Exploring resilience: a scientific journey from theoretical models to practical operationalization

The topic of NeTWork’s 2017 workshop was Exploring resilience: a scientific journey from theoretical models to practical operationalization. The workshop took place from May 4th to 6th at Royaumont Abbey, near Paris, France.

Resilience – what is it?

Resilience has become an important topic on the safety research agenda and in organizational practice (e.g. Bergstrøm et al, 2015; Hopkins 2014; Herrera & Nemeth, 2015, Le Coze 2016; Hollnagel et al, 2013; Braithwaithe et al, 2015). Numerous definitions of resilience exist within different research traditions, disciplines, and fields such as sociology, psychology, medicine, engineering, economics, ecology, political science (Hosseini et al, 2016; Bhamra et al, 2011, Righi et al, 2015; Annarelli & Nonino, 2016). The common use of the resilience concept relates to the ability of an entity, individuals, community, or system to return to normal condition or functioning after the occurrence of an event that disturbs its state.

Many similarities can be observed across the resilience concept applications (Hosseini et al, 2016; Bhamra et al, 2011; Matin-Breen & Andreries 2011). We often see resilience research literature referring to dynamic capabilities, adaptive capacity, and performance variation as key topics. Some group resilience literature into three general areas related to readiness and preparedness; response and adaptation; and recovery or adjustment and argue that researchers attempt to broadly cover all three areas in one study, but individually each area receives limited attention resulting in a diverse literature base (Bhamra et al, 2011). Others have identified domains of resilience such as: the Organizational domain – addressing the need for enterprises to respond to a rapid changing business environment; the Social domain – addressing capabilities of individuals, groups, community and environment to cope with external stress; the Economic domain – addressing the inherent ability and adaptive response that enable firms and regions to avoid maximum potential loss; and the Engineering domain – which is mainly adopted within in the safety science as the intrinsic ability of a system to adjust its functionality in the presence of disturbance and unpredicted changes (Hosseini et al, 2016). The resilience engineering (e.g. Hollnangel et al, 2006) domain has attracted a wide readership in the safety science the past decade, although it has a history going back to the 80s and rooted in cognitive system engineering, human factors, and system safety engineering (Le Coze, 2016).

Some current challenges

The shared use of the resilience term across different traditions does not imply unified concepts of resilience nor theories in which it is embedded (Martin-Breen & Anderies, 2011). In the resilience literature in more general there has been a strong focus on building theories, however there is lack in empirically proving the theories (Bhamra et al, 2011; Mamouni Limnios et al, 2014). This is also true for resilience as it is used in the safety science (Righi et al, 2015). The current body of knowledge on complex adaptive systems and resilience has increased our understanding of organizations and the challenges they face in particularly in relation to social and technological complexity, but it suffers from being too generalized and abstract. Identification of what constitutes resilience has hardly been clarified under the onslaught of theorizing and individual empirical cases (Pettersen and Schulman, 2016). A recent systematic review demonstrates that some scientific efforts have been made to develop constructs and models that present relationships; however, these cannot be characterized as sufficient for theory building (Righi et al, 2015; Sutton & Straw, 1995). Other attempts to model resilience theoretical frameworks (e.g. Lundberg & Johansson, 2015) lack empirical testing. The current lack of well-defined constructs is a scientific drawback within the safety science, as it is too unclear what phenomena is to be operationalized (Righi et al, 2015).

There is a need to develop a coherent integrative theoretical framework of resilience mechanisms to enable large-scale comparative longitudinal studies across multiple high-risk settings and sectors (e.g healthcare, transport, petroleum, nuclear power) and countries (Comfort, Boin & Demchak, 2010; Hitt et al, 2007). A major current research challenge is the absent integration of different system levels from individuals, teams, organizations, regulatory bodies, and policy level (Righi et al, 2015; Macrae, 2013), implying that mechanisms through which resilience is linked across the micro/meso/macro level are not yet well understood. For example, most current research addresses activities of front-line workers (micro level) (e.g. Bergstrøm et al, 2015) and stresses factors of work system design, while top management teams (meso level) (Carmeli et al, 2013), external contextual factor and regulatory system (macro level) are lacking as key resilience dimensions in theoretical frameworks. Regulation is often the first levers that policy-makers and professional bodies reach for to drive improvements in safety, yet the relationship between regulation and resilience remains little explored and the role of regulation in producing or potentially undermining resilience performance, needs investigation and theorizing (Macrae, 2013; Bal et al 2015).

The role of stakeholders in resilience is underexplored. Despite the literature within for example healthcare focusing on patient and next of kin as co-creators of resilience, studies lack involvement of stakeholders (Schubert et al, 2015; Vincent & Amalberti, 2015). High-risk industries depend on collaboration across numerous stakeholders, of potential influence on resilience within organizations and in a societal perspective. In order to understand how individuals, groups, organizations and communities need to adapt and respond to internal and external change and context, stakeholder analysis (e.g. Bruggha & Varvasovszky, 2000) could add to the body of knowledge in resilience. This is also of relevance for the practical and operational approaches to resilience in terms of developing targeted strategies for different stakeholders and to establish for example collaboratives for sharing knowledge across levels to foster resilience when it depends on inter-professional collaboration and collaboration across system interfaces (e.g. Storm et al 2015; Laugaland, 2015), and across different conceptualizations of resilience, safety and security which is often in contradiction (e.g. Pettersen & Bjørnskau, 2015; Skotnes 2015). Currently, this area needs exploration of new approaches to ensure operationalization of resilience as a multi-stakeholder phenomenon.

