'What the VUCA' is this all about?

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

Is there a need to revive the VUCA term? And why so in communication studies?


Gudrun Frommherz & Helen Sissons, 2021


A proposal for VUCA Communication

As communication researchers in a perilous time, we seek to position VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – as an emerging interest in communication and media studies. Over the past ten years, the acronym has become a buzz word in the digital economy and, more recently, has moved into the contemporary discourses of a visibly changing world. In its most common use, VUCA appears as a shorthand for summarising perpetually accelerating experiences (such as constant new expectations and ways of ‘doing things’ due to ceaseless advances in online and social media); it denotes a perception of utter unpredictability (e.g., global warming triggering extreme weather events; the Brexit vote in the UK and the 2016 US election, neither of which was predicted); and it refers to startling and unexpected events (with the present global COVID-19 pandemic presenting a prime example, and the riot at the Capitol building in Washington DC on January 6, 2021 a second). Such events have become more common in recent years with technological advancements, disrupted industries, political recklessness, fake news, environmental stresses and global health disasters all contributing to a sense of both doom and opportunity. Despite a broad application of VUCA to the currents of today’s world, the fields of communication and media studies have as yet failed to develop the concept for tackling changing communication spaces and needs. Corporate leaders, for example, are under growing strain to solve, and communicate to their constituencies, problems they could not forecast or identify let alone understand; governments struggle to regulate hitherto non-existent models of citizen engagement; doctors diagnose without ever interacting with their patients; designers build for increasingly defiant users; journalists strive to speak truth while facing growing amounts of disinformation; and media networks mourn the relative simplicity of the industrial era’s structures and practices. Although there is plenty of generic advice from corporate consultants, business analysts, and leadership gurus on the Internet pushing innovation, agility, inclusiveness, and communication in business, fewer real insights are offered to aid media professionals in the face of raging events and precipitous change. Still less knowledge has been produced by academic research and scholarly discourse on VUCA communication.


Despite its broad use, VUCA does not mean the same in all situations, and the various instances of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, or ambiguity do not tend to turn out equally in every case. Nevertheless, the concept provides a meaningful perspective for resisting the common temptation of declaring abrupt novelties, surprises, or system shocks as universally unpredictable. Too little work has been done in problematising and developing VUCA as a method for appraising current media and communication dynamics. If VUCA indeed “is a condition that calls for many penetrating, challenging, open-ended, analytical questions” (McNulty, 2015, para 11), then, in a highly networked world, it is the field of media communication that must aid the formulation and articulation of these questions.

We propose cultivating VUCA as an opportunity for addressing recent or present communication quandaries, which are plentiful: how do we, as communicators, 'frame', articulate, present and direct a constructive dialogue about the many injuries from cultural elitism, social inequality, misuse of power, work intensification, deterioration of interpersonal relationships, resource depletion, environmental erosion, and the ills of an ever-upward growth economy?


An introduction to VUCA

‘VUCA’ is a late 20th century acronym standing for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The term is generally used to designate a fast changing, elusive, and/or unpredictable situation or environment. In recent years, VUCA has become a catchphrase for describing the lived experiences of “uncertainty, turbulence, rapid change, dynamism, disruption, complexity, hyper-competition, high-velocity markets and flux” (Kraaijenbrink, 2018, para 1), which are commonly regarded as characteristic of the global digital economy.

Since its coining in the mid 1980s, VUCA has been used mainly in three contexts: (1) in its initial application to strategic leadership (originating in a military environment), (2) in business management, especially with respect to the digital transformation wave, and (3) to encapsulate “anything we don’t understand or cannot control” (Eoyang & Jenkins, 2020, p. 34), such as “everything from Brexit > #fakenews” (Morris, 2020, para 1), and most recently to the experience of living through a pandemic (e.g., Balita, 2020; Bauer, 2020; Bell, 2020; Higgins, 2020).


The first mention of VUCA can be traced back to the US Army War College, where the term was used from around 1987 to address a changing political reality after the Cold War. The term has been also linked to Bennis and Nanus’s (1985) now classic book Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge. Bennis and Nanus (1997), while not directly applying the VUCA acronym, exemplified “an era marked by rapid and spastic change” (p. 8), where leaders needed to purposefully shepherd their constituencies “in a complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environment” (p. 79).


The US Army War College deployed the VUCA concept in several of its publications in the early 1990s, all in the context of developing strategic leadership skills in its senior officers (see Barber, 1992; Beach, 1992; Kennedy, 1991; Lawrence & Steck, 1991; Mackey, 1991). It is not fully clear who exactly devised the acronym and how the sequencing of the four VUCA elements was decided, but Colonel Richard H. Mackey (1992) explained the complexity of VUCA as stemming “from such factors as the rapid rate of change, the number of variables that exist, the interdependence of the variables, and the uncertainty of events and outcomes” (p. 10). Ultimately, Dr Roderick R. Magee II, professor of organisational change and strategic leadership, and the principal editor of the War College’s Strategic Leadership Primer (1998), incorporated the concept of VUCA to designate “the highest degrees of uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, as well as tremendous volatility (VUCA) due to the compression of time in which the leader must act” (p. iii). The early definitions of the term, fed by a witnessing of shifting world powers, conceived the VUCA forces as imperative and global. At the same time, however, they were not automatically negative or associated with detrimental effects. The War College faculty members Kan, Whitt and Hill (2018) clarified that ‘volatile’ in the original VUCA term “did not necessarily mean violent” (6:10) and also was not automatically defined by increases in speed; instead, ‘volatile’ was more accurately associated with ‘unusual’ or ‘peculiar’. Previously, Bennis and Nanus (1997) had pointed out, “that as difficult, frustrating and fearful as these times are, they are also interesting, catalytic and crucial” (p. 13), and Barber (1992) had unequivocally appreciated the VUCA environment as “marked by possibilities and opportunities” (p. 8).


