Sunday, 18 May 2014

Command and Control in the Era of Social Media

Managing Command & Control in a Social Media world is a complex task.

Command and Control is evolving. It is not a standard that is practiced in the same precise manner worldwide. The influence of culture, technology and community expectations varies around the world. Andreas Karsten is a strategic Crisis and Disaster management expert with decades of experience in national and international public safety. Mr. Karsten has developed a unique perspective and thesis how future C2 elements could unfold and be shaped. Mr. Karsten is also a PhD student at the University of Wuppertal, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.


Nearly every disaster of the last several years has revealed weak spots in command and control (C2). The current emergency command systems are still based on the C2 system of the Prussian army which was developed in the 19th century (1), and they are no longer appropriate for the modern world in which people have greater autonomy and greater connectivity, fueled by the rapid increase in the use of Social Media.

Malone showed that the development of communication technologies changed the decision-making structures in the fields of politics and economics(2). We have to ask ourselves if the same is true for C2 systems. Malone‘s method of hyper specialization applied to the field of disaster response opens a new approach to C2 because this method, unlike traditional C2, could take into account two phenomena which have become increasingly visible since 2000. Firstly, the people affected by the disaster together with people who have heard about the disaster via Social Media, and who are not members of a disaster relief organization (Unorganized Spontaneous Volunteers) appear in the field and offer their services. Secondly, the Volunteer & Technical Communities (V&TC) that are now developing new tools to support the formal disaster response forces and even offer their own findings and recommendations during a disaster.

(1) one exception is the UN Cluster Model, if one wants to see it as a C2 system
(2) Thomas W. Malone, Robert J. Launcher, and Tommy Johns, The Age of Hyperspecialization, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2011

Development of the current C2 system

C2 has become a common “currency". However, in order to understand it and how it needs to change, we should look at the development of C2 since the beginning of the 19th Century. After the Prussian army surrendered to Napoleon in 1806 it began to reorganize itself. The main reform was the extensive delegation of responsibilities, the so-called "Auftragstaktik“ (mission type order). The main reason for this development was the appearance of new weapon technology. The new rifles were able to hit more accurately over a longer distance than their predecessors. Therefore it became necessary to spread the soldiers out over a larger area which complicated the communication between the leaders and their subordinates. So the main requirement for the new Prussian C2 system was a long-distance communication technology that was fast. The invention of the telephone in 1837 and the radio in 1888 provided precisely this kind of communication. It is a very hierarchical system. 

Picture 1: A hierarchical C 2 System
A C2 chain comprises several levels. Each leader on each level can be supported by a staff made up of several experts. It is a hierarchy in which the operation is led by one person. She or he separates the whole task into several subtasks and is in charge of several subordinates. Each subordinate is responsible for one or more subtasks. In turn, these subordinates do the same with their subtasks: they separate these subtasks and delegate them to their subordinates. At the end of the C2 chain stands the person who performs a specific task in the field. In the best case scenario he or she will have performed the task as intended by the leader. This kind of delegation requires trust both up and down the chain. In military organizations this trust is generally assumed. It may not be the case in non-military organizations, or those comprising many volunteers. In addition, this kind of hierarchical organization functions best when it is the only organization involved – or when it works together with other hierarchical organizations with which it has clearly defined relationships.

In this new era of individual, autonomous volunteers, some connected by Social Media, hierarchies have a difficult time functioning and performing their tasks without “interference” from others.

Typical Disasters and How They Unfold

The evaluation of several after-action reports (3) shows four distinct phases in how a disaster unfolds:

Phase 1
Disaster strikes. The people affected try to rescue themselves. Immediately afterwards some of the less affected victims as well as spontaneous helpers from nearby try to help others. The ‟Real First Responders“ are always the people affected. They start easing the situation and organizing themselves. They build up a ‟natural“ C2 system with an ‟innate“ leader.

Phase 2

Depending on the disaster and the disaster response systems anything from minutes to days go by before governmental organizations GOs (like fire brigades) arrive. Upon arrival in the field they implement another – the ‟official” – C2 system.

There are two possible scenarios at the moment of C2 transition: either the GOs slip their official system over the disaster victims‘ heads – in other words, superimposing a single C2 system on everyone – or both systems exist side by side.

