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Organizational routines in incident command centres: Improving society’s ability to handle extreme events

Research project

The project investigates organizational routines in incident command through a comparative analysis of organizations critical to society’s response to extreme events.

Head of project

Project overview

Project period:

2021-01-01 2023-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Education, Umeå School of Business, Economics and Statistics

Research area

Business administration

External funding

Riksbankens Jubileumsfond

Project description

The purpose of the project is to develop a novel framework for understanding routines and their function as organizations switch to incident command. Further, the project aims to test this framework in the studied organizations. The project’s importance is partly identified by the organizations themselves and partly motivated by the increasing challenges of extreme events generally. Lastly, there is a clearly identified knowledge gap concerning routines in extreme contexts. In extension, the project’s aim is therefore to contribute to society’s resilience in tackling challenges such as climate change, increased migration and terrorism. Incident command work within the provincial- police, armed forces, Security services, and County administrative board (Västerbotten) is investigated through ethnographic methods covering both extreme events and preparation for these events. Each organization is studied by one member of the research team through interviews, observations and document studies. Through a unique cooperative effort in “Knowledge Forum Region North”, the organizations discuss the challenges of incident command with the research team. The knowledge forum also constitutes a test arena for practical application of the theoretical models provided by the researchers.

The overall aim of the project is to increase society’s ability to prepare for and handle extreme events to avoid as many adverse effects as possible (i.e. material losses, injury, and death). One obvious example of an extreme context, a setting in which people may suffer or die, is the recent COVID-19 virus outbreak, along with its adverse effects on, for instance, sick-leave and the police authority’s ability to uphold law and order. A key aspect in handling extreme events is the work in the incident command center (in Swedish, the organizational unit “stab”), which relies heavily on organizational routines. While critical to the successful handling of extreme events, our current knowledge of incident command center work is limited, as most studies are done retrospectively, have problems with access, are conducted within a single organization, and have received limited theoretical attention (Jensen & Thompson, 2016; Hällgren et al, 2018). This raises many questions in which routines, that is patterns of interdependent actions performed by multiple people, are central. The most critical question, that this project explores, is how routine dynamics contribute to the ability to prepare for and handle extreme events.

Using ethnography, we will compare and contrast routines in four organizations in the northern region of Sweden (the provincial police authority, the Swedish armed forces, the Swedish security service and the county administrative board of Västerbotten – “The Organizations”). In the case of the police and COVID-19, such routines include, for example, the coordination of resources and information, work planning, and updating legal procedures, to name but a few. We seek to understand the practices that constitute these routines. To that end, we will examine how the ability to operate in extreme contexts depends on routines, and how the nature and performance of routines differ depending on context. Critical to this understanding is a novel perspective on routines in extreme contexts. We rely on “interrelated routine dynamics” - a stream of research based on the idea that, in organizations, there are multiple, interrelated routines, the internal dynamics of which ensure consistency, as well as an ability to improvise. We combine this idea with a context-sensitive approach to extreme contexts to compare and contrast routine dynamics. This allows us to analyze the effects of routine dynamics on different empirical contexts. Theoretically, the project is at the absolute research front, because we know very little about  how routines in extreme contexts interrelate and contribute to organizational resilience. Resilience, for introductory purposes, can be defined as the ability to ”bounce back” after an extreme event (see full definition later). 

External funding