Organizing after Crisis

The Challenge of Learning

by Nathalie Schiffino (Volume editor) Laurent Taskin (Volume editor) Céline Donis (Volume editor) Julien Raone (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 288 Pages
Series: Action publique / Public Action, Volume 13


How do actors organize after crisis? Do they «simply» return to normal? The post-crisis phase is anything but a linear process. Actors and their practices may be transformed by learning from crises and by implementing the lessons.
In this volume, 19 contributors from 7 countries analyse how learning happens after crisis in a dynamic political environment where framings, strategies, discourses, interests and resources interact. Exploring various policy sectors, they ask whether and in what ways organizations in charge of crisis management perform well. Where political responsibility is located? What changes do lessons trigger at political, organizational and individual levels? The book answers these questions by addressing issues like blame and responsibility but also the influence of communication, social dynamics and the institutional environment.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Tables and Figures
  • Acknowledgments and presentation
  • Foreword
  • Chapter 1: Public organizations at stake. Introducing the challenges of learning after crisis
  • Part I: Conceptualizing Crisis And Learning
  • Chapter 2: Crisis: Designing a method for organizational crisis investigation
  • Chapter 3: Learning: Beyond the ideals of mindful learning. Generating actionable strategies for crisis management from organizational knowledge
  • Chapter 4: Crisis management lessons from modeling
  • Part II: Contextualizing Learning From Crisis: Politics And Governance
  • Chapter 5: Learning in post-recession framing contests: Changing UK road policy
  • Chapter 6: Crisis accountability and career management in The Netherlands
  • Chapter 7: Learning and organizational vulnerability. A critical analysis of control and punishment in a Québec health center
  • Chapter 8: Health risks and political crises in Canada. A critical analysis of the public-private partnerships
  • Part III: Inside Dynamics Of Learning: Connecting Theory And Practice
  • Chapter 9: Understanding organizational learning from societal risks. A typology for assessing organizational coherence
  • Chapter 10: Organizational and policy learning. Post crisis assessments
  • Chapter 11: Bridging the crisis learning gap. From theory to practice
  • Chapter 12: Conclusion: How do organizations learn from crisis and implement lessons ? Concluding remarks and perspectives
  • Index
  • About the contributors
  • Series index

List of Tables and Figures


Table 1.   Crisis indicators


Table 1.   Learning Failures

Table 2.   Proactive crisis management strategies overcome learning failures

Table 3.   Information Processing Errors

Figure 1. Proactive crisis management strategies and mindful learning can lead to actional legitimacy


Figure 1. Standard crisis model, inspired from Brecher and Wilkenfeld work, based on a discontinuity hypothesis

Figure 2. Function and sectoral logic

Figure 3. Transition from cusp to butterfly.

Figure 4. Plastic deformation and fluid conjuncture

Figure 5. The crisis management function

Figure 6. The Military Function

Figure 7. Negligence of the phase of relaxation.

Figure 8. The vicious circle of fatigue due to the negligence on relaxation phase

Figure 9. Function “Group dynamic” could be an operational structure which paying attention to phase 3.


Table 1.   Individual learning

Figure 1. Collective learning

Figure 2. Ties among CTSC members over time


Figure 1. BM framework – Blame management and Ministerial careers

Table 1.   Short descriptions of the six crisis cases analyzed for this study

Table 2.   Results on causality

Table 3.   Results on responsibility

Table 4.   Results on ministerial careers

Table 5.   Effects of accountability pressures on ministerial careers and governing institutions


Table 1.   Main zones of vulnerability in institutional healthcare settings

Table 2.   A learning model based on interventions in organizational development


Table 1.   The post-crisis Canadian learning process: Nine recommendations for the management of future health crisis


Table 1.   Institutional logics of learning


Table 1.   Coding Categories

Table 2.   Recommendation Categories by Hurricane


Figure 1. Trade-Off Dilemmas in Post-Crisis Evaluation (cf. George, 1980)

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Acknowledgments and presentation

First of all, we would like to thank the Belgian French-speaking community that funded the “Actions de recherche concertées” (ARC) research project entitled “Organizational regulation of societal risks.” With the invaluable support of the Université catholique de Louvain, the 5-year research grant made this publication possible.

Our acknowledgements also go to professors Steve Jacob and Jean-Louis Genard, the directors of the Series Public Action, and to the academic publisher, who trusted in our project from the very beginning.

Within Université catholique de Louvain, the administrative staff has efficiently and kindly assisted us in preparing the manuscript and its associate scientific seminar. The role played by Vinciane Claus was major and we are grateful to her.

Seizing the opportunity of the acknowledgments, we also would like to explain what triggered the initiative of this book. From 2010 to 2015, we analyzed public agencies facing situations characterized by societal risk. From field work about food safety, nuclear control and railway security, we derived organizational patterns that are developed both at meso (organizations) and micro (individuals) levels to handle societal risks within contemporary (macro) political system. We took especially into account knowledge transfer as potential supporting mechanism for learning from crises.

First, our ARC research investigated internal regulation produced by organizations when they face societal risk. Especially when the missions of public agencies consist in regulating societal risk (such as pandemics, radioactive emissions, injuries or death by transportation), risk prevention and risk management call for adaptive strategies, as well as for specific knowledge. Norms are built within organizations, from inside or through external impulse (an international audit, for example). We focused our research on such norms and regulation by the agencies regulating societal risks, and how they learn from crisis.

