New tools won’t help, if you need to change your nonprofit’s culture

Red Tape - Germany has a lot of that. Photo:  Theen Moy on Flickr

Red Tape – Germany has a lot of that. Photo: Theen Moy on Flickr

I just got off the phone with someone working with the “Technisches Hilfswerk” (THW), the German Federal Disaster Response Authority that becomes operational whenever local capacities are overwhelmed. In Germany that mainly means major floods or big storms and the THW has an enormous amount of trucks, pumps, generators etc. that can make a real difference.

The issue my caller is struggling with is, how to make social media data available to the THW for situational awareness. Her very particular problem: the THW is apparently only allowed to use “official data”, so her task is to figure out how other government organizations can put an “official” stamp on selected social media data before it is routed to the THW. Apparently, they are looking at developing a new software solution to achieve this.

Change the policy, not the technology

While it is encouraging to see that the THW is starting to consider social media as a resource, this approach is putting the cart before the horse. Rather than developing a new tool, I recommended changing the policy that says you can only use “official data” – that would also be much cheaper. What information is useful and what isn’t should be up to the incident commander or someone in his staff to decide who have local, contextual knowledge. To me, a policy like this sounds like putting blinders on the situational awareness of local emergency managers. (Considering that the THW was originally formed during the cold war to help with civil air defence, I’m wondering whether this rule still comes from being afraid that the enemy might try to send false information to mislead the responders.)

The most actionable information that social media can provide in an emergency is hyper-local and the best people to judge whether that information is valid and useful are those who are on the ground. Besides, the strength of social media is that it is fast, which you eliminate by sending everything through a government bureaucracy before making it available to the responders. And don’t even get me started on the idea of developing yet another stand-alone software solution.

Obviously, it’s easier to get organizational backing for another tool, but when your real issue is your organization’s policies and culture, then that is the much harder battle that you have to fight.

Do you have examples of cases where organizations were trying to use tools rather than address larger, organization issues?