The VUCA acronym gained currency – and a decisively negative connotation – in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (Eoyang & Jenkins, 2020; Kan et al., 2018). The American experience of inbound terror on its own soil sent a seismic shock to a worldview built on the illusion of general security and stability. Following the global financial crisis in 2008-2009, VUCA found its way into business management (Schick et al., 2017). An incipient digital economy with its increasing demands for broad digital transformation adopted the term to address the turbulences and changing parameters of doing business in a ubiquitously digital world (Bennett & Lemoine, 2014a, 2014b). There, VUCA functioned as a shorthand for alluding to the fast pace of digital innovations resulting from advancements in digital technologies such as Web 3.0, the Internet of Things, big data, cloud technology, extended reality, advanced robotics and strategic automation, digital twin technologies, and edge computing (O’Driscoll, 2019). Subsequent to the popularisation of the VUCA term by the digital transformation industry, Lavindra de Silva, a self-declared ‘Growth CXO | Co-Host @ Pandemic Punditry | Marketing Maverick | Smart Protein Advocate’, coined VUCA(DD), adding digital disruption to the four original VUCA elements. He proclaimed, "we are no longer living in a VUCA world, we are living in a world where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and digital disruption VUCA(DD) reign supreme. How we survive (or thrive) in this new VUCA(DD) world will be determined to a great extent by how we embrace this new paradigm of digital disruption" (de Silva, 2016, para 5).


The statement echoes the widespread application of VUCA for labelling a general sense of unease or disorientation arising from new technologies, novel business opportunities, shifting organisational processes, and snowballing customer expectations. Eoyang and Jenkins (2020) contended that “the term, and the models and tools it spawned, were a convenient way to package everything that was unfamiliar and disturbing” (p. 35).


Unlike its original use in the strategic leadership context, where VUCA was considered multiplicative of its four dynamics (Cadell, 2020, para 2), VUCA(DD) seemed an indiscriminate, linear forward push to be followed in a ‘do or die’ fashion. Digital VUCA provided a more or less homogenous backdrop for driving the digital transformation enterprise, whereby its disruptive forces were not usually questioned, and the interactions between the various digital challenges, risks, and opportunities were not commonly problematised (Millar et al., 2018). Eoyang and Jenkins (2020) expostulated that “[t]he [VUCA] label allowed people to refer to the complex reality without doing the hard work that would be necessary to figure out what they could know and might reasonably do about what was going on” (p. 35). In its general business use, the VUCA slogan acted as a frontier for economic innovation and commercial advantage, and aided to “inflate need” (Kan et al. 2018, 32:27) in the service of a novelty-hungry growth economy. The field of digital consultancy, for instance, has utilised perceived VUCA threats as a business opportunity, offering a myriad of workshops, training courses, and conferences on VUCA risks and how to manage them. Alongside a growing VUCA industry filled with audacious VUCA pundits and VUCA Masters (Grubb, 2009; Heller, 2015; Horney, 2014), neologisms and taglines such as ‘VUCA is the new normal’ (Warley, 2017), ‘VUCA vortex’ (Frey, 2020; Global Leadership Forecast, 2014; O’Driscoll, 2019), ‘VUCA fitness’ (Glaeser, 2020), ‘it’s all VUCA’ed up’ (Kan, et al., 2018) or ‘what the VUCA!’ (Emerging World, 2019) materialised. The now popular catch-all ‘living in a VUCA world’ first appeared in the early 2010s (e.g., Leonhard, 2014; Polman, 2015), and the Saatchi & Saatchi Chairman, Kevin Roberts (2016), dedicating a full chapter in his book 64 Shots: Leadership in a Crazy World to the phrase. VUCA was named the ‘word of the month’ for June 2017 by Macmillan Open Dictionary (Potter, 2017), and the concept has been declared “one of the most battle-tested strategies on the planet” (OMF, 2020, para 4).

In its current business application, VUCA spawned a VUCA 2.0 twin that served as a remedial answer to disruptive forces. VUCA 2.0, attributed to Bill George (2017), a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, proposed that leaders and managers respond to volatility with vision, to uncertainty with understanding, to complexity with courage, and to ambiguity with adaptability – or, alternatively, with vision, understanding, clarity (or compassion), and agility. These more positive VUCA 2.0 attributes were used by business strategists, advisors and consultants for promoting imaginative leadership, courage to experiment, flexibility, and winning communication (Heller, 2015; Jain, 2020; Rupal, 2019) as the foremost responses to the challenges of a fast-paced global economy.


