Managing Crises Virtually During COVID-19

Expand Capabilities from Tech-Down to Tech-Up

By Ryan Winkelvoss

December 2, 2020

The crisis management community prides itself on its agility and adaptability when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. We spend countless hours planning for incidents and then quickly revise and adapt those plans during a response. During planning, someone nearly always invokes the tech-down scenario: What would happen if our technology failed or was unavailable? We’d resort to backups or alternate sites, or in the worst case, haul out those vertical files and pencil sharpeners to fall back on paper processes. That’s business continuity and resiliency at its core, isn’t it? Of course. But the COVID-19 pandemic should also open our eyes to a very different scenario: tech-up. It’s about time we secure the technology future for crisis management operations.

Beyond Bolt-On Technologies

Technological innovations have transformed how every industry communicates, collaborates, and operates in the workplace over the last decade. Thanks to these developments, many white-collar workers have had the advantage of connecting to the workplace by phone applications and laptops no matter where they reside during this pandemic. Yet, the crisis management community has lagged behind when it comes to integrating technology into crisis operations. There have been pockets of innovation and applications of new technology, but they are neither uniform nor consistent. We are quick to assess and integrate new technologies that expand crisis management capabilities-typically bolting them on to existing operations-but overall, we do a poor job of fully integrating technology that strengthens the foundations of operational coordination.

Tech-Down: to use technology less advanced than what you normally use

Tech-Up: to use or upgrade to a more advanced technology level

In many ways, the crisis management community continues to be in the vanguard for society at large during this pandemic. We’ve long thought about controlling the spread of infectious diseases from every angle. This has given us a menu of viable options, many of which have been implemented to reduce contact between individuals in a wide variety of workplaces. Once terms of art for the crisis management field, the concepts of social distancing and contact tracing are now woven into daily conversation among the general public. But our community failed to fully appreciate the impact these interventions would have on our own relationship to technology or to recognize how business-as-usual technology has matured to the point where we can better integrate it into crisis management activities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, my colleagues and I have worked with public- and private-sector clients to address this need for managing incidents remotely. With the workforce more geographically distributed than ever and the threat of concurrent, compounding hazards looming, the next decade presents a unique opportunity for the crisis management community to finally integrate technology and perform its role even better than before.

The Infrastructure of Crisis Management

Like many disciplines, crisis management has adopted new technology in fits and starts. We now rely on technology to organize information, streamline communications, and implement geospatial visualizations, among other functions, to augment our operations. However, basic coordinative processes, such as taskings and meetings, have not innovated in a very long time. This is operational coordination at its core. The infrastructure of classic incident management principles has stood strong for decades, but it was designed to operate in a face-to-face environment-that is, primarily in an emergency operations center or similar structure where the planning and operational cycles rely heavily on an iteration of disciplined meetings.

We are now balancing on the edge between the crisis management discipline of yesterday that stitched technology applications together reactively and the discipline of tomorrow that proactively embraces technology as a foundation of crisis operations. During this pandemic, the rapid adoption of integrated business applications is leading us toward a future state where technology not just speeds up and augments response operations, but offers a coordination that we simply cannot replicate in any other way.

Early adopters tend to implement new technology before it is widely available. But when the rest of the market has caught up, it’s important not to be so attached to familiar tools that you neglect to be on the lookout for new developments from the mainstream. (Graphic adapted from resource by ARK:

The crisis manager by nature is an innovator and early adopter-and that should never change. Over the past two decades, we’ve typically adopted proprietary and custom software solutions for crisis management because the technology we needed didn’t yet exist. Because of this patchwork of solutions, we’ve helped influence bleeding-edge team collaboration software, while the mainstream market caught up with our requirements. However, the pandemic has forced all businesses to accelerate their own innovation, leaving crisis management looking as though it’s standing still by comparison. Collaboration tools like Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams, which may have formerly been seen as an optional enhancement of business functions, have suddenly become business critical.

With the world’s attention now devoted to truly maturing remote collaboration technologies, crisis managers can’t afford to be left behind, relying exclusively on proprietary software that promises out-of-the-box solutions. In reality, we all know most software that claims to be one-size-fits-all ultimately ends up fitting none of its stated uses well enough, impeding interoperability. The business world is solving the interoperability problem because it must to survive. We can reap the dividends.

Innovating with What We Have

So where do we go from here? At this inflection point, we need to stop focusing so intently on the tools in our crisis management technology toolbox, and instead upgrade the toolbox itself. To do this, we can look to software that has progressed in leaps and bounds during the pandemic: business collaboration applications. With teams spread out remotely, applications such as Slack, Teams, Asana, and many others are being adopted by crisis managers and emergency operations center staff to make their real-world response operations more agile. Now we recognize that they can form the basis of our virtual response centers. This is our toolbox for beyond 2020.

Business team integration tools were designed with organization, project management, integrated communications, and intuitive user interfaces in mind. Now, they are also our proxy for conference rooms. This is one problem that existing crisis management software never had to solve-but now with a decentralized workforce, our immediate problem is how to sustain clear operational communications. We’ve had common operating picture systems to organize and display information on dashboards for a long time, but they’ve never replaced our emergency operations centers (EOCs) and the critical coordination that occurs in them. Today, many of us are being asked to replicate that coordination virtually with technology that was meant to augment, not replace, EOC operations. Business collaboration apps can help.

We’re already working through the efficiencies and challenges of adopting this new environment for virtual activations. When deployed effectively, collaboration software helps incident management teams transition more easily between shifts, capture information for the historical record, organize large quantities of data, improve situational awareness, and promote operational coordination. But if we choose to deploy business collaboration software as yet another bolt-on tool, we’re missing the point. And so will our crisis management teams. The emergency management community must deploy the new toolbox as the proxy for our real-world command centers. Slack, Teams, and their peers deploy an environment where day-to-day business applications are fully integrated, in addition to our proprietary solutions for tracking information. An all-in-one streamlined view: a common operating environment.

And yes, as we become more reliant on technology, our tech-down scenario planning will become even more important. Until then, we have more progress to make and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for managing incidents with a remote workforce. Adopting a tech-up mentality-embracing change and integrating collaboration tools as the new basis of emergency management coordination-will ensure that our tools keep pace with the speed and nature of our work.