Crisis as practice : Non-emergency organizations’ coping with crises

Abstract: Exerted from the top down, organizational crisis management is a concept with strong connections to rational and normative approaches. While acknowledging that these approaches form a solid foundation for crisis management, this thesis formulates a critique of this conceptualization. A primary critique rests in the fact that this perspective has rendered invisible the capabilities of actors on the fringes of crisis management. In addition, it rarely acknowledges that coping with crisis consists of more than is typically associated with rational attributes. This thesis aims to increase theoretical and empirical knowledge in two areas based on this research gap. This research seeks to contribute empirically by studying non-emergency organizations and their operational level’s coping with crises that affect their core operations. Theoretically, it aims to highlight the role of social practices in our understanding of crisis management. The main objective is to move beyond rational, normative, and top-down approaches in order to provide in-depth knowledge regarding the role of everyday work practices in understanding organizational crisis management. This approach means looking at how existing work practices and their constituent resources assist in forming crisis responses. The thesis consists of four individual studies (papers I-IV) that relate differently to the main objective of the thesis. To varying extents, all four studies take theories of practice as points of departure, allowing for various examinations of how non-emergency organizations manage crises in practice. The first three studies are qualitative, using interviews as their primary methodology. In study I, the interviews are complemented by accompanied tours of workplaces and internal organizational documents. The fourth study is conceptual, aiming at theory development. The first and second study focus on how a social services unit in Sweden coped with the large influx of unaccompanied children during the 2015 refugee situation. The first study shows how the staff, through their experience and professional competence, continually adjusted their operations to suit the prevailing situation, thus managing the new conditions successfully. The study explains the results by offering a model of crisis management as dispersed practices, telling us that crisis management is, to various degrees, interwoven within the performance of everyday work practices. Building on the first study’s results, the second study highlights three crisis management practices: improvisation, prioritization, and the creation of alternatives. These practices played a significant part in creating new routines or adjusting existing ones, eventuallyxcontributing to normalizing the situation. The study also shows that operational staff received inadequate support from higher management, having to rely on their own ability to solve problems. The third study complements interviews of non-emergency organization staff with interviews of emergency personnel. The study examines the interaction between non-emergency organizations and emergency services. It considers a situation in which a non-emergency organization suffers an emergency, and emergency services temporarily deploy their workplace inside the affected workplace to address the situation. Theories of boundary work and boundary practices demonstrate how cooperation between the parties allows for a mutually accomplished form of boundary work, enabling both parties to strive for business as usual. The fourth study is a theoretical discussion and argumentation of practice theory in research on crisis management. The study offers a theoretical framework of crisis-as-practice that complements existing research’s focus on crisis management based on rational and structural starting points. The framework provides tools for studying crisis management in light of the ordinary resources that organizations possess when performing their everyday work; this approach allows for a more comprehensive view of crisis management and understanding of whom can become a crisis manager. The overall findings in the thesis indicate that the social and material resources that organizations possess through performing their everyday work contribute to the coping and management of various disruptions and adversities posed by crises—despite the fact that these resources seldom have been defined as capacities during crises. The findings also show that these resources allow crisis normalization by enabling adaptations of the organizing mode. Based on these findings, this thesis concludes that, even though non-emergency organizations might seem unprepared according to the prevailing institutionalized norms of crisis management, they perform practices relevant to crisis management and maintain their core activities despite both disruptive and emergency events.