Get Ready Hawai’i

Get ReadyI write often about my time in conflict zones and comment on some of the lessons I’ve learned from those experiences. I don’t want to give the impression that my experiences only relate to combat situations. Actually, most of what I’ve learned has direct application to outside of the military and military operations. In this blog I thought I would illustrate that point with an example of a problem from the Emergency Management community that I recently encountered.
In the Emergency Management industry, the preparedness level of the population matters greatly. A large part of the government’s efforts in this industry are devoted to reducing the number of individuals that aren’t properly prepared, thereby reducing the harm and damage caused by natural or human-caused disasters. While this type of task is very tough to do, it is even tougher without some culturally acuity.
I have a friend who grew up in a coastal parish in Louisiana, where the cultural norm is individual, family, and also the readiness of the greater community, particularly during hurricane season. In this context, many citizens don’t necessarily need (or want) a plan administered to them by higher levels of government, as they are likely already living one out in their day to day lives. Additionally, the indigenous “plan” incorporates lessons that have been learned over years of individual, family, and community activity geared toward readiness and being pro-active. In situations such as this, it is exceptionally tough for a government entity, especially one that isn’t closely connected to the local populace, to affect change without a great amount of effort. This is the “ground truth.”
Several questions arise: “How does the government recognize an individual’s, a community’s, a state’s, or a region’s extant disaster readiness plan? And, if a government entity actually takes the time to identify existing mechanisms and processes that help local populations cope with disaster even before disaster strikes, do they actually incorporate local knowledge into the new and official government sponsored plan?” If government (or any other “outside” organization) wishes to affect people’s behaviors toward disaster preparedness, then knowing the local cultural norms and practices is the proper starting point. By implementing local knowledge into our Emergency Management formulas, then we are at least attempting to account for culture when devising a way to approach the problems associated with natural and human-caused disaster. Essentially, by “controlling” for culture, we only enhance the probability that our endeavors will achieve greater short and longer term success.
What happens when organizations don’t control for culture? First, we should all understand that without accounting for cultural aspects, success is still possible, as a system of readiness and post-disaster assistance may be accepted and utilized by the local population. However, if those who design such systems are ignorant of local culture, then any system they design will have less chance for success, and may actually be implemented in a way that run counter to culturally acceptable norms of behavior. (I have to pause again here and note that while it is also possible to counter culture and achieve a desired goal, such attempts should be done by design, not inadvertently, and also should be attempted only with a deep understanding of local customs mixed in with a healthy dose of proper forethought.)
When an organization or a business doesn’t leverage cultural knowledge, they are losing control of the outcome. Assumptions creep into our planning, and things that are surmountable, can easily become game-ending or deal-ending problems.
Most organizations face what we (@CULTRASEC) refer to as, “culture as you design it vs. culture as you experience it.” The proper alignment of this arrangement should be “experience” then “design.” When “design” precedes “experience” operations/organizational planning is more likely based on assumptions. The organization or business then misses opportunities to recognize existing systems, or cultural norms that are well within the parameters of success.
Being ignorant of culture in planning also causes organizations to duplicate work unnecessarily. When a business or organization creates a new system designed to influence human behaviors, that system is based upon assumptions about the past and present, as well as ideas about the intended outcomes. The new system is attempting to gain acceptance without considering a system that already exists. This creates a “clash of cultures.” Unintended clashes of culture are dangerous, and often unnecessary, risks to an organization’s/operation’s long term success.
It’s better for a company attempting to design a new system to first study the local culture in order to determine the “proper” way to act in that specific cultural setting. It’s also better if that study is conducted from someone outside the company who possesses a high level of analytical clarity that is not biased by the company’s pre-existing ideas about what is and is not culturally appropriate.
At CULTRASEC, we aim to help you gain a better appreciation of local culture before you attempt to affect human behavior in different cultural contexts. In fact, this is the type of work that I personally have done for the military and in support of military operations for years. From my experience, if you first study the scenario and learn how the local culture works, therefore striving to achieve the vantage point of “culture as you experience it,” then you can begin to map the smooth “cultural paths” that are already there. From these cultural paths, you can design your activities in a way that accounts for culture, giving you and your organization more control over outcomes.
Now let’s examine the earlier mentioned problem from the Emergency Management community that I recently encountered. (In fairness to the government entity involved, I should say I picked this issue at random. There are numerous examples of organizations not getting culture right. This I feel is more the norm for business organizations, rather than being culturally savvy.)
The example is as follows:
In the interests of homeland security, the Federal government allocates money to state and local governments in order to promote preparedness. These funds give the smaller governments the ability to try to enhance readiness as a way to plan for disasters. The assumption is that the more a community is generally prepared, there will be less chaos, disorder, and overall harm to life and property once the inevitable happens.
In the state of Hawaii, a primary concern of Emergency Management officials is preparing for tsunamis and hurricanes (among other things). The state government wants to encourage families to pre-plan and prepare for these events. To that end, they work to create initiatives, and they track their successes at promoting a preparedness system that changes people’s behavior from a less to a more heightened state of readiness.
However, this type of work is always difficult. This problem of moving the populace towards any government’s desired goals is always an enormous challenge. It’s the same problem that we find in conflict zones. Well intentioned people can build a system that is completely benevolent and attempts to create less dangerous living conditions, but without validation of the system by the local populace, we question whether or not we have experienced real success.
In the Hawaii case, the government has spent $500k on a project. The work they did is top notch, as they hired individuals with PhDs and other professionals with decades of experience who were brought in to consult. In terms of the design, nothing is lacking, and actually, the product helps to set the industry standard. But no endeavor tolerates being ignored. The site that was built to create awareness, and with the help of a great deal of expertise, http://www.getreadyhawaii.org is about to die. Why?
One way to evaluate this or any other website’s performance is to look at the traffic directed to the site. As a hobby, I am a member of a race car team, and I have noticed that our team’s Facebook page has more “likes” than the state of Hawaii’s Emergency Management page. If my semi-pro race car team, the Cannonball Bandits, can attract more social media attention than an entire state’s purpose-built site, then something other than professional Emergency management consulting work is the problem.
I submit that problem with Hawaii’s website and disaster preparedness system stems from a lack of accounting for culture. There are without a doubt, cultural paths that exist already and could be leveraged by the governmental planners if they were able to see them. A community that lives in Hawaii likely has a level of awareness about how to withstand these types of events. That knowledge coupled with leveraging community leaders will aid the planners in creating a workable system that is cultural savvy and creates more opportunities for success.
I’ve been told that there may be regulations against, as well as a tendency to avoid actively using social media to advance the interests of the local government. The problem here is that social media helps create social movement. When something like a tsunami or hurricane is imminent, social media is a way to direct people to the resources they need, both pre- and post-disaster. The reluctance to embrace social media in a time when it’s one of the biggest social movers again reveals the challenges that culture presents when it’s not adequately accounted for. It’s perfectly fine to let local law keep government workers off of social media, but realize that such a policy has a cultural cost.
It’s also OK to not account for culture in your planning. However, don’t complaint when your system fails, your project flops, or you merely get unexpected negative results. Ladies and gentlemen, control for culture. Seek the clarity of outsiders when attempting to study culture. Cultural savvy is a problem that confounds our military efforts, business endeavors, and even impacts the folks in Emergency Management that try to keep us alive in the most trying of times.

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