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Leadership Excellence in Disaster Response

by | Oct 7, 2015 | Case Studies, Evidence for Change

Leadership in response to humanitarian disasters is one of the most significant factors in helping rescue and recovery amongst traumatised communities, often in situations of considerable individual danger.

But history shows that the admirable global aid effort is frequently hampered by siloed thinking and an inability to learn across organisations and from experience.


DisasterReady.org is a 2013 newcomer to the global aid effort, born out of the need to rapidly train aid workers being deployed to the Pakistan floods of 2010. Today, over 40,000 aid workers from 190 countries have accessed the DisasterReady.org learning portal to enhance their preparedness for whatever assignment comes next. They learn and are enabled to communicate across organisations, national boundaries and fields of expertise to help one another in the vital task of helping swiftly, and with expertise, to alleviate the horrors stemming from natural disasters and human conflict, wherever they occur.

Flagship project of Cornerstone onDemand Foundation

So what is the portal? Hosted on the Cornerstone onDemand.com platform, it is a flagship project of the Cornerstone onDemand Foundation, supported by an impressive community of major players in the humanitarian sector and e-learning industry. Its users come from across the spectrum of the world’s major aid agencies. Atish Gonsalves, Director of DisasterReady.org, is in a unique position to comment on the operational challenges and the solutions that the portal is enabling.

“Success in this field is all about some huge leadership challenges. It is about relationships between the relief organisations and between these organisations and local operatives. The need is for local empowerment. Paralleling our experience it is a need strongly expressed at the recent launch of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, another new initiative, funded by the UK Government.”

There are the perennial challenges of balancing sourcing and utilising people with relevant field experience with the need for technical experts. Trust in local partners is a huge issue, especially in conflict situations. The need for rapid, on the ground innovation is always a potential stress point in the face of organisational hierarchies. For the humanitarian organisation, each environment in which they work is about developing people for growth (their own and locals) but at the same time development for redundancy in that situation. It is not an easy balance.

Modernizing approach to learning

Historically much of the necessary training of relief work leaders was done face-to-face, however it did not achieve either pace or the scale required to respond adequately. The DisasterReady.org portal has not only provided an opportunity for speed and scale but also for assurance of quality through the use of accreditation, badges and the other tools available through technology. It has started a new, self-driven movement towards enhanced performance and lifelong learning, even beginning to generate greater career pathing inter- and intra-organisationally.

The portal has sourced good material from partner organisations both directly in the humanitarian field and in the wider community, making it available and accessible to aid workers at whatever level and wherever they are, on a 24/7 basis, regardless of organisational affiliation, nationality or personal expertise. A rapidly developing suite of courses, lightweight MOOC’s, webinars and other resources are available to anyone in the aid community, anywhere, free of charge.

Very remote learning!

As the portal develops from its initial base in the Cornerstone onDemand “Learning” cloud, further capability is being switched on, currently through the “Connect” cloud, providing aid workers with the opportunity to deepen learning gained through the shared experience of webinars. Increasingly those communities are becoming self-sustaining communities of practice supporting workers in the difficult field conditions of tented communities and relief camps. Volunteers, often from outside the direct humanitarian field, provide material to fill gaps in the provision. The communication language is currently mostly English but materials are now also becoming available in French and Arabic.

“Where is it leading?” I asked Atish. “Successful aid delivery depends on rapid and accurate needs assessment followed by the application of focussed expertise, often in situations that are entirely unique. Disasters can happen anywhere and by their nature are unpredictable. Disaster response needs workers who have technical and soft skills, are emotionally well prepared and responsive to situations they find. It is important that workers have the means to share, seek advice and support one another regardless of their affiliations. The focus has to be on helping those affected by tragedy.”

“What we are seeing in these early stages of the platform is a growth in cross-fertilisation between disciplines and organisations. Traditionally this has been a challenge, but for example using webinar speakers from a range of client organisations, making the content available to everyone, is breaking down those barriers and encouraging collaboration and sharing. Cross-training between finance experts and medical staff is a good example of a coming together to help those in need get help.”

Increasingly the connections developing through people’s use of material from across organisations is creating social communities. Atish describes this as “innovation amplification”. DisasterReady.org is working on ways of encouraging this interaction and on the task of facilitating it.

Impressive numbers speak loudest

Is it working? The participant numbers speak loudly. 500 pieces of material used voluntarily by 40,000 workers in over 190 countries suggests that in stressful, deadline driven situations people are finding the portal to provide real help. The ultimate test is whether the increased leadership skills and the organisational and cultural shifts they are bringing about in relief work are being felt by the ultimate customer – the victim of the disaster. Atish: “It is too soon to tell. We are gathering heaps of data and will conduct specific analyses based on the EBOLA and Syrian crises, but the analysis is not yet done – and indeed highlighting the impact will be very hard because of the rapidly changing dynamics of any relief operation.”

The key lessons to have been learned so far are about partnership between the private and not-for-profit sectors, drawing on specific organisational strengths in an environment of equality aimed at a common goal. The initiative is characterised by simple technology to enable its accessibility, ensuring its reliability when needed. Engagement is an emerging key need, harnessing the technology power of gamification, badges, excellent visuals and the other features it brings.

Where next? DisasterReady.org is expanding its reach into all the humanitarian organisations, aiming for 0.25 million participants. Ultimately the vision is to move into enhancing the self-preparedness of potential victims. In the light of the recent terrible events in Nepal, the American Red Cross interest in this in relation to California is of note!

This case study has been independently investigated and developed by Towards Maturity. It was first published in Towards Maturity’s In-Focus Report: Excellence in Leadership Development, supported by Ambassador, KPMG.

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