Second, our 5-year research project compared the way societal risk has been tackled at different times within the same organization. Diachronic comparison helps in precisely identifying how organizational structures and members transfer – or not – their knowledge on risk and crisis management from one situation to another, and from one team to another. Implementation from learning after crises appears to be the crucial issue ← 11 | 12 → for contemporary organizations. It needs to be both documented and investigated.

Third, our research team compared organizations among them about the essential question of how they have regulated societal risk, what kind of knowledge has been transferred and whether the process has been effective/efficient. The objective was not normative in nature. At a maximum, best practices have been identified and can be shared by the organizations, based on the results of the research. Comparison in social sciences is a methodological tool to validate and generalize results. Comparing several case studies provides information along horizontal and vertical lines. The longitudinal approach (successive crises within one organization) is combined with the cross-sector approach (comparing a first organization with a second, and a third, one regarding knowledge transfer about risk). Results of this research project are detailed in the chapter entitled “Understanding organizational learning from societal risks: A typology for assessing organizational coherence.”

We believed that these results may contribute to the field. We wished to bring together researchers actively contributing to these issues. We wanted to discuss and deepen our current understanding of the drivers and the challenges of learning after crisis. Therefore, we launched a book proposal promoting diversity (in disciplines, institutional contexts, levels of analysis and nature of the contribution), but on the narrow issue of learning after crisis. The most active and renowned scholars in the field submitted a chapter proposal and we sincerely thank them. At the end of the selection process, a dozen of contributions were adopted and discussed during a research seminar organized in Belgium, in June 2014. It was the opportunity to build a unique and collective knowledge on learning after crisis. The research process and the book content may provide an added-value for future research and action in the field.

They trigger the will to have them validated by the scholars in the field. Beyond, they increase the opportunity to enlarge the perspective through a well-established network of experts in the field. This impulse was concretized in the form of this book, preceded by an international seminar gathering the contributors, as we said.

Prof. Dr. Nathalie Schiffino, Prof. Dr. Laurent Taskin, Dr. Céline Donis, and Dr. Julien Raone

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Arjen BOIN

Leiden University, The Netherlands

Paul ‘t HART

Utrecht University and School of Public Administration, The Netherlands

Learning to Learn from Crisis: The Hardest Challenge?

A good twenty-five years ago, when we were just beginning to learn about the patterns and challenges of crisis management, our colleague at Leiden University, sociologist Menno van Duin was writing his dissertation in the office next to ours. Menno studied how the Dutch government had learned, or failed to learn, the lessons articulated in a series of official post-disaster investigations that had been published in the decades prior. His excellent dissertation explained that although implementing such lessons is expected by the public and embraced by politicians, the road to this kind of institutional learning is long and treacherous. Learning does take place, he found, but it may take a very long time.

Learning is a slippery concept. When can we really observe that ‘organizations’ learn, rather than people within them? If we see a crisis being followed by some policy and organizational changes, to what extent are these changes a product of ‘learning’ or of the political expediencies of the post-crisis accountability environment? And how do we meaningfully distinguish between what triggers momentum to learn, and what substantively inspires the lessons that are being drawn? Organizations and polities may fall into the trap over over-learning from the most recent crisis, and thus ending up taming one category of risks while inadvertently sustaining or even increasing existing vulnerabilities to other types of risks.

So how far have we come since his ground-breaking dissertation was published in 1992?1 Learning from crises and disasters has attracted much ← 13 | 14 → academic attention in recent years, and many of the authors in this volume are responsible for much of it2. These studies are often prompted by a combination of frustration and concern: frustration that a crisis might have been prevented if known, ‘evidence-based’ lessons had been adopted and implemented; and concern that similar crises may well happen again as organizations and governments seem either incapable or unwilling to understand the importance of learning and the challenges involved in doing so properly.

A cursory look at the conclusions of a random collection of crisis inquiry reports reinforces this sentiment. Many of these reports offer a staggeringly similar set of findings: clear warning signals were ignored, coordination failed, it was not clear who was in charge, communication fell apart, and leadership could have been better. The lessons translate in predictable prescriptions: we need to listen to early warning signals, build better communication systems, clarify lines of authority, improve coordination and train our leaders. It could not be any clearer than this.

The problem is, however, a bit more complex than a mere unwillingness or inability to learn. In fact, we would venture that governments are very eager – perhaps over eager – to learn, or to be seen to be trying to. Most contemporary disasters and other emergencies duly prompt a wildly prolific wave of inquiries, reports and reform efforts. Seemingly small and forgettable events gain sustained attention from media, politicians, regulators and courts, which, together, produce small libraries of findings and recommendations. These learning efforts mostly follow similar and well-trodden paths: detailed descriptions of events are analyzed with the use of academic theories and written down by professional writers (some of these reports provide for surprisingly good reading)3.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
civil servents administrations risk management
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 285 pp., 13 graphs, 18 tables

Biographical notes

Nathalie Schiffino (Volume editor) Laurent Taskin (Volume editor) Céline Donis (Volume editor) Julien Raone (Volume editor)

Nathalie Schiffino is Professor of Political Science at the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL). She is member of the Institut de sciences politiques Louvain-Europe (ISPOLE). Her research on policy analysis investigates risk and crisis. Laurent Taskin is Professor of Human Resource and Organization Studies at the Louvain School of Management (UCL). Céline Donis, PhD in Management (UCL), is member of the Louvain School of Management Research Institute. Her research adopts a spatial perspective to study new forms of work organization. Julien Raone, PhD in Political Science (UCL), is member of the Institut de sciences politiques Louvain-Europe At the crossroad of political science and organization studies, his research is anchored in a critical perspective on public management.


Title: Organizing after Crisis