Extreme events, organizations and the politics of strategic decision making

Purpose – Threats of extreme events, such as terrorist attacks or infrastructure breakdown, are potentially highly disruptive events for all types of organizations. This paper seeks to take a political perspective to power in strategic decision making and how this influences planning for extreme events. Design/methodology/approach – A sample of 160 informants drawn from 135 organizations, which are part of the critical national infrastructure in the UK, forms the empirical basis of the paper. Most of these organizations had publicly placed business continuity and preparedness as a strategic priority. The paper adopts a qualitative approach, coding data from focus groups. Findings – In nearly all cases there is a pre-existing dominant coalition which keeps business continuity decisions off the strategic agenda. The only exceptions to this are a handful of organizations which provide continuous production, such as some utilities, where disruption to business as usual can be readily quantified. The data reveal structural and decisional elements of the exercise of power. Structurally, the dominant coalition centralizes control by ensuring that only a few functional interests participate in decision making. Research limitations/implications – Decisional elements of power emphasize the dominance of calculative rationality where decisions are primarily made on information and arguments which can be quantified. Finally, the paper notes the recursive aspect of power relations whereby agency and structure are mutually constitutive over time. Organizational structures of control are maintained, despite the involvement of managers charged with organizational preparedness and resilience, who remain outside the dominant coalition. Originality/value – The paper constitutes a first attempt to show how planning for emergencies fits within the strategy-making process and how politically controlled this process is.