Friday, March 16, 2007

Disconnecting Policy and Practice

Disconnecting disaster management policy from disaster management practice causes Katrinas.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Of Ladders and Trenches

It's difficult, when you are in a management position, to maintain a balance between keeping a perspective on the big picture and staying in touch with what is going on in the trenches. I find that, while I need to maintain some contact with the trenches to retain perspective on what it's all about, I cannot get involved in routine trenchwork for two reasons:

1. At some point, it becomes too difficult mentally to have to integrate both details that are significant in the trench but not in the big picture , and details that are significant in the big picture but not in the trench. A friend of mine calls this "spanning too many rungs of the ladder." Obviously, when it becomes too much depends on the size of the ladder, the distance between rungs, and how stretchy you are at any given time.

2. I can't be both peer to and supervisor of my co-workers. While I (think I) can track my role-switches, it's almost impossible for others to do so, which, rightly makes them confused and uncomfortable. This is one of those management aphorisms on whcih all the management trainings agree but that everyone really has to learn for themselves. You have to be equal but separate.

So I think my strategy needs to be the Periodic Royal Pulse Check: hear about/talk to a few example trenches without actually getting involved directly.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Working with Volunteer Organizations

The active membership of volunteer organizations is constantly changing, so they think and act like perpetual teenagers: Always learning what others take for granted, and always having to be told the same thing over and over again.

When working with a volunteer organization, don't assume that they know what they are doing. Do not be afraid to remind them of what you think they should know. Be patient and lend them a teaching hand when you can. Even if you've already taught them something 10 times. Chances are that you're teaching the 11th person.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Rules, Routines and Respect

The Red Cross teaches workers that clients, who are in an unfamiliar, uncertain and constantly changing situation, need Rules, Routines and Respect. What they don't mention is that we ourselves (who are also in an uncertain and constantly changing situation) need Rules, Routines and Respect. This is perhaps especially true for upper management, who must not only create and enforce the rules and routines of others, but also of their own.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

3 Steps Exactly

In disaster response, you always have to be thinking three steps ahead. Some people have trouble learning to think three steps ahead. Some people have trouble learning to think only three steps ahead.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Panic Early

Panic early. It saves time later.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

ISCRAM: A Use-Inspired Basic Research (UIBR) Community

In 1997, Donald E. Stokes published a book that has been critical to my understanding of what I do (and why it's so hard to get to do):

Stokes, D. E. (1997). Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Brookings Institution Press.
In this book, Stokes discusses how, for historical and political reasons, the Western world has come to classify research along a linear spectrum ranging from basic to applied research. And how, in the US basic research has come to be the purview of universities and applied research that of industry.

He then argues that this view is wrong, that research, in practice, is driven by two orthogonal dimensions: a drive to achieve fundamental understanding and a drive to solve specific problems. This classification exposes two new categories of research, one of which, "use-inspired basic research," is of particular interest. Use-inspired basic research aims to solve particular problems (e.g., supporting problem-solving and decision-making in disaster management) but seeks to or must develop some more general understanding (e.g., of cognition and information use, and their implications for design of information systems) while doing so.
In my experience, one of the key difficulties to doing use-inspired basic research (UIBR) is that you are working across two domains: a domain of use (applied research) and a domain of fundamental understanding (basic research). This means that you have to understand and gain acceptance in both domains. However, if you present your work in UIBR terms (which is the way you have to think of it while working), the basic researchers don't get it because it's "too applied," while the applied researchers don't get it because it's "too theoretical." (Damned if you do, damned if you don't!) This, typically, means that you can only present half of your work in either type of venue, and, consequently, have to do twice as much work before you can publish any of it. (Unless you are fortunate enough to have a relevant UIBR community available.)

Now, of course, the truth is that many people do UIBR (this is one of Stokes' key points). Where do you think new academic disciplines come from? Bio-informatics is a highly successful recent example, but there are many others, when you think about it. The difficulty is finding a relevant UIBR community -- one where both domain of use and of basic research match your interests.

(Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management) is a UIBR community. Its domain of use is critical situation management (emergency and disaster management, humanitarian aid efforts, etc.). Its domain of basic research is information systems (design, development, deployment and use). Fortunately, for me, by nature a use-inspired basic researcher, this matches my interests exactly!