Business research over the past ten years (e.g., Bersin, 2019; Boulton, 2020; Ewenstein et al., 2015; Futjitsu, 2018; Harvard Business Review 2013, 2015, 2018; Kane et al., 2015, 2019; Korn Ferry, 2017; McKinsey, 2018; Rogers, 2016; Shein, 2017) has shown that talent management, people skills, and inspirational leadership – not technological innovation – have been gradually recognised as the cardinal solutions to the turbulence of the digital economy. Bersin (2019) noted that today’s business challenges “aren’t technology problems; they’re people problems” (para 2).


The vital role of communication in VUCA leadership had already been emphasised by the fathers of the concept. In the first Strategic Leadership Primer, Magee (1998) identified the “successful strategic leader [to be] the quintessential communicator, using all means of communication” (p. iii). Likewise, Bennis and Nanus’ (1985) four critical leadership strategies – 1) attention through vision, 2) meaning through communication, 3) trust through positioning, 4) the deployment of self – either directly promoted communication or operated through, and relied on, effective communication strategies. Many corporates today recognise positive organisational communication as a central asset of workforce management and workplace culture, where they utilise VUCA for emphasising a need for new leadership approaches for governing personnel in challenging times (Chowdhury, 2017; Khan & Millner, 2020; Lawrence, 2013; Praveen, 2018; Sen, 2020). Corporates have also picked up on the wellbeing wave for countering the impact of VUCA, with various initiatives promoting a positive culture and resilience in the workplace, such as self-development techniques, mindfulness practices and employee empowerment through inclusive communication (Amann, 2015; Drath, 2017; Hills, 2016; Jackson, 2019; Johansen, 2009; MacGregor, 2014). The Resilience Project in Australia, for instance, lists “storytelling and behaviour-change communications” (TRP, 2020, para 2) as their central strategy for managing employee wellbeing in perilous times.


Despite a strong link between VUCA and people leadership, and between leadership and good communication respectively, there seems to be remarkably little research on VUCA communication itself. The few sources on communication in a VUCA environment seem largely limited to applying standard change communication formulas to digital organisations (Rupal, 2019). VUCA has received some attention, mainly for describing the various conditions that demand urgent and/or mission-critical messaging in areas such as emergency response, disaster and crisis management (Alkhaldi et al., 2017; Boyd, 2020; Brebbia, 2018; Kumar, 2015; LexisNexis, 2020; McLennan, 2020, Petford, 2020), health and safety (Billiones, 2019; FitzGerald et al., 2017; Lotzmann, 2019; Rutledge, 2019; Unnikrishnan, 2017), law enforcement and national security (Chelsea Holdings, 2017; Ellis, 2016; Reed, 2015; Satish & Steufert, 2006; Yarger, 2008), and environmental health and sustainability management (Schick et al., 2017, Trivedi & Jain, 2019; Zinkin, 2020). However, even in these areas of application, VUCA was seldom, if at all, used in an analytical capacity.


A further area of VUCA communication is the field of ‘futuring’, i.e., the predicting, modelling, and articulation of possible future scenarios. The first Strategic Leadership Primer of the US Army War College had already determined that “strategic leaders must have a ‘future focus,’ spending much of their time looking toward the future and positioning the organization for long-term success” (Magee, 1998, p. iii). Nevertheless, VUCA-based futuring is yet underdeveloped, although some ideas in this respect have recently emerged. Bob Johansen (2007, 2009), of the Institute for the Future, for example, deployed the VUCA concept when conceptualising high-level leadership in the face of “dilemmas which have no solutions” (2009, p. xiv). In doing so, he reached for the conventional application of VUCA, referring to what he observed as a steadily worsening global world as a generic “VUCA soup” (Johansen 2009, p. xiv). Nevertheless, Johansen (2009) recognised the importance and power of forecasts for assessing seemingly unpredictable conditions, which he thought of as “essentially a good story designed to provoke insight and invoke action” (p. xv). In another example, Erwin’s (2013) work on Communicating the New is one of very few contributions to probing the philosophy of communication when responding to emergent VUCA (or complex, unfamiliar and still-fuzzy) scenarios. Erwin (2013) proposed breaking some of the common communication myths, i.e., gross simplification where rich nuances exist, stubborn persuasion in lieu of a common basis, and communication as a means of message transfer in place of the co-creation of shared knowledge.


Stanton Smith, the then National Director of Deloitte & Touche’s Next Generational Initiatives programme, noted in the foreword to Bob Johansen’s (2007) book, Get There Early, that “in the VUCA world leaders need to avoid the facile answer or specious clarity that comes at the expense of the truth” (Johansen, 2007, xiv-xv). It seems that, although the need for effective VUCA communication has been noted, there is yet insufficient understanding of how exactly this communication may help build a capacity to work with, not against, complexity, to handle uncertainty with sincerity, and to relate to all transactions with empathy.


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