MSc International Disaster Management

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Systemic Approaches to Disaster Management

Course unit fact file
Unit code HCRI63221
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Despite the massive knowledge accumulated about disasters, emergency responders are still overwhelmed by the unprecedented complexity of current disasters. The recent pandemic made it clear that our existing approach to managing disasters is not effective. Governments and international organisations started to call for new approaches to address such crises and to recover our societies and systems to become more resilient and sustainable. In contrast to the conventional approach to managing typical disasters, managing highly complex disasters requires adopting a multi-disciplinary approach. The management sciences and operational research offer valuable theories and tools to facilitate more effective decision-making and problem-solving approach when mitigating, preparing, responding, and recovering from disasters. This module introduces students to new ways of analysing complex problems such as disasters using a management and soft operations perspective. The module equips students with theory, methodologies, techniques and tools that facilitate problem-solving and analysis in highly complex and uncertain contexts. Students will appreciate the difference between complicated and complex problems, and the inter-connectivity and mutual influence of communities and organisations as part of a wider environment. Students are expected to develop their decision-making, management, and modelling skills. This module does not require mathematical skills. It is designed for a wider audience who have no previous knowledge of management. The module is engaging and involves exercises, discussions, and activities. These activities and discussions are designed to develop personal and teamwork skills that are sought after in the job market. 


  • Introduce students to systems-thinking theories as a way to analyse, understand, and make decisions before and during disasters.
  • Develop students’ problem solving, decision-making and analytical skills.
  • Deepen students’ understanding of the complex operational problems that face disaster responders.
  • Provide the students with practical experience of how to use their system thinking knowledge in analysing complex problems.



Lecture 1: Introduction and Overview Introduction to the course, the logic behind it, expectations, outcomes, and how to make the most out of it.

Lecture 2: Operational Problems and the attributes of disaster complexity Exploring the nature of problems that disaster practitioners, managers, and planners can face using a case study. This will be followed by a discussion on the best approach to address them.

Lecture 3: Systems thinking and disaster management Introduction to systems thinking and its overarching principles. Students will learn the notions of open systems and adaptive systems.

Lecture 4: Organisations structure and design Introduction to organisational science. Students will learn about the different types of organisational structure, culture, and will discuss their appropriateness for the different types of organisations involved in managing disasters.

Lecture 5: Decision making in the disaster management context Robust decision making. Students will learn the different types of decisions that people make and the tools and approaches that managers and practitioners can use to make their analysis thorough and their decisions robust.

Lecture 6: Soft Operational Research and Modelling Wicked Problems The students will be introduced to key soft operational research methodologies that are used to structure complex problematic situations.

Lecture 7: Modelling for viability: Applying the Viable System Model in the Disaster Management Context This week, the students will learn how to use the Viable System Model (VSM) to model organisations and systems for viability. They will be applying the learning to model a disaster response system (case study).

Lecture 8: Management of Change Students will learn why change project often fail and what are the key barriers that contribute to this failure. They will learn to theories and frameworks that can help them plan and manage change, which is key feature of development projects.

Lecture 9: Simulation Game - Application of Leaning This lecture is a game (roleplay) that involve solving a problem (case study) by using the approaches, theories, and methodologies that they learned in the previous lectures.

Lecture 10: Assessed Presentations, Roleplay, and Discussion Group presentations based on the tasks given in the roleplay. These presentations are assessed and will contribute to the final mark.

Lecture 11: Module Review and Rap Up

Teaching and learning methods

Lectorials: Involve one or more teaching methods (lectures, seminars, workshops, and roleplays) in each session.

Teamwork and group discussions using systematic methods (e.g. rich pictures and affinity diagrams).

Case study analysis

Interactive exercises and roleplay simulations

Teamwork -Roleplay

Knowledge and understanding

  • Be able to critically, systemically, and systematically analyse complex problems.
  • Obtain an inclusive and holistic perspective to understanding and analysing social problems.
  • Appreciate the importance of multi-disciplinary approaches in solving complex problems. · Improve teamwork skills by working on mini group projects.
  • Obtain different decision-making and problem-solving tools that can be used in professional contexts.

Intellectual skills

  • Critical and analytical skills.
  • Holistic and in-depth analysis of complex and dynamic problems and situations.
  • Systematic and robust decision making.
  • Innovative, creative, and strategic thinking.
  • Qualitative analysis through exercises and activities.
  • Ability to refer to literatures from different disciplines to solve problems.

Practical skills

  • Ability to work in teams to analyse and solve problems.
  • Written and presentation skills.
  • Ability to implement a variety of decision-making tools in different contexts.
  • Qualitative analysis

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Analytical and critical skills.

  • Teamwork

  • Appreciation of others’ perspectives.

  • Ability to use a range of problem-solving tools and models.

  • Written and presentational skills.


Employability skills

· Reporting skills. · Experience how problem-solving workshops and meetings are facilitated. · Appreciation of a bottom-up management approach. · Holistic perspective to problems. · Strategic skills by analysing the feasibility of management decisions from an operational perspective. · Understand and analyse organisational structures. · Ability to use a range of problem-solving tools and models.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 65%
Oral assessment/presentation 25%
Set exercise 10%

Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Feedback from observation during  activities, simulations and presentations. The feedback will focus on skills and knowledge that will be needed in the different forms of summative assessment (e.g. presentation skills, technical feedback, critical thinking, and reflection).


Mid-course student evaluation of learning – verbal feedback in tutorials (individual and group)






Recommended reading

Simonovic, S. P. (2011). Systems Approach to Management of Disasters: Methods and Applications. Wiley.

Altay, N., & Green, W. G. (2006). OR/MS research in disaster operations management. European Journal of Operational Research, 175(1), 475–493.

Reissberg, A. C. (2012). Managing Natural Catastrophies: Viable Systems to prevent human tragedy-the Hawai’ian example. Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag Gmbh.

Preece, G., Shaw, D., & Hayashi, H. (2015). Application of the Viable System Model to analyse communications structures: A case study of disaster response in Japan. European Journal of Operational Research, 243, 312–322.

Checkland, P. (1993). Systems thinking, systems practice. In Systems Thinking, System Practice: Includes a 30-year retrospective (p. i–xiv, 3-330). Chichester: John Wiley.

Cooke, D. L. (2003), A system dynamics analysis of the Westray mine disaster. Syst. Dyn. Rev., 19: 139-166. doi:10.1002/sdr.268

Pidd, M. (2009). Tools for Thinking: Modelling in Management Science (3rd ed.). Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Hollnagel, E. (2015). Disaster Management, Control, and Resilience. In A. Masys (Ed.), Disaster Management Enabling Resilience. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Powell, J. H., Mustafee, N., Chen, A. S., & Hammond, M. (2016). System-focused risk identification and assessment for disaster preparedness: Dynamic threat analysis. European Journal of Operational Research, 254(2), 550–564.

Weaver, M. W., Crossan, K., Tan, H. B., & Paxton, S. E. (2018). A systems approach to understanding the perspectives in the changing landscape of responsible business in Scotland. European Journal of Operational Research, 268(3), 1149–1167.

Kreps, G. A., & Bosworth, S. L. (2007). Organizational Adaptation to Disaster. In H. Rodriguez, E. L. Quarantelli, & R. R. Dynes (Eds.), Handbook of Disaster Research (pp. 297–315). New York: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.

Holling, C. S. (2001). Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological, and social systems. Ecosystems, 4(5), 390–405.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 20
Independent study hours
Independent study 130

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Ayham Fattoum Unit coordinator

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