The latter illustrates that there is not only theoretical and empirical research challenges related to resilience research. There are also challenges related to translate theory into practice by providing practical guidance to different stakeholders, on how to design and operate resilient organizations and to maintain resilience. There is a need for developing testable propositions and interventions related to resilience and explore this in guided iterative cycles of design and evaluation (Righi et al, 2015; Annarelli & Nonino, 2016). But, how this best should this be operationalized is still unclear. We argue in line with Bergstrøm et al, (2015) that it would be interesting to widen the perspective of resilience applied in the safety domain by looking on how other scientific domains operationalize it, and through this may gain new insight and possible improvement in both theory building and translation of theory into interventions and practical solutions.

What is this workshop looking for?

We do not advocate for one definition or one field of research when we talk about resilience in this workshop proposal. We encourage a broad approach and seek inspiration across different scientific domains for the purpose of taking resilience further at theoretical and operational level of relevance for different kinds of high-risk industries.

The aim of the workshop is twofold:

  1. To create a theoretical foundation for a resilience framework across scientific disciplines and system levels.

  2. To explore different approaches for operationalization of resilience across scientific disciplines and system levels.

The workshop looks for papers addressing the foundation of resilience, papers that discuss challenges in both a theoretical and an operational perspective, papers that collaborate across disciplines with different angles on resilience such as resilience on an individual, managerial, and societal level trying to map characteristics of relevance across levels. We are also looking for comparative studies of resilience in different contextual settings and sectors (healthcare, transport, nuclear), and possible cross-country and cross-level (macro-meso-micro level) studies of resilience.

Some questions are presented below:

  • How can resilience develop into covering multi-level approaches (Hitt et al 2007)?

  • What are the common resilience characteristics found in theories addressing an individual psychological level (micro) (e.g Langer, 2000), in theories addressing an organizational level (meso) (e.g. Braithwaite et al, 2015; Sutliffe & Vogus, 2003; Righi et al, 2015), and in theories on societal resilience (Comfort et al, 2010) and recovery from extreme events (Vale & Campanella, 2005) at national and international levels (macro)? Can we identify common concepts, principles and their relation? Or is it impossible?

  • What are the common resilience characteristics in empirical studies on micro, meso and macro level?

  • How can resilience be (or has been) operationalized in different scientific disciplines and system levels? What are the common success factors and possible pitfalls? How are relevant practitioners and stakeholders involved in shaping resilience (Lay et al, 2015)?

  • What are the experiences with resilience in terms of practical application of the concept as a guiding principle for improving safety performance? How can we assess through some sort of audit or other proactive assessment whether an organization is ‘sufficiently resilient’, or how it needs to change to become more so?

  • Can we compare resilience across countries and sectors? How can we identify common characteristics, and what are they? What are the challenges we need to overcome in these studies?

  • How can researchers and practitioners “measure” resilience? Are there sufficient models?

  • Is resilience compatible with regulation? How can organizations in high-risk industries with strong regulation successfully develop patterns of resilience? How can regulators approach resilience? How can different regulatory regimes foster or hamper resilience?


Annarelli, A. & Nonino, F. (2016). Strategic and operational management of organizational resilience: Current state of resesarch and future directions. Omega, Vol. 62, pp. 1-18.

Bal, R. Stoopendaal, A, van de Bovenkamp, H. (2016). Resilience and patient safety: How can health care regulations contribute? Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde, Vol, 159:A9614

Bhamra, R., Dani, S., Burnard, K. (2016). Resilience: the concept, a literature review and future directions. International Journal of Production Research, Vol. 49, No.18, pp. 5375-5393.

Bergström, J., Wisen, R.V., Henriqson, E. (2015). On the rationale of resilience in the domain of safety: A literature review. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, 141, 131-141.

Braithwaite, J., Wears, R.L. & Hollnagel, E. (2015) Resilient health care: turning patient safety on its head. International Journal for Quality in Health Care

Brugha, R., & Varvasovszky, Z. (2000). Stakeholder analysis: a review. Health Policy and planning, Vol. 15, nr. 3, pp. 239-246.

Carmeli, A., Friedman, Y., Tishler, A. (2013). Cultivating a resilient top management team: The importance of relational connections and strategic decision comprehensiveness. Safety Science, vol. 51, pp. 148-159. DOI: 10.1016/j.ssci.2012.06.002

Comfort, L.K., Boin, A., & Demchak, C.C.(2010). Resilience revisited - An action agenda for managing extreme events. In: Comfort, L.K., Boin, A., & Demchak, C.C.(2010). Designing Resilience: Preparing for extreme events. University of Pittsburg Press, Pittsburg.

