Tearing Down the Walls: The Interdisciplinary Nature of Crisis Management

The late great distinguished Social Systems Thinker par excellence, Russell L. Ackoff said it best of all: “Nature is not organized in the same way that universities are.”

The fact that universities put Engineering and Physics in one part of their campuses and Psychology and Sociology, not to mention the Humanities, in other parts does not mean that they are separate in any way when it comes to the actual nature of the problems with which we are faced.

What’s sad is that fields that have the utmost bearing on one another generally operate as if they have nothing to do with each other.

I am constantly amazed that those who generally work on High Reliability Organizations or HROs not only fail to see the connections with Crisis Management (CM), but put it down. To be perfectly honest, those who work in CM often put down other fields as well.

HROs arose from studying those organizations such as aircraft carriers and nuclear power plants that cannot afford to have accidents of any kind, especially catastrophic ones. To its credit, the culture of HROs constantly stress the need to be on the continual alert for the precursors of accidents that can lead to unmitigated disasters so that they can do everything possible to prevent them. The primary focus is primarily on the safe operation of known technologies. Unfortunately, it’s not equipped to handle newer technologies.

One would think that HROs—certainly those who study them—would give serious consideration to the array of crises that can lead to disasters. But no. The study of HROs and CM are generally regarded as two separate fields, a position with which I’m in the strongest possible disagreement. In my view, both have enormous contributions to make to one another. Even stronger, they’re fundamentally inseparable. The difficulty is that both essentially started independently of one another. As a result, they developed different followings both in and out of academia.

As one of the principal founders of the field of CM, I have to accept my share of the blame. Even though I tried to incorporate as many disciplines as I could, I should have reached out to even more.

The time is way beyond where we can continue to divide up the world into separate disciplines and professions. The world doesn’t work this way anymore, if it ever truly did.

Inter and Transdisciplinary thinking is far from a luxury. It’s absolutely essential if we are to survive.

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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