posted 10 Oct 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 2
Hurricanes and KM
Improve knowledge-ability now. Nothing changes people and institutions like results. By Jerry Ash
Even before the latest tragedies in the
Regardless of their doubts, Americans expect local, state and federal government to come together and collaborate to aid them in crisis. Yet they are not surprised when emergency services are poorly delivered and they are quick to criticise when failure reigns. That’s certainly the script surrounding the aftermath of the back-to-back tragedies of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita across the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico and especially the city of New Orleans.
Governor Blanco, however, without using the word, puts her finger on one node of the root problem – poor KM.
While the investigations and recriminations are being carried out in Washington and several state capitals for the next eon, those who are still charged with the responsibility of responding to these and future disasters would be blessed by a visit from a KM adviser like Kent Greenes (see cover story, page 14). Unfortunately, the following account is fiction.
“Hi,” Greenes might say, “I’m from private industry and I’m here to help you.”
“Yeah? Great! You got giant sandbags to repair the levees or amphibious vehicles to patrol the streets of
“Well, no, but we’ve analysed your problem and we think we know what went wrong. The FEMA director had no experience whatsoever in responding to natural disasters and a large percentage of your most knowledgeable people have left the organisation since 9/11, 2001. At the same time, FEMA’s focus has been shifted from disasters like this to homeland security. There’s no similarity between hurricanes and terrorist attacks.”
“You’re right,” the FEMA guy says, “but right now I’m literally up to my hips in alligators. I’d like to go back and get better prepared for this one or go forwards and get better prepared for the next one, but right now I’m preoccupied with this mess.”
“I understand,” Greenes might say. “Let’s forget the long-term solutions for now and see what we can do to improve our knowledge-ability now. We don’t have to wait until later to apply KM solutions. Tell me, what is your biggest organisational problem?”
“Oh, that’s easy. Because of personnel turnover, two-thirds of us have never been involved in anything like this before. We don’t know the city, don’t know the people, and don’t know the local emergency-services people well enough to trust or rely on them.”
“What about the other third?”
“Oh, they’re old pros, but we don’t have enough to go around.”
“So how are you deploying them?”
“We’re assigning them to the high priority situations.”
“And how about the others?
“Well, we’re sending them when we don’t have pros.”
“So two-thirds of your effort is inept?”
“Well I wouldn’t admit it in a staff meeting, but that’s pretty much it.”
“So two-thirds of your staff is left bumbling and unable to learn from this experience?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, here’s what we need to do now. First, we need to pair your knowledge-able staff with those who need to learn. Spread your know-how and need-to-know people equally across the disaster zone. To succeed, the old hands will share their knowledge urgently and your newbies will absorb knowledge like sponges. They will learn fast and perform at the speed of change.”
“Hey, I like that. Might work.”
“It will work. I’ve seen it happen time and again. Now, what kind of action reviews are you engaged in?”
“Oh, you mean after action reviews. We are very good at that and we will issue a report sometime next year that will be a great resource in future disasters.”
“No good,” Greenes would probably say. “You need to learn and apply what you learn now while this crisis is still salvageable. Forget after-action reviews. Conduct action reviews regularly right here in the midst of the recovery effort.”
“You gotta be kidding me! You want us to just stop what we’re doing and have meetings?”
“Well, I wouldn’t do it at a critical moment, but if you don’t routinely take time to reflect, review and revise while you can do something about it your lessons learnt later will be at the expense of your failures, not your successes. Action reviews now will result in successes that will provide much more positive guidance later on.”
“But we don’t have time.”
“Pshaw. I’ll admit this is an emergency situation, but soldiers are doing action reviews while still under fire. Your situation is stressful, but if the Army can take time out for action reviews on the battlefield, you can certainly do it.”
And so the story might go.
There are many KM messages that need to be sent to FEMA, its sponsors and advisers, the investigative bodies and the decision makers, but the primary message needs to be that the best time to begin KM is now, in the middle of the problem, when it matters most. As Kent Greenes puts it,
“I don’t think there is anything that changes people (and institutions) like results.”
At FEMA, change would be good; results even better.