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Hurricane Sandy: A Lesson in Social Collaboration

February 12, 2013 - 0 Comments

Like many others in the Northeast US, I was personally affected by the impact of Hurricane Sandy this past November.  Aside from the lessons it taught me about disaster preparedness, it also highlighted some very salient ways that social collaboration can be used and why social is truly becoming the next wave of collaboration.  And while my story is one of a personal nature, these principles apply to the enterprise.  They re-inforce the ideas that social collaboration has real benefits.

Let me start with the numbers to paint the picture:

  • Days without cell phone coverage: 4
  • Days without electricity:  14
  • Days without cable / internet:  17

For those 2+ weeks in November, I was operating in survival mode and my greatest source of interaction and information was through social collaboration tools – primarily Facebook and Twitter – when I was able to find a location with Internet access.  With my examples below, I hope to show how social collaboration was used to help in a number of ways during that difficult time and also attempt to draw the parallels to an enterprise setting.


When discussing social collaboration with colleagues, customers, and even family & friends, one of the concepts that few people seem to grasp is how hashtags can and should be used.  As the famous quote by social media theorist, Clay Shirky, goes, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.”  And that’s the gap that hashtags address.  It’s about smart filtering.  During hurricane Sandy, two of biggest concerns we had were 1) Where to find gas and 2) What stores were open.  One of the New Jersey media outlets came up with the idea of establishing two hashtags to help with these concerns: #NJGas and #NJOpen.  They also provided initial guidance on how to use them – use #NJGas to let people know of any stations that might have gas, updates on wait times, etc. and #NJOpen to let people know what stores and restaurants were open.  This ended up being a huge resource.  I made most use out of #NJGas.  With the majority of stations closed due to the power being out and with wait lines exceeding three hours the first week, I was able to follow that hashtag and find where to go – and even contribute to any information I found.  It spread virally because it was information people needed and shortly after it launched, there were constant updates by people all over the state. A couple key lessons here- First, is that while many promote enterprise social collaboration as being “self organizing”, some level of governance can (and should) help point the effort in the right direction.  If the media outlet didn’t first promote those two tags, we most likely would not have had such a valuable resource.  Enterprise Social programs require a governance layer to help promote those usage patterns, provide guidance, and build that initial momentum.  Second, the reason it was adopted so quickly was because it was information that people needed.  You can’t expect a tool to be adopted if there’s not a business need.  You have to create or identify that need.  If you’re not directly helping people get their job done easier, quicker, etc., then the use cases and even the original value proposition should be re-evaluated.

One of MANY tweets that helped share information on where New Jersey residents could find gas

One of MANY tweets that helped share information on where New Jersey residents could find gas


The knowledge of the masses.  When this can be put to use, it can be a hugely valuable tool. The hashtags mentioned above were fueled largely by crowdsourcing.  But there’s another example I wanted to present as well.  During the outages, we were constantly trying to find any and all information as to when and where power was being restored. Our power company stopped replying to tweets on Twitter and their website info wasn’t reliable so they were no longer a source of help. We were reliant upon our neighbors.  A local police department created a post on their Facebook page to encourage people to share streets & locations where they could confirm that power had been restored.  The police needed to do this because even the local officials weren’t receiving reliable updates from the power company.  That post had a life cycle that spanned the duration of the outages with residents continuing to add their updates which when pieced together, painted a picture that otherwise could not have been created.  The police took that information from the masses and created a continually updated map of power restoration that we knew was fully reliable.  This reminded me of another famous quote – from Lew Platt, former CEO of HP who said that, “if only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.”  The information is there, the knowledge is there.  Crowdsourcing is a socially-enabled approach to pulling it all together so that everyone can benefit from the knowledge of the collective masses.

Crowdsourcing the latest power information

Crowdsourcing the latest power information


“Social” Newsletters
After the storm, the first communication I received from my town was a rolled up flyer stuffed in my front door giving an already dated update on the power situation. I like to draw the analogy of my town sending out that flyer to a organization sending out an email newsletter to its employees from an unmonitored alias. Sure, it’s gets the job done of disseminating information but it’s a one way communication. It doesn’t encourage feedback; it doesn’t encourage interaction amongst the masses. That newsletter was worthless to me.  I ended up following the Facebook page of one of our neighboring towns for much better and relevant information.  Instead of a one-way communication channel, utilizing a Facebook page allowed the entire town to reply and engage in a dialogue not only with the town officials, but with one another.  All of this resulted in much richer information, greater engagement amongst the residents, and better feedback to the town.  Anyone sending out a newsletter should recognize that the value isn’t just in the information being provided, but more so, it’s the response – the ensuing interaction. I always cringe when I receive an email newsletter because there so much value being missed by not moving it to a a “social” newsletter via a post.

Newsletter via post from the Mayor of a neighboring town - allowing feedback and interaction amongst residents

Newsletter via post from the Mayor of a neighboring town – allowing feedback and interaction amongst residents


Activity Feed
Last but not least. The life line of social collaboration. During the outage, whenever I could get Internet access on my phone, I would check my activity feed on Facebook. People often refer to the serendipitous benefits that social collaboration can bring and I experienced this first hand on a number of occasions during the outage. One of the first was when I saw someone post a picture of gas cans that they recently purchased. Since gas was such a scarce commodity and since I knew in the first few days I would need to head out of state to buy some, I needed to have more than the paltry three cans I had at home. I was not able to find any cans anywhere until I came across that post – minutes old in my activity feed.  I immediately headed to that store and was greeted by a mountain of inventory!  I bought ten, five gallon cans and heard that they sold out within the hour.  Without having that information in my activity feed, I would not have been so lucky.  The other bit of information that I stumbled upon was someone who posted a status update saying that they didn’t realize the oil in a generator needs to be changed after ~30 hours of use.  I had no idea either and our generator, which was our only power source to heat the house in near freezing temperatures, was running for about 50 hours at that point! This wasn’t information I was searching for, yet it was extremely beneficial to me (as I immediately changed the oil which was a thick, black sludge and probably close to damaging the generator!).   Both of these show serendipity at work!  Without an enterprise social platform, there’s no venue that information, ideas, concerns can be shared and broadcasted easily like that.  It’s a concept that is hard to explain to many customers because the benefit is often unknown and difficult to quantify – but it can’t be denied that it encourages more interaction and more sharing amongst employees, all of which helps the greater organization collaborate better.

Serendipitous connections made possible by following your friends / colleagues

Serendipitous connections made possible by following your friends / colleagues


As difficult as those two weeks were for me and my family, I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like without the power of social collaboration. And while these examples occurred outside of my work, they are the same tenants that I try to evangelize when dealing with customers and co-workers within the context of our social collaboration tool, WebEx Social.  The value of social collaboration is VERY real – both within our personal and professional lives.  And much like we’ve changed the way we interact with one other on the personal collaboration level, we need to change within the workplace as well in order to reap these great benefits of social collaboration within the enterprise.  My team, the Advanced Services Social Collaboration team, works with customers daily – helping them to embrace this emerging way of collaborating.  The examples may not be as colorful as these, but they’re every bit just as real.  I’d love to hear any anecdotes you might have around particular instances where social collaboration has helped shine some light for you!

Thanks to the power of social I not only was able to find extra gas cans but also where to find gas!

Thanks to the power of social I not only was able to find extra gas cans but also where to find gas!  (And also thanks to social, I later learned that by law, the maximum number of gas cans you can drive around with is four…)

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