Resilience: Frequently used, rarely understood, often misinterpreted

Ein einzelner kleiner Baum in einer Schneelandschaft
Bild: Getty Images | Andy Ryan

Did you previously believe that you, your company or your IT were resilient? After this article you'll know you're completely wrong – and why.

The word "resilience" is on everyone's lips these days, but it is often used without knowledge or understanding of what it actually means. If you then ask what resilience actually means, you usually get a vague and often wrong answer. Many people mistakenly assume that resilience means being resistant to the effects of negative events. This misconception is even found in scientific research. To understand what resilience really means, it is helpful to look at the origin and meaning of the word.

Origin and meaning: The Latin verb resilire

Resilience and resilient derive from the Latin verb "resilire", which means "to jump back." Like, for example, a frog jumping back into a pond. In order for the frog to jump back, it must first have jumped away from the pond. The jump back is to the starting point. In the example used, this is a pond. Jumping back can happen in different ways: Temporally, spatially, or in terms of state.

Another secondary use of the verb “resilire” is in the context of a bounce. If something bounces off something else, it jumps back. Like, for example, a ball hitting a wall bounces off and jumps back. "Resilire" – the "bounce off/jump back" – in this context refers to the element that bounces off. In this case, that is the ball, not the wall. The latter is resistant, but not resilient. Bouncing can be all external elements, both objects and intangibles, such as a reproach.

In Roman times, only the verb "resilire" existed in Latin. There was neither a noun nor an adjective in this word family. A verb describes an action or process. The noun "resilientia" came into existence later. It was the jurists in the 15th century who created the term to clearly distinguish the consequences of a contract dissolution ex tunc from those of a contract dissolution ex nunc. In the case of a contract dissolution ex tunc, everything jumps back to the state at the conclusion of the contract. Later, the adjective "resilient" was added. It denotes the property of a subject. Instead of "resilient", one could also use equivalent adjectives such as "bouncing back" or "rebounding." This might sound less pompous, but it is more understandable.

From the above, the basic rule is that what does not jump back or bounce off from something is not resilient. Resilience is not a synonym for resistance.

Resilience: A plaything of pseudoscience

Vague interpretation of a term that then serves as the basis for development for various models: this is the norm rather than the exception in the field of "resilience." A good example of what this can lead to is the Resilience Alliance. Despite its scientific appearance, it engages in metaphor-based pseudoscience with a positive employment effect.  And it is far from alone in doing so. Metaphors are linguistic transferences of meaning in which words are used in a constructed context with the wrong meaning. The result is that words like "resilience" are used inauthentically. Of course, there are also scientific papers about how this happened and could happen. For people with education, knowledge and the ability to think, it is obvious that resilience is not a synonym for resistance, for others less so.

The resilient material

In materials science, resilience refers to the ability of a material to absorb energy when elastically deformed and to release that energy when the load is removed. An example of this is a sponge. If you compress a sponge and then release the pressure, the sponge springs back to its original shape. A tensioned spring springs back to its original state as soon as the tension is released. In this context, the term "resilience" is used correctly.

The resilient person

In the 1970s, psychologists adapted the term "resilience." They used metaphor to adapt the meaning to their needs. And from then on, people were supposed to be resilient.

What escaped many psychologists was that resilience is something other than resistance. Psychological resilience would mean for a person to bounce back to a previous state. That is hardly possible. Psychological pressure leaves traces. Humans have a memory that is only erased in the case of complete memory loss. A person never completely returns to his state before the pressure, but continues in the state he was in when the pressure was removed. He will remember the cause and the feelings associated with it even after the pressure has disappeared. Unless he suffers a partial memory loss that erases the experience. If, on the other hand, psychological pressure bounces off a person, then the psychological pressure is resilient, not the person.

Physical resilience is only superficial and partial in humans. A human being is not a material, but a living being. The skin, for example, can absorb energy when elastically deformed and release it when relieved to return to its original shape. Humans as such are only physically resilient when they bounce off something, as can be the case when they collide with a larger object. Whether the human survives this collision, however, is another question.

The goal is actually a person's inner equilibrium, which leads to stability. A person can lose his old inner balance due to events and experiences, but he can usually find a new balance. Depending on the initial situation, this can happen faster for some than for others. However, this has absolutely nothing to do with resilience. Many psychologists see this differently. The corresponding publications cover a broad spectrum, from resilience as a positive force to the factors of individual resilience pretty much everything. Nevertheless, thematically, it is clearly about resilience and not resilience. And resilience is not a synonym for resistance.

The resilient ecosystem

Ecosystems generally don't bounce back to a previous state or rebound from something. Instead, they find a new equilibrium after a significant event. Ecosystems are not static, but adaptive, changing continuously in response to external and internal influences. In addition to natural ecosystems, ecosystems also include markets and organizations. Organizations are part of markets and therefore both an ecosystem in their own right and part of an ecosystem. Ecosystems are characterized by internal and external connections and have both internal and external dependencies. Ecosystems have nothing to do with resilience.

Cyber resilience

The term "cyber resilience" is used in the field of resistance of IT systems to negative external and internal events. The goal is continuous availability of functionality and data, combined with integrity and confidentiality of data. This would include security against all types of attacks and prevention of malfunction and operating errors. First, this is hardly possible with complex systems, and second, "cyber resilience" is the wrong term for this. The organization's own systems and data neither bounce back on their own nor do they bounce off. But the attacks are supposed to bounce back, and thus the attacks would be resilient, not the IT systems. Cyber resilience has nothing to do with resilience per se. This is because resilience is not a synonym for resistance. Ensuring the resistance of IT systems, on the other hand, requires secure and reliably functioning products, but these are often in short supply.

"Cyber resilience" is a buzzword used predominantly by people who know neither the actual meaning of the term "resilience" nor the actual security and reliability of IT systems.

The business of studies, training and consulting

"Resilience" is good business. After all, everyone and everything is supposed to be resilient. he incorrect use of the concept of resilience obscures the view of the essentials. As long as it is not understood what is really important and what is actually needed, this will remain the case. And for “resilience” to remain good business, research is needed to gain new insights. Universities and institutes are responsible for that. But you can't believe anyone who still doesn't know and understand that resilience is not a synonym for resistance.

Der Autor: Christoph Jaggi

Christoph Jaggi ist Experte für Digitalisierung, Technologien und Marketing. Die Verbindung dieser Kerndisziplinen mit der Orientierung auf Menschen, Märkte und Zielgruppen bildet die Basis für das Lösen komplexer Aufgabenstellungen in unterschiedlichen Bereichen. Und sie ist die Grundlage für das Erkennen und die Entwicklung von Marktstrategien. Christoph Jaggis internationaler Kundenstamm reicht vom Startup über KMU bis zum Grosskonzern.

Für einige Leute ist Christoph Jaggi IT-Experte, für andere IT-Sicherheitsexperte, für andere Marketingexperte, für andere Strategieexperte, für andere Managementexperte und für andere Medienexperte. Er selbst sieht sich allerdings vor allem als Problemlöser, der seine Kunden darin unterstützt, für aktuelle Herausforderungen die optimale Lösung zu finden. Und da sind fachliche Silos eher ein Hindernis.

Als Autor mit weitreichender Erfahrung in den Branchen ITC, Finanzen, Medien und weitere, publiziert Christoph regelmässig zu Entwicklungen in den Bereichen Digitalisierung und Technologie mit Fokus auf Anwender, Produkte und Märkte.