When Disaster Strikes
Editor’s note: The following thought leaders from Booz Allen
Hamilton contributed to this article: Grant McLaughlin, principal;
Walton Smith, principal; Darrin Kayser, APR, associate;
Alexis Fabbri, senior consultant.
aramedics rush into a building to rescue a patient in Learned Information Sharing, that allow homeland security
P distress and notice an odd odor. What is it? Is it dan-
gerous? What if the paramedics had a way to leverage
the shared knowledge of thousands of other first
responders or hazardous materials experts across the country?
Could lives be saved?
professionals to work across disciplines, including law enforce-
ment, emergency management and public health — affiliated
with federal, state and local governments. But first responders
wanted their own space to discuss solutions for operational
problems — they wanted a social network for first responders
The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science & by first responders.
Technology (S&T) Directorate is making this idea a reality
through a program called the First Responder Communities of Create a community
Practice. The program harnesses open-source software and social DHS S&T partnered with Booz Allen Hamilton to design
media to create an online network for the nation’s 2.5 million first and create an open-source offering similar to the technology
responders to connect, share best practices and discover solutions consulting firm’s own internal Enterprise 2.0 platform,
to daily challenges. Some in the media have dubbed it “Facebook Hello.bah.com. Hello (Helping Employees Locate Links
for First Responders,” but this program is much more. Online) connects a global work force of more than 24,000
There are already many Web 2.0 tools, such as the employees with social networking tools including blogs,
Homeland Security Information Network and Lessons wikis, discussion boards and employee profiles, where
THE STRATEGIST/SUMMER 2010 PAGE 26
employees can post their résumés and tag areas of interest. tion. Talk to potential users and organization leaders to identify
Building on that concept, First Responder Communities needs, and then select those that can be addressed with social
of Practice is a professional network of emergency-response media tools.
workers who exchange “sensitive but unclassified” informa- • Identify the specific applications that can meet
tion. Members are invited to join the system, and their creden- these needs. There is a wide range of social media tools avail-
tials are checked by designated members of the community. able to address various collaboration needs. Pinpointing the
Once vetted, users receive a profile. Users then have access to best ones for potential user groups encourages adoption and
wikis, blogs, discussion boards, shared documents, bookmarks prevents users from becoming overwhelmed.
and RSS feeds. Communities are essentially workspaces • Reach out to stakeholders for input. Communities of
where members gather to collaborate on documents, ask ques- Practice rolled out in alpha so that users could get on the site,
tions and make announcements using site tools. The site play around and submit feedback. In May, three months after
debuted in February and currently supports about 600 users the site first debuted, we released a beta version, which includ-
from 34 states in 27 site communities. ed improved navigation, invitations and other features that
For the Communities of Practice project, Booz Allen put users had requested.
together a team that included IT experts and communications • Identify champions within your user base who will
specialists to create and market the site. The team pitched pro- act as early adopters and nurture them. For Booz Allen,
fessional trade publications and mainstream media this meant reaching out to younger employees
while grooming specific groups — fire departments who were already familiar with the technology
with Facebook pages, police chiefs who blog — to Develop a strategic and knew how it could improve their efficiency
champion the effort. The idea was not to present a
stock demo of Communities of Practice but to cre-
plan with clearly and effectiveness. At Communitiesin with early
program staff continually checked
ate real success stories that would show how the defined goals and adopters to keep them engaged.
system can solve specific problems. objectives, just as • Capture and promote success stories
This same approach can work for any organi-
zation or group of communities with a shared mis-
you would for other inside and outside the community. This the
requires active site monitoring. A section on
sion. Before you embark on a new social media ini- communications Communities of Practice homepage titled “high-
tiative within your organization, consider two activities. lights” was used to underscore innovative ideas
essential factors: and successes. But it was also crucial to share
1) Analyze your organization’s needs, these successes with outside media, trade publica-
strengths and weaknesses. You’ve likely considered how tions and journals to reach potential users.
social media can support your organization, but make sure to • Create feedback loops to encourage champions to
also consider any organizational challenges that social media become part of the development process. With
might bring to light. Develop a strategic plan with clearly Communities of Practice, users submit ideas, issues and
defined goals and objectives, just as you would for other com- requests for new features to the “user forum” community,
munications activities. which developers monitor. As this core group of heavy users
2) Recruit the help of senior leadership to imple- takes ownership of the system, they start to promote the pro-
ment social media into your organization. Framing the gram to their colleagues.
effort in terms of the potential return on investment is often
an effective way to articulate its value. At Booz Allen, for Although still in an early stage, Communities of Practice
example, Hello staff coached firm partners on how and why has already been a success. In April, an emergency manage-
to blog. After using Hello, many partners realized that sum- ment technician asked members of the site’s Emergency
marizing their thoughts in a blog post was a more efficient Medical Community if other states had policies regarding
way to communicate because it allowed them to speak parked ambulances and other emergency vehicles leaving their
directly to staff at all levels. motors running. Within a few hours, a fellow member posted a
After you have identified the benefits and secured leader- copy of his state’s policy.
ship support, you need to take the following steps to institute a Now that the system is in place and the user community is
successful system. growing, more first responders are able to collaborate with
• Identify the needs that unite the community. With and learn from their colleagues. So the next time two para-
Communities of Practice, the need for emergency-response medics experience a potentially dangerous situation, the
professionals to share best practices and ideas drove participa- answers they need will be only a few keystrokes away. I
THE STRATEGIST/SUMMER 2010 PAGE 27