Last night I had the distinct pleasure of finishing reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. His book was very interesting and particularly enlightening about the strengths and weakness of an enigmatic figure that help defined not only the personal computing industry, but helped redefine mobile phones (iPhone), portable music players (iPods), tablet computing (iPad), and network storage (iCloud). Additionally, his introduction of the iTunes store helped save the music industry when piracy was running rampant. While few leaders -- much less emergency managers -- could have the vision and the dedication to develop technology systems that were this impactful, there are numerous lessons emergency managers can learn from Steve Jobs.
First and foremost, Steve Jobs was a designer. He sought out ways to strip products down to their core functions to streamline the process and make it easier on the end user. Unlike most technological operations that start with the engineering and technological capabilities, Steve Jobs often pushed for the design to be set first with the engineering to be set around it. This is a revolutionary concept to most emergency managers who focus on the system and structure necessary before considering how it is engaged by citizens and various community constituencies. What happened if we considered the needs and input of citizens before we pushed for new systems or plans? Ultimately if our grandiose system doesn't work for disaster survivors, it doesn't work at all.
Steve Jobs was also notorious for implementing a "reality distortion field" where he simply ignored or disregarded the things he was not comfort with or was not ready to deal with (including his own health issues). Because we are busy and often over worked, emergency managers are very good at this skill. We routinely toss aside issues (ex: social media) and community expectations that don't fit well with current systems, best practices, or our own sense of the world. The problem with this is that we aren't Steve Jobs. Most of us will lack the personality, drive, and "lone genius" mentality that will allow us to implement a "reality distortion field" without alienating our staff, volunteers, and community.
OPEN VS. CLOSED
Isaacson also spends a significant amount of time discussing the dichotomy of an open or closed system. Jobs pushed for a closed system of fully integrated parts that created a seamless structure for the end user to be able to use iPods, iPhones, iPads, and other technology devices in an interchangeable fashion. This was strongly contrasted with the more open and shared systems at Microsoft and Google. While Jobs vision was ultimately very successful at Apple, he was unable to identify another organization who had shared similar success with such a closed system. In many ways this is important to emergency managers. We often try to establish heavily controlled systems to engage in emergencies and disasters; however, there is a growing push for more open engagement through virtual volunteers, crowdsourcing, and various other emerging technologies. Obviously closed systems can work, but only when each step is managed and controlled, which is extremely difficult to establish within governmental organizations.
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Emergency managers often struggle with how to implement social media into their organizations in light of growing public expectations, limited resources, and conflicting interests. There is often significant misunderstanding and mistrust of systems like Facebook and Twitter especially in light of tried and true practices of public communication and outreach. This is even more difficult for forward leaning emergency managers who feel divided and isolated from peers who have not embraced these changes.
However, I was particularly taken by a blog post earlier this week by noted marketer Seth Godin called "The Easiest Way to Get People to do What You Want Them to Do..." where a case is made for creating a groundswell of support within a given community by simply identifying those people who are already predisposed to the organizational message. This is already done through traditional volunteer groups, but can also be achieved via social media by encouraging those people who already engage in Facebook conversations, retweet messages, and perform other levels of engagement to continue to spread the message. This provides a support and accountability group for an emergency manager within their community to not only help with efficiency, but also with magnification.
This impact was best addressed in Godin's closing statement: "You used to be stuck with whoever walked in the door or [took your brochure]...[but] today you change minds indirectly by building a tribe that influences via [their] connections to others.
Go build your tribe.
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Hurricane Sandy may well go down as one of the most impactful storms ever. At nearly 600 miles wide, it reaked havoc from the Carribean Sea to much of the northeastern seaboard (including parts of Canada). But Hurricane Sandy is historic for another reason. Emergency managers active in social media have long talked about the importance of social media after disaster, but it became crystal clear during this event.
At 10 AM EST on the day after Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, Facebook reported to Mashable that the most popular terms included in personal status updates (after the term "Sandy") were the follow:
1. We are ok
2. Power -- Lost power, have power, no power
4. Hope everyone is ok
6. Made it
The most popular term -- "We are ok" -- speaks volumes about when, where, and how the general public is utilizing social media. Personal posts may be mundane on a day-to-day basis, but during a disaster like Hurricane Sandy a tremendous number of individuals utilize social media to tell friends and family they were okay. These three simple words have solidified the role of social media during disasters and should be further evidence that emergency managers must embrace these systems as communication tools capable of situational analysis, incident intelligence, and most importantly community welfare.
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