemaking during crisis, we introduce an alternative logic that informed decision-making in our study: the logic of tact. With this concept (a) we offer a better understanding of how managers may make decisions under the condition of bounded rationality and the simultaneous transgression of their institutional identity in situations of crisis; and (b) we show that in decision-making under extreme pressure cognition is neither ahead of action, nor is action ahead of cognition; rather, tact explicates the rapid switching between cognition and action, orchestrating decision-making through their interplay.
Rethinking the sharing economy: The nature and organization of sharing in the 2015 refugee crisis (Kornberger, M., Leixnering, S., Meyer, R. E., & Höllerer, M. A., in Academy of Management Discoveries, 2018)
Our article focuses on a non-standard sharing example that harbors the potential to disrupt received wisdom on the sharing economy. Although, originally, entering the field to analyze, broadly from a governance perspective, how the 2015 refugee crisis was handled in Vienna, Austria, we found that the non-governmental organization Train of Hope—labeled as a ‘citizen start-up’ by the City of Vienna officials—played an outstanding role in mastering the crisis. In a blog post during his visit in Vienna at the time, and experiencing the refugee crisis first-hand, it was actually Henry Mintzberg who suggested reading the phenomenon as part of the ‘sharing economy’. Continuing this innovative line of thought, we argue that our unusual case is in fact an excellent opportunity to discover important aspects about both the nature and organization of sharing. First, we uncover an additional dimension of sharing beyond the material sharing of resources (i.e., the economic dimension): the sharing of a distinct concern (i.e., the moral dimension of sharing). Our discovery exemplifies such a moral dimension that is rather different from the status quo materialistic treatments focusing on economic transactions and property rights arguments. Second, we hold that a particular form of organizing facilitates the sharing economy: the sharing economy organization (SEO). This particular organizational form is distinctive—at the same time selectively borrowing and skillfully combining features from platform organizations (e.g., use of technology as an intermediary for exchange and effective coordination, ability to tap into external resources) and social movements (e.g., mobilization, shared identity, collective action). It is a key quality of this form of organization to enable the balancing of the two dimensions inherent in the nature of sharing: economic andmoral. Our article contributes to this special issue of the Academy of Management Discoveries by highlighting and explaining the two-fold economic and moral nature of sharing and the organization of sharing between movement and platform.
‘A picture is worth a thousand words’: Multimodal sensemaking of the Global Financial Crisis (Höllerer, M. A., Jancsary, D., & Grafström, M., in Organization Studies, 2018)
Through its specific rhetorical potential that is distinct from verbal text, visual material facilitates and plays a pivotal role in linking novel phenomena to established and taken-for-granted social categories and discourses within the social stock of knowledge. Employing data from the worldwide news coverage of the global financial crisis in the Financial Times between 2008 and 2012, we analyse sensemaking and sensegiving efforts in the business media. We identify a set of specific multimodal compositions that construct and shape a limited number of narratives on the global financial crisis through distinct relationships between visual and verbal text. By outlining how multimodal compositions enhance representation, theorization, resonance, and perceived validity of narratives, we contribute to the phenomenological tradition in institutional organization theory and to research on multimodal meaning construction. We argue that elaborate multimodal compositions of verbal text, images, and other visual artifacts constitute a key resource for sensemaking and, consequently, sensegiving.
We have not lived long enough: Sensemaking and learning from bushfire in Australia (Dwyer, G., & Hardy, C., in Management Learning, 2016)
Organizations increasingly find themselves responding to unprecedented natural disasters that are experienced as complex, unpredictable, and harmful. We examine how organizations make sense and learn from these novel experiences by examining three Australian bushfires. We show how sensemaking and learning occurred during the public inquiries that followed these events, as well as how learning continued afterward with the help of “learning cues.” We propose a model that links public inquiry activities to changes in organizational practices. Given the interesting times in which we live, this model has important implications for future research on how new organizational practices can be enacted after public inquiries have concluded their work.
Making a market for acts of God: The practice of risk-trading in the global reinsurance industry (Jarzabkowski, P., Bednarek, R., & Spee, P., Oxford University Press, 2015)
Reinsurance is financial market trading in the risk of unpredictable and devastating disasters—e.g. Hurricane Katrina or the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami—that are increasing in frequency, severity, and cost. Reinsurance insures insurance companies, enabling them to pay claims arising from their losses; a market mechanism that provide a critical social and economic safety net. To demonstrate how risk is calculated and traded globally, this book uses real-life tales from an ethnographic, “fly-on-the-wall” study of the global reinsurance industry over three annual cycles. Underwriters were shadowed around the world as they traded risks through multiple disasters. Readers witness the desperate hours of pricing Japanese risks during March 2011, while the devastating aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake is unfolding. There are authentic observations of reinsurers in Bermuda, London, Continental Europe, and South East Asia as they evaluate, price and compete for different risks during their everyday practice. Understanding how this market for disasters works has never been more critical, given the impact of climate change and increased global connectivity, where a flood in one country can trigger losses to supply chains around the world. The book develops a novel concept of how global markets work, advancing scholarship and challenging current thinking about how financial markets trade in intangible assets such as risk.