Collaboration in the Absence of Authority

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  • Article: Hastily Formed Networks: Collaboration in the Absence of Authority, Peter Denning. Reflections; Volume 7, Number 1



"Disasters, such as the 2004 tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, give rise to hastily formed networks. He focuses on the results of research, some of it action learning by NPS, at the scene of these disasters, and notes that the quality of response was not related to disaster planning or equipment, but on the quality of the network that came together to provide relief. He highlights a set of research-based guidelines for effective emergency response networks that have broader applications for all of us." (


"The first priority after the precipitating event is for the responders to communicate. They want to pool their knowledge and interpretations of the situation, understand what resources are available, assess options, plan responses, decide, commit, act, and coordinate. Without communication, none of these things can happen: The responders cannot respond. Thus the heart of the network is the communication system its members use and the ways they interact within it. We call this the “conversation space” of the HFN.

An HFN has five elements. It is a network of people who:

• Come together rapidly • Must work together to fulfill a large, urgent mission • Represent different communities • Work in a shared conversation space • Plan, commit to, and execute actions together.

An HFN is thus much more than a set of organizations using advanced networking technology. To be effective in action, HFN participants must be skilled at:

• Setting up mobile communications and sensor systems • Conducting interagency operations, sometimes called “civil-military boundary” operations • Collaborating on action plans and coordinating their execution • Improvising • Leading a social network, where communication and decision making are decentralized, and there is no hierarchical chain of