Sunday 15 February 2009

Crisis knowledge management

How do you manage knowledge from really rare events? From the infrequent crises?

Often we rely on accessing knowledge and experience from others, but this method falls down when the events we need to learn about, happen very rarely, and the others are as much in the dark as we are. If the last time the event happened was, say, 20 years ago, it lies beyond the reliable limits of human memory. The human memory is unreliable over a long span; we post-rationalise, we partially recall, we invent memories, or we simply forget.

I started to think about this as a result of two events that happened recently at the school where my wife Cathy is Head Teacher. The first event was a medical emergency to one of the children, which required an ambulance to be called. The staff dealt with the situation extremely well, but this was a new challenge to most of them, and it was stressful for everyone concerned. So Cathy (as you might expect from a Knowledge Manager's wife) held a learning review, and developed an excellent "medical emergency" process which will go on file and be used if a similar emergency occurs future.

Then a few days later, came the snow. Days where the snow is so bad that schools have to be closed, are extremely rare in SOuth West England, and have not occurred for over 20 years. So when it came to making the decision to close the school, then finding the ways to inform the media, the radio, the parents and the staff, there was a real sense of "making it up as you go along". Once again, Knowledge Management 101 says - you need to review afterwards, look at what went well, look at what could have been improved, and draw up the ideal "snow day" process as a resource for the future.

It's not just schools. Events such as the Marchioness river disaster (to choose an unusual UK crisis event), where a pleasure boat on the Thames sank with massive loss of life, are real rarities, and without an easily accessable body of knowledge on "Thames pleasure boat disasters" to call on, the police will just be improvising.

When it comes to national crises such as the summer floods of 2007, I have another concern. I was strongly advising one of my clients, who was in charge of KM for one of the affected public utilities, that they desperately needed to hold a decent Retrospect, to improve their flood response process. She tried to get this to happen, but it proved politically impossible to hold an in-house review while the big government-funded public enquiries were happening. No doubt these enquiries were of value, but they were not focused (as the Retrospects would have been) in developing improved flood-response processes for this particular utility company.

The saying "those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it" is especially true for rare events, where human memory is at its least reliable, and therefore where learning has to be particularly deliberate. If the event is predictable, do your scenario planning. If the event was unpredicted, then learn from it, document the ideal response, and store it somewhere where it will not get lost. Then next time it happens, people will have some guidance to work from.

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