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 / Autumn 2007 / Issue 48(originally published by Booz & Company)


When There Is No Cavalry

In Booz Allen Hamilton’s ongoing study and analysis of megacommunities, it is becoming clear that five core elements are crucial to effective outcomes:

  1. Three-Sector Involvement. The public, private, and civil sectors must all be involved.
  2. Overlapping Vital Interests. Members share a compelling reason or need to address an issue of mutual concern and importance.
  3. Alliance. Members demonstrate their commitment by establishing an organization or organizing framework for working together toward shared goals.
  4. Network Structure. Cross-boundary, collective participation and problem-solving activities create the social network that underpins true collaboration.
  5. Sustainability and Adaptability. Over time, the megacommunity becomes institutionalized and capable of evolving with changing conditions.

The first two elements are preconditions necessary for the formation of a megacommunity, whereas the last three are features of any initiative that is deliberately created to sustain a megacommunity. Typically, an “initiator” starts the process of organizing the megacommunity. In Florida, the state government largely played that role. But it is important to note that the initiator is not a chief executive who can command megacommunity resources or unilaterally direct its member organizations. Consequently, the megacommunity is horizontal rather than vertical or hierarchical, acting more as a confed­eration than as a tightly bound organizational unit. In addition, a megacommunity engages people at all levels among the member organizations. The cross-organizational design makes the emergent social networks within the community more explicit and dynamic. Successful leaders within the megacommunity are those who understand how to intervene and influence others through mutual participation, recognizing that no one has unilateral control.

In building a society’s preparedness for disasters, megacommunities have a particularly valuable role to play. At one time, a disaster’s impact rarely extended outside the region where it occurred. That is not true today. A power outage in one city can disrupt and hamper businesses throughout the United States. A winter storm in one locale (for example, Denver in 2006) can delay and disrupt travel on several major airlines and at numerous airports. Regionally produced or controlled commodities can grow scarce. Supply chains can be interrupted. Also, the emergency management community benefits from the scale offered by coordinating regional and national efforts. Diverse organizations can share information; track resources and supplies in real time; establish mobile command centers; collaborate on preparation, training, relief, and recovery operations; and avoid working at cross-purposes.

But putting that megacommunity approach into practice is still difficult. After the attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11), for example, the U.S. federal government placed an explicit emphasis on interoperability, information sharing, and cross-agency collaboration. Billions of dollars went into planning activities, training, exercises, and communications systems. But four years later, officials at FEMA were unprepared for an event of the scale and complexity of Hurricane Katrina. They had not taken sufficient steps to prevent or minimize the hurricane’s damage; they were not prepared to evacuate citizens; they could not marshal the enormous reservoir of public- and private-sector resources required for timely relief; and today, they are not demonstrating the national capacity to help the region recover.

One reason is the prevalence of command-and-control management in the U.S. federal government, paradoxically embedded in agencies with shifting, overlapping, and sometimes ambiguous responsibilities. When FEMA, for example, was created in the late 1970s, its mission focused largely on civil defense and the Soviet nuclear threat. After the Cold War ended, the agency emphasized disaster relief, recovery, and mitigation programs. Following 9/11, FEMA was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an agency charged with identifying and responding to terrorist threats. Finally, after the tumultuous 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, FEMA’s core mission became “all hazards.” But it was never quite clear how the agency’s responsibilities would mesh with those of other agencies: the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for infectious diseases and biological threats, the U.S. Forest Service for fires and floods, and the U.S. military for civil defense. In that kind of ambiguous structure, the higher the degree of control exercised by any one agency or organization, the greater the potential for inter-organizational conflict.

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  1. Bill Adair, “10 Years Ago, Her Angry Plea Got Hurricane Aid Moving,” St. Petersburg Times, August 20, 2002: Source of the “cavalry” quote.
  2. Bob Brewin, “Northcom’s New C2: Collaboration and Communications,” Federal Computer Week, December 12, 2006; and “Northcom Beefs Up Emergency Response: New Organization Structure Brings NGOs and Private Sector into Command Center,” Federal Computer Week, December 18, 2006: Source on U.S. Northern Command (NorthCom).
  3. Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” s+b, Summer 2006: How to bring together multiple organizations to develop solutions to complex problems. Click here.
  4. Ellen M. Gordon, “Multi-State Initiatives — Agriculture Security Preparedness,” master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2004: Study of a Midwestern multistate, multisector, megacommunity-style partnership for response to agricultural threats. Click here.
  5. Adrian Sainz, “Ten Years After Hurricane Andrew, Effects Are Still Felt,” Sun-Sentinel, August 18, 2002: Describes the devastation of the 1992 Florida storm.
  6. Judy Stark, “New Building Code Brings Cost, Confusion,” St. Petersburg Times, August 19, 2002: Describes the post–Hurricane Andrew building codes and regulations in Florida.
  7. Anisya Thomas and Lynn Fritz, “Disaster Relief, Inc.,” Harvard Business Review, November 2006: Stories of corporate responses to catastrophes, including Coca-Cola’s use of bottling networks to provide drinking water after the 2004 South Asian tsunami.
  8. Kathleen Tierney, “The Red Pill,”, June 2006: Acerbic view of U.S. emergency preparedness from the director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder; this article makes points that reinforce a mega­community perspective. Click here.
  9. For more articles on global perspective, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed. Click here.
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