I’m in the DC area this week in support of an information sharing project that was conceived with the intention of taking some fundamental first steps towards overcoming social, organizational, and technological challenges that regularly and continuously plague humanitarian emergencies, disaster responses, and essentially any situation that forces too many interests into too little space and time. I (and, as far as I can tell, the core of the people I work with) firmly believe that this is not a problem space that can be engineered, designed, managed, or similarly reduced to something more palatable. These challenges must be embraced for, rather than in spite of, their complexity, and the vanity of perfect solutions ought to be rigorously questioned. Often lacking, though imminently necessary, is a humble self-awareness of one’s niche in this greater ecosystem in order to come to terms with dynamics that one does not, nor will ever, control.
I enjoyed a layover in Zurich on Sunday morning (enjoyed, I should say, in no small measure due to Galbraith’s illumination of The Affluent Society, which I’ve been reading piecemeal for a shockingly long time), and picked up a complimentary copy of the International Herald Tribune. I was struck by a piece by Christophe Fournier, president of the International Council of Doctors Without Borders. In highlighting the conflicts between strict rule of law efforts and the ability to provide services to afflicted populations on “both sides of the frontline”, he cuts straight to a dilemma of humanitarian work: the need for “constant negotiation with local authorities as well as warring parties, who might be responsible for war crimes.” That is to say, the effective delivery of non-partisan aid stands opposed to interaction with only savory characters. Further, “humanitarian assistance is not necessarily compatible with … the armed protection of civilians.” By extension, governments and security forces seeking to improve cooperation with, or at a minimum raise their own awareness of, non-aligned private organizations must avoid the fallacious tendency to think that neutrality is just another obstacle to be overcome. Interests across organizations may coalesce in a crisis situation, but structuring aid and security plans around the assumption that cooperation can be designed is still a bridge too far. We should also remember that “collaborate” has more than just positive connotations…
I worry that calls for a better exchange of information across organizations will bloat with the jargon of the day and yet lose focus on the real challenges associated with complex operating environments. Reality forces institutional boxes – of governments, of militaries, of NGOs and International Organizations – into shared spaces, but growing one’s own bubble to incorporate the others is not the way forward. Similarly, a resistance to assimilation might underscore a level of credibility superior to that of the sycophants lining up outside your door. Effectively bridging organizational divides must be tied to a long view of the challenges that continue to arise, and quick fixes well within the comfort zone are not the way forward.
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I’ve been mulling over some items that caught my attention this past week that highlight some divergent angles being taken to address essentially similar problems: Web communications, decentralized authority, and agile organization. Though it would be too much to assume anything about the motives behind these various initiatives, what came to mind is that cliché about the road paved with good intentions…you get the idea.
An old document reemerged in the inbox this week related to this Civil-Military Fusion Centre that NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (ACT) is launching in order to be the “one-stop shop” for all “non-classified military/security, humanitarian and development information provided by functional experts in relevant military and civilian organisations.” The paper is really worth a look, as it packages a noble goal — making sense of a thoroughly complex information landscape — in a wrapper of non-contextual reductionism and deterministic knowledge management. Cynically entertaining, and most disappointing, is the off-hand dismissal of a vital lesson of the Web — that empowered communities, left to their own devices save for moderate guidance, can and will make sense of their environment, their capabilities, and their interests relative to circumstance. Social production is a reality, and it is marked by constructive decentralization. Nevertheless, the paper gives us this: “there is too much information available for one person to sift through – especially in a crisis situation – and this can only be adequately addressed with the use of well-trained manpower.” By this logic, only a third-party, dedicated to the task of making sense of aggregated information, is in a position to deliver relevant information to consumers in a timely manner. Indeed.
The concept seems to represent an excellent model of a research institute, but the centralization and aggregation of dynamic operations-level knowledge can necessarily only be piecemeal. Similarly, limited manpower cannot be scaled and its capacity for sense-making will quickly be exceeded. Not surprisingly, since solving the nuisance of complexity is the task at hand, a portal will be the vessel of delivering packaged info. The icing on the cake, then, is this gem from Microsoft, outlining their contribution to the effort. There’s nothing like reinforcing that stale desktop-bound Office paradigm in its entirety. An understanding of the essence of the Web doesn’t even seem to register as an afterthought.
A breath of fresh air, on the other hand, comes from a report that France’s Gendarmerie have moved towards a wholesale adoption of Ubuntu Linux on their workstations. Despite my personal bias for Ubuntu (which I’m using right now, incidentally), the significance of such a move should strike chords on a number of levels. For the comptrollers, the €50 million saved on desktop licensing fees should give pause, for the geeks, well, it’s Linux! But what about this: “Support for open standards is a key part of the Gendarmerie’s emerging IT policy. Standards-based technologies give it more freedom to choose which vendors it adopts and also makes it easier for the Gendarmerie to interoperate with other government networks. It has found that open source software is better at handling open standards.” This cuts to the core of socio-technical self-awareness: Is it better to script the narrative, or understand the language of the conversation?
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