Stressing Knowledge : Organisational closed-ness and knowledge acquisition under pressure

Abstract: Organisations have been analytically conceptualised as being somewhat analogous to individuals for a long time. They have culture; they can learn; and they can behave in various odd ways. But how far can the simile be stretched? What other types of organisational cognition can we imagine? And what benefits can we gain by introducing new perspectives of this kind? This study shows that organisations can exhibit familiar symptoms of stress, such as closing themselves to the outside world and becoming unreceptive to external stimuli and input. They retreat to what is familiar and safe and put on blinders to hide anything that does not already fit with how they feel things should be, often in situations where they would be best served by being as open to and perceptive of these external stimuli as possible. Using a model of organisational behaviour that connects external pressure to an internal mode of operation and to specific knowledge-seeking behaviours, the study examines two case pairs—two success stories and two catastrophic failures—to examine patterns of organisational cognition. By comparing and contrasting the failure of the FBI during the 1993 Waco siege with its subsequent success during the 1996 Montana Freemen standoff, and doing the same with the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s handling of the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami and the 2006 evacuation from the war in Lebanon, a pattern emerges where certain types of knowledge proved to be the key to staying as open-minded, responsive, and dynamic as these crises demanded. This knowledge can be used both during a crisis to resolve some of the confusion and time pressure that is endemic to such situations, as well as before a crisis to mitigate or even stave off the approaching chaos.