Chmutine, K., Lizarralde, G., Dainty, A., Bosher, L. (2016). Unpacking resilience policy discourse. Cities, Vol. 58, pp. 70-79.

Hitt, M.A., Beamish, P.W., Jackson, S.E., Mathieu, J.E.(2007). Building theoretical and empirical bridges across levels: Multilevel research in management. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 50. No. 6, 1385-1399. DOI: 10.5465/AMJ.2007.28166219

Hollnagel, E., Woods, D. D. & Leveson, N. C.(Eds) (2006). Resilience engineering: Concepts and precepts. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Hollnagel, E., Braithwaite, J., Wears, J. (eds.) (2013). Resilient health care. Ashgate.

Hosseini, S., Barker, K., Ramirez-Marquez, J.E.(2016). A review of definitions and measures of system resilience. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, Vol 145, pp. 47-61. DOI: 10.1016/j.ress.2015.08.006

Langer E. (2000). Mindful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 9, No.6, pp. 220-223. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.00099

Lay, E., Branlat, M., Woods, Z. (2015). A practitioner’s experience operationalizing Resilience Engineering. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, Vol. 141, pp. 63-73. DOI: 10.1016/j.ress.2015.03.015

Laugaland KA. (2015). Transitional care of the elderly from a resilience perspective. PhD Thesis UiS no 259, June 2015.

Le Coze (2016). Vive la diversité! High Reliability Organization (HRO) and Resilience Engineering (RE). Safety Science (in press). DOI: 10.1016/j.ssci.2016.04.006

Lundberg, J. & Johansson, B.J.E.(2015). Systemic resilience model. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, 141, pp. 22-32. DOI: 10.1016/j.ress.2015.03.013

Macrae, C. (2013). Reconciling regulation and resilience in health care. In Hollnagel, E., Braithwaite, J., Wears, J. (eds.) (2013). Resilient health care. Ashgate.

Mamouni Limnios, E.A., Mazzarol, T., Ghadouani, A., Schilizzi, S.G.M.(2014). The Resilience architecture framework: Four organizational typologies. European Management Journal, Vol. 32, pp. 104-116. DOI: 10.1016/j.emj.2012.11.007

Martin-Breen, P. & Anderies, J.M.(2011). Resilience: A literature Review. The Bellagio Initiative. November 2011. http://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/123456789/3692

Nemeth, C. & Herrera, I. (2015). Building change: Resilience Engineering after ten years. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, 141, pp. 1-4. DOI: 10.1016/j.ress.2015.04.006

Pettersen, K., & Bjørnskau, T. (2015). Organizational contradictions between safety and security – Perceived challenges and ways of integrating critical infrastructure protection in civil aviation. Safety Science, Vol. 71, pp. 167-177. DOI: 10.1016/j.ssci.2014.04.018

Pettersen, K. & Schulman P.R.(2016). Drift, adaptation, and reliability: towards an empirical clarification. Safety Science (in press). DOI: 10.1016/j.ssci.2016.03.004

Righi, A.W., Saurin, T.A., Wachs, P. (2015). A systematic review of resilience engineering: research areas and a research agenda proposal. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, Vol 141, pp. 142-152. DOI: 10.1016/j.ress.2015.03.007

Schubert, C.C., et al. (2015). Patients as a source of resilience. In: Wears RL, Hollnagel E, Braithwaite J, (eds). Resilient health care, Volume 2. Farnham: Ashgate; 2015. pp. 207-225.

Skotnes, R.Ø. (2015). Challenges for safety and security management of network companies due to increased use of ICT in the electric power supply sector. PhD thesis, University of Stavanger, no. 264

Storm M, Siemsen IM, Laugaland KA, Dyrstad DN, Aase K. (2014). Quality in transitional care of the elderly: Key challenges and relevant improvement measures. International Journal of Integrated Care, Vol.14, e013. DOI: 10.5334/ijic.1194

Sutton, R.I. & Straw, B.M.(1995). What theory is not. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 40, pp. 371-384. DOI: 10.2307/2393788

Sutcliffe, K.M. & Vogus, T.J.(2003) Organizing for resilience. In K.S. Cameron, J.E. Dutton & R.E. Quinn (Eds.) Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 94-110. San Francisco: Berett-Koehler Publishers.

Vale LJ, & Campanella TJ. (2005). The resilient city: How modern societies recover from disaster. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vincent, C. & Amalberti, R. (2016). Safer healthcare. Strategies for real world. Springer Open

Wears, R.L., Hollnagel, E., Braithwaite, J. (eds) (2015). Resilient health care – volume 2. Ashgate

Workshop organizers

  • Siri Wiig, University of Stavanger
  • Babette Fahlbruch, TÜV Nord


Book cover

The position papers presented during the workshop were improved by authors based on discussion at Royaumont, then published as an open access volume in the SpringerBriefs in Safety Management series. The book can be downloaded for free in PDF and ePub formats.

TitleExploring Resilience: A Scientific Journey from Practice to Theory
EditorsSiri Wiig and Babette Fahlbruch

Image credit: Don O’Brian