Sub-theme 36: Organization operating at the extreme

Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor
Warwick Business School, UK
Arzu Iseri-Say
Boğaziçi University, Turkey
Philippe Véry
EDHEC Business School, France

Call for Papers

Extremes imply high levels of risk and uncertainty which may stretch organizations to (and beyond) limits. Disasters, illegality, threats and acts of terrorism are all examples of such extremes, as are highly random events or those which seem highly improbable, but still occur (Cerulo, 2006; Taleb, 2007; Watkins and Bazerman, 2003). Concepts of uncertainty and risk permeate organization theory. Empirical and theoretical work has, for example, considered the roles of organizational design and processes (such as sensemaking and decision making) in coping with uncertainty. Innovative organizations are deemed to be those which anticipate accurately or cope well with emerging, rare and unpredictable events and operate effectively in the face of extremes. The majority of work in these areas deals with what may be termed exogenous shocks to organizations from the environment (such as a dramatic loss of consumer demand) or the impact of new technologies on social and economic organization (Kallinikos, 2005). Other theorists have studied organizational disasters and the lessons that might be learned from dramatic failures such as the Columbia disaster (Starbuck and Farjoun, 2005; Farjoun and Starbuck, 2007) concluding that single events (such as a foam debris hit or the failure of an O-ring) are rarely to blame for disasters, whereas the wider organizational system (of NASA in these cases) was squarely to blame. In addition, the roles of managers in defining limits (e.g. temporal, financial, system capacity) are an important aspect of decision making when those (often self-imposed) limits are breached.

In a similar vein, at the societal level of analysis, Beck (1992) coined the term 'Risk Society' a social theory describing the production and management of risks in modern society. 'It is a society increasingly preoccupied with the future (and also with safety), which generates the notion of risk' (Giddens, 1999: 3) The risk society is a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced by modernization (Beck, 1992: 21) where risks are conceived as the product of human activity. A key outcome has arguably been low levels of trust in industry, government and experts (Giddens, 1990). This increased critique of modern organizational practices has resulted in a state of reflexive modernization embracing concepts such as security, resilience and precautionary principles focusing on preventative measures to decrease levels of risk.

From an organization theory perspective, such arguments raise a series of questions surrounding:

  • How resilient are organizations to risks such as the threat and act of terrorism, illegal acts (both economic and social) and corruption? How can we assess resilience?
  • What happens to organizations when they are stretched to their limits?
  • Can we theoretically articulate or empirically identify factors which would identify the limits of organization?

We suggest that some key aspects of organizational limits may cluster around:

  • Technical factors: e.g. the ability of systems to perform to desired levels when subject to extreme stress
  • Organizational factors: e.g. structures, processes, governance and decisions which impact upon organizational vulnerability to extreme events.
  • Cognitive/sensemaking factors: e.g. sensing and identifying problems, establishing priorities and mobilizing resources to avoid or cope with damage or disruption; learning from failure
  • Temporal factors: The role and perception of time in organizations under extreme circumstances.

The above list is indicative and certainly not exhaustive.

We welcome papers which deal with a variety of extreme circumstances which organizations face. These can be theoretical or empirical papers. Papers which deal solely with the well-trodden debates about risk and uncertainty will not be selected. We are seeking papers which go beyond these debates to examine extremes, limits and which also may seek novel and creative ways in which organizations might address and cope with, for example, the threat of terrorist acts, extreme failures and breakdowns, grey and shadow economies, emergencies, corruption, scandal and illegal acts.


Beck, U. (1992): Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. New Delhi: Sage.

Cerulo, K.A. (2006): Never Saw it Coming. Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Farjoun, M. and W.H. Starbuck (2007): "Organizing at and beyond the limits." Organization Studies, 28, 4, 541–566.

Giddens, A. (1990): Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Giddens, A. (1999): "Risk and responsibility." Modern Law Review, 62, 1, 1–10.

Kallinikos, J. (2005): "The order of technology: complexity and control in a connected world." Information and Organization, 15, 185–202.

Starbuck, W.H. and M. Farjoun, M. (eds) (2005): Organization at the Limit: Lessons from the Columbia Disaster. Oxford: Blackwell.

Taleb, N.N. (2007): The Black Swan. The Impact of the Highly Improbable. London: Penguin.

Watkins, M.D. and M.H. Bazerman (2003): "Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming." Harvard Business Review, 72–80.

Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor 
Arzu Iseri-Say 
Philippe Véry