Toward the end of graduate school, I started to think about setting up a small consulting firm with three to five people. Around the same time that I was becoming aware of the form and function of the typical emergency management consultancy, I was also becoming enthralled with theoretically driven boutique IT firms. I started to imagine an emergency management consultancy that leaned more toward helping people think about problems and consider how they will address them than designing exercises, training programs, and plans. The conceptual thinking phase feeds into and enriches the design processes that produce concrete artifacts such as plans and exercises that are vital elements of emergency management.
I have not yet seen a consultancy like the one described above that is largely dedicated to how the problems facing emergency managers are thought about and handled. If such a firm does exist, I would love to learn about it.
A Call to Action
Now that emergency management firms consulting on exercises and planning have reached peak market saturation, this may be the opportune time to add further value and balance by establishing platforms/consultancies concerned with the more abstract tasks of framing and making sense of problems.
The theory and applied philosophy involved in understanding and grasping problems in different ways can support and enhance the more normative approaches to emergency management consulting. Time spent toiling over problems to understand their nature, interdependencies, patterns, and the many different ways they can be perceived drives the design of exercises, plans, initiatives to increase preparedness, and the building of resilience. The prior follows from the core assumption that what we think shapes what we do.
A complex abstract mode of thinking changes how things are understood and attended to in the world around the emergency manager. Check out this course for an introduction to a more complex mode of thought known as systems thinking. Much, much more could be written about complex thinking but it is sufficient to say that the type of thinking alluded to here both complements and departs from the standard mode of thinking prevalent throughout Western society.
The teaching of new ways of thinking could become one element of a consultancy's practices, while the remaining focus could be on the more routine emergency management tasks. Or, firms could emerge with the central purpose of instilling within emergency management organizations new ways of perceiving and dealing with problems.
To add as much value as possible, plans, training programs, exercises, and so on should be created with organizations to build capacity so they may develop them on their own in the future, rather than designing them for organizations where limited capacity is built. Artifacts such as exercises intended for an organization that were designed at a distance are inherently problematic. Not only is an opportunity to teach others how to perform foundational components of their craft missed, but important layers of context are as well. The future being pursued by consultancies should be one where emergency management organizations have the skills and diversity of thought to execute the tasks that are core to their mission at a high level of competency and understanding.
Expressed above was the need to add value to emergency management consulting by focusing on how problems are understood and attended to and by designing plans, exercises, training programs, and the like with organizations acting as coaches instead of developing them at a distance. The need to integrate complex thought into emergency management consulting was also emphasized that through its language, visualizations, and methods can help emergency managers to better grasp the difficult problems they are faced with. Greater complexity in the emergency manager’s environment requires an equally complex mode of thinking. It also requires thoughtful consideration, playing with how problems are understood, the use of metaphors, reflection, and a great deal of thinking about the future on varying time spans. As a field, it is vitally important that we put first making explicit how problems are being comprehended and addressed.
The blog this post belongs to and the Operational Coherence platform are two of my attempts to add value to emergency management consulting by looking at emergency management issues through philosophical and theoretical lenses in pursuit of new insight. Additional related work includes the course linked above and a collection of conference talks.