Top-down vs. Bottom-up KM: Insights from the Katrina response

Watching, listening to, and reading about the response to Hurricane Katrina I have noticed that, in general, the “official” response of government has been almost universally denounced as slow and insufficient while the “un-official” responses of individuals and various organizations have been praised as rapid and, at times, heroic.

Though there is still a lot of analysis to be done in terms of what worked and actually made a difference, at first glance these two ends of the response spectrum provide some real world, real time insight into the question of what type of organizational culture and knowledge management is better – that which is designed top-down or that which is “grown” from the bottom up.

Instead of the term “better”, I think the term “more appropriate” is, well, more appropriate. The two different styles of KM are best used in the circumstances they are best suited for. In a crisis situation such as this, there is no question (at least in my mind) that the ad-hoc, bottoms up method of doing things works best. But I don’t believe it is scaleable to the level needed for the medium- to long-term KM needs.

I think that what will come out of the inevitable investigations into “what went wrong” is not that top-down KM doesn’t work, but rather that there was no effective KM system or process in place to support the required top-down operations. This was, as far as I know, the first major catastrophe that FEMA has had to deal with since being incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy. (See Destroying FEMA for more on FEMA and DHS.)

There is obviously a bit of work that still needs to be done to make sure that all threats, natural and man-made, are adequately managed from a knowledge perspective. I’m sure that we’ll hear more on that once Congress starts its investigations.

One thought on “Top-down vs. Bottom-up KM: Insights from the Katrina response

  1. Reblogged this on Brett's Phrontistery and commented:

    “The messiness of the web often deals with the messiness of disasters better than centralised systems which can fall over under pressure!”

    A Facebook friend posted this today, reminded me of these early thoughts I had back in the aftermath of Katrina along similar lines. But back then we didn’t have Twitter, we didn’t have Facebook and Instagram and … and … and….

    And just now on the TV news feed: “People are resorting to Twitter and Facebook because the 911 system is overwhelmed.” Not just to connect with the centralized authorities, but to connect with – and help – each other.


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