The implementation of the C2 System in disaster response operations is totally different from that in military operations. The disaster response C2 system does not usually exist prior to the incident. It has to be implemented while the first actions are being introduced. This is done on all levels simultaneously and the different people in command are ready for action at different times. To add to the confusion, if Non- Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are deployed at the disaster area they usually implement their own independent systems. So, especially in international disaster relief operations that have drawn participants from around the world, many totally different military and/or non- military based C2 systems will co-exist.

Picture 2: C2 system of systems
The consequence is very often an uncoordinated response. The United Nations try to handle this problem with their Cluster System (4), but, with the need for coordination meetings, it still does not work effectively.

Phase 3

At this time the lack of response usually changes to a phase of over-response which brings its own problems. (5)

Phase 4

The last phase is characterized by the transition to regular circumstances. Responders leave the disaster region.


  • Von Kirchbach H.-P., Franke S., Biele H., Mincing L., Apple M., Schäfer F., Unnasch F., Schuster M.(2002) Bericht der Unabhängigen Kommission der Sächsischen Staatsregierung Flutkatastrophe 2002
  • White House Report (2006) The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, Lessons Learned
  • United States Senate Report (2006) Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared
  • Bruns A. , Burgess J., Crawford K., and Shaw F. (2012) #qldfloods and @QPSMedia: Crisis Communication on Twitter in the 2011 South East Queensland Floods. Brisbane: ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation

(4) The tasks are separated into nine different sub tasks. Different UN organizations try to coordinate each sub task and invite all organizations which work in this special field to take part in coordination meetings. UN OCHA tries to coordinate the sub tasks.

(5) But these problems are not the subject of this paper.

Transition phases

Transition, especially from Phases 1 to 2 takes time and energy. The leaders from the various official and unofficial organizations, and on each level of the C2 chain, have to collect information, analyze it and communicate it to subordinate executives and to their superiors. The reporting process over several levels can often be compared with the so called “Chinese whispers” game which makes it more difficult to assess the situation correctly. In addition, the level of trust between the organizations may not be high, which may inhibit cooperation.

In some cases the transition succeeds only partially. Unfortunately the energy and time it takes to create the new, overarching C2 system cannot be used to help the disaster victims.

Basis for successful operations
First Phase of an operation

During this phase the basic structure of the disaster response operation is determined. Despite the fact that the C2 system is not fully operational specific questions have to be answered as quickly as possible:

Do we all have the same and the correct situational awareness?

What are the main goals?

What is the center of gravity?

  • How should we structure:
  • the operation region? (How can the region be subdivided?) 
  • the forces? (Who does what?)
  • the C2 structure? (Who reports to whom?)
  • the schedule? (What will be done when?)
  • the information flow? (Who reports to whom and how?)
The mistakes in this phase become multiplied during the operation. And reorganization of the field troops always requires a lot of resources - especially time - and therefore often fails.

Situational awareness

Grasping the situation realistically requires time and information. The amount of information depends on the level of delegation which then again depends on the level of trust the leader and his/her subordinates have. In the last few years a trend towards requiring more information at all levels has been observed. This is linked among other things to the possibilities provided by the new communication technologies. On the higher levels of the C2 chain in particular a significant lack of situational awareness can often be witnessed even though all the information is available. The staff members often lose track of the big picture because of the information overload. As a result poor decisions are made. Even if the staff members organize the information properly, one has to ask if they are able to process it because of the sheer volume of the tasks involved. And this raises the question of the willingness of the leadership to delegate. Should more decisions be delegated to those on the ground – who can see, hear, feel and smell the situation – rather than those in some more remote headquarters?

Description of the New, Agile C2 System (C2.0)

The Command and Control system that I propose is a decentralized, agile and (more or less) non-hierarchical one. Part of it also has qualities of openness. It is a system that embodies some of the concepts defined by Brafman and Beckstrom (6). The Spider has a head/brain that leads the organization (its body), and we might describe it as operating a closed, hierarchical system. The Starfish is, in reality, a neural network of cells with its major organs replicated throughout its body. There is no brain, no one is in charge – and yet it can move and eat and function.

It is a more open, non-hierarchical system. In this book, the authors discuss eight principles of decentralization; one key principle for our purposes is: “an open system doesn't have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system. It’s not that open systems necessarily make better systems; it’s just that they’re able to respond more quickly because each member has access to knowledge and the ability to make direct use of it”

So, for this new C2 System I want to define two different kinds of commanding staffs: First a Coordination Cell (CC) and, second a Agile C2 Cell (AC3) - see picture 3.

