Recent disasters have provided amazing examples of almost instantaneous design and implementation of informal technical systems and emergent organizations. Calvert Jones and Sarai Mitnick chronicle some of the actions taken for the South East Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. More recently, Hilton Collins describes how emergency managers and first responders are using social media to work with the public. From the Collins piece:
According to Humphrey [Los Angeles FD, see other mention here], his department's use of social media tools -- and input from both the public and public employees -- are examples of crowdsourcing: using the efforts of the unpaid public -- the crowd -- for business practices.
The examples show how technology, organizations, and people are woven together to meet the needs of the disaster. This is especially interesting given the emergent nature of the situation. It is the best and worst of organizational design and innovation. The best: Life or death motivation for success. The worst: Life or death motivation for success - in an environment that is constantly changing. Today I'll focus on Hurricane Katrina. I'm drawing from Majchrzak, Jarvenpaa, & Hollingshead's "Coordinating Expertise Among Emergent Groups Responding to Disasters," and "Disaster Strikes: Aftermath of Hurricane Relief," a University of Texas, McCoombs School of Business case for my examples. The names were changed in both accounts and sometimes details are changed in case examples -- however, the Majchrzak article includes additional interviews documenting the validity of the event. The Red Cross often uses debit cards to provide relief funding to disaster victims. In the case of Katrina their standard relationships and mechanisms were overwhelmed. From Majchrzak et al. (p. 148): “The bank was capable of issuing 100 cards a day, when we needed about a 1,000 a day,” remarked a Red Cross representative." An officer at the bank mentioned the problem to a financial officer at one of their client firms. This firm was a privately held electronic payment company, headed by a CEO who had lived through a life-changing hurricane in high school. The electronic payment company was better able cope with the situation than was the original bank as they had been putting in place an aggressive strategy to expand -- their technology and systems were already prepared for large numbers of new customers. Majchrzak et al. note (p. 152) that this was not an issue of expertise. "[...neither the bank's] deep disaster payment expertise nor the Red Cross’ expertise in disaster recovery was able to cope with the enormity of the situation; instead, the willingness and ability of [the electronic payment company's] CEO and the Red Cross team to flexibly adapt their knowledge, resources, and tools to a novel situation proved instrumental." It took systems savvy rather than deep expertise to see how to bring the electronic payment organization on-board through technology, emergent organization, and human/people dimensions. The bank officer who took the problem to the electronic payment client saw the possibilities. The CEO and his small firm worked with the Red Cross to meet the needs of the victims. The CEO also exhibited an understanding and respect for people " assuming that rescued victims seeking financial relief were legitimate unless proven otherwise" (Majchrzak et al.) and being able to provide motivation for the members of his organization to take on this immense role. Both the Majchrzak et al. article and the business case deserve individual attention as they provide deeper insights into the situation than I can here. Especially interesting to me is the business case's discussion of how the electronic payment organization organized to create a new business offering specifically built to provide a formal, future, disaster relief debit card issuance program. There too the CEO specifically addressed technology, organization, and people by outlining the realities of the technology (currently available), organization (non-profit customers, so low cost; need to improve "time and labor content of the interview process"), and people (must be manageable by people with limited training; innovation program was set up as an internal competition). This was not an issue of "if we build it, they will come." In Part 2 of this examination I'll focus on the Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina.