Last week I attended the Reform Institute’s Symposium in New York City on the private sector’s role in resilience for our national and economic security. To say it was time well spent would have been an understatement. In a City known for its speed, style and flash, it was home to something even more – a Conference that had INFORMED and ACTUAL CONTENT.

For the past couple of years, the term ‘Resilience’ has started to become a buzzword of sorts. There are more than enough perspectives on the term, but simply put, resilience is the ability of an entity to respond, absorb and recover from a disruptive event.

Nowhere does the word resilience have deeper meaning or perspective than the private sector. Without being resilient, any enterprise – regardless of its size, industry, or location – will not be able to operate following a ‘disruptive event’ and faces almost certain extinction. It is ‘Darwinism’ (survival of the fittest) in its purest form.

For nearly two days, the Reform Institute brought together thinkers and private sector leaders from the Fortune 500 and elsewhere across a range of industries (supply chain, financial services, telecommunications, energy, etc) to share their experiences and perspectives on ‘resilience.’ Instead of echoing their individual corporate marketing messages (“all is wonderful if you’re me”), the private sector presenters offered a forthright and unvarnished report card on themselves, their industry and state of resilience today.

Talk about refreshing… Rather than being served the conventional conference presentations that channel the ‘talking points’ of the day and shy away from saying anything of tremendous meaning, frank talk about successes, failures, gaps and opportunities were shared about some of the most critical areas our nation’s economy and security depend. Largely devoid of the ideological and partisan rants that so permeate most Congressional Hearings and media coverage of these issues, the Reform Institute let some of the real ‘players’ do the talking and it was exceptional experience.

Too often at homeland security conferences, you hear from people who talk about doing something to make our county and its infrastructures more secure and resilient. The Reform Institute did something different at their program – they brought forward front line leaders (“doers”) who were able to actually show what they had done and were doing to make resilience a reality for them and their public and private sector peers.

It was inspiring to listen to some of the best known companies in the US and the world share their insights and show they are leading by example. Rather than talking about what they may do to become resilient, they were taking charge of their own destiny and implementing the steps to be ‘ready’ when the ‘time’ comes.

Their incentives for being proactive stems from the responsibilities they have to their shareholders, customers and communities in which they operate and reside. It also came from the hard knocks, stumbles and failures of not being prepared when a disruption occurred and not wanting to repeat the experiences (incurred financial costs, loss of market share, encroaching competition, etc.) that come with not being able to respond or recover faster.

The experience of hearing the various speakers was also eye opening. While you heard about the coordination these various companies had with their suppliers, employees and communities where they reside/operate, there was an organization that seemed to get little acknowledgment or mention in terms of coordinating resilience – the US Department of Homeland Security.

While DHS was mentioned a few times (reference to the new Chemical Sector regulations; praise for the leadership of DHS Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection Bob Stephan; etc.) I and a few other attendees I spoke with found it surprising how little the Department was cited in helping to spur or coordinate resilience in the private sector.

One message that was transmitted loud and clear last week by the various presentations was that private sector companies are not waiting, nor would they wait for DHS leadership or direction on resilience. The participating companies are moving ahead with getting their own house ‘in order’ and if they encountered the Department, that was fine, but they were going forward with or without them.

Such a move is reason for confidence and concern.

It is great to see companies taking the initiative to ‘ready’ themselves for any number of disruptions. Being proactive will provide them with enormous short and long-term dividends, making the enterprise better in its operations and performance on a ‘bad day.’ These efforts will also increase the value of the enterprise which every shareholder, employee and community wants.

What is of concern though is the lack of understanding of DHS’ role in these areas and the sense of a leadership vacuum that the Department has yet to fill in terms of private sector resilience. A number of the companies that spoke last week made clear that ‘their train had left the station’ and it was up DHS and any other governmental organization to play catch up.

While corporate and individual initiative and self-sufficiency are to be applauded, there are also times when a train conductor is necessary to direct where the various trains are going. None of us can expect five years after the creation of DHS that we would have all of the directions and conductors in place for the entire private sector. That may never happen given the constant changes in the private sector, but it’s obvious that the incoming Administration is going to have a lot of catching up to do when they take their place in this train yard.

Whether they like it or not, resiliency is going to be in their ‘In-Box.’ A good place to get a lot smarter on the subject will be the next Reform Institute program on the subject. They started a great dialogue last week, and I hope they keep it going.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More