Picture 3: The decentralized, agile, and non-hierachical C2.0 system
The CC is the highest operational staff. It has more Spider-like qualities, and it has four main functions:

  • Breaking the whole task down into sub tasks and inviting tenders for these separate sub tasks. One can use internet platforms for inviting tenders. After receiving the different offers it has to choose the most fitting offers and award contracts to the bidders.
  • Evaluating and steering the operation. The CC has to be able to find lags in response time, frictions between people and organizations, and duplication's of effort and be able to rectify them.
  • Cultivating and molding the environment and surroundings of operations so that they are conducive to the work of the AC3s.
  • Distributing the "Big Picture“ to all involved. Without an idea of the whole situation (common awareness) and a common goal the different AC3s cannot work together successfully. This intelligence may come from a variety of sources from the “parent” organizations of the CC and from external organizations.
The members of the CC do not need tactical knowledge; but regular management skills are crucial. Leaders in an administration should be able to bring these skills with them from their day-to-day work.

Beneath the CC there are several AC3s that have to be set up. These AC3s emerge during the first phases of an operation, or are created by helpers (e. g. by the people affected, spontaneous helpers, GOs, NGOs, and enterprises). The AC3s are more Starfish-like – their structure is more open, self-organized and tailored exactly to the dictates of the disaster and will change if need arises. This is one main difference from the classical C2 systems. Within and beneath the AC3s the helpers can choose their own C2 system, e. g. the armed forces can still use their own well-known military C2 system.

If the situation changes, the AC3 systems can be adapted, much more easily than in traditional Command and Control. This high flexibility is especially important in highly dynamic and unexpected situations like the London and Madrid bombings or 9/11.(7)

What is necessary for the C2.0 system is that many people can communicate simultaneously, and that they can have access to the information they need. Mainly open communication channels (mobile phones, social media, RSM feeds,...) are used for the communication between the different AC3s.

Even when all communication systems break down the players in the field are better prepared for such a situation than in the current system because they are used to acting independently of the CC most of the time.

An additional advantage of the C2.0 system is that all persons with tactical knowledge can be deployed into the field, directly on the ground near to the disaster victims. The deployment is more effective than in the classical C2 system, which calls for a large amount of tactical knowledge at the different leadership levels.

The implementation of the C2.0 system integrates the different leadership cultures of all the players in one system. Unlike the classical C2 system the organizations involved do not have to adapt their usual C2 system to the system of the leading authority. It can be described as an entity of entities.

(6) Brafman, O & Beckstrom R, The Starfish & the Spider, The Penguin Group, NY 2006(7) Taleb, N. N. (2008) The Black Swan, Penguin Books


The problems in decision making encountered in recent disasters and the new phenomena (people, technology) we are observing in disaster response call for a change in the classical C2 system. Taking advantage of Social Media enables the civil protection authority to delegate tasks to subordinated governmental and nongovernmental organizations, as well as to companies and independent individuals and groups.

The new C2.0 system has to be organized in such a way that it takes Malone‘s theory of hyper specialization into consideration. This new approach has changed the system from top-down to bottom-up and adapts the C2 system to the people, and not the other way round. The disaster response has been open and democratized. The implementation of the C2.0 system should lead to more efficient disaster management than is the case with hierarchical systems, especially in unexpected disasters, in highly dynamic disasters (like terror attacks), and in large-scale disasters (like hurricanes and tsunamis).

The main premise for the new C2.0 system is trust: the authorities must trust the people and vice versa. Improving the response to natural and man-made disasters by using the C2.0 system saves human lives.

Current Insights from the Science World

Command and Control as well as Decision Making are being discussed in several scientific fields. If you want to dive in the ICT, information gathering, information analysis, decision making support, communication, situation awareness, mapping, satellites technologies world it is appropriated to start with ISCRAM (Information and Communication Sciences supporting Disaster Response).

Recommended reading;

Malone, T. W. ( 2004): The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style, and Your Life, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Alberts and Hayes: The Power to the Edge (

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin Books

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting post Doug. This is such an interesting area of discussion, and in fact mirrors the massive shift that's been going on in corporate communications and governance with the integration of social media in the workplace. Would love to discuss this with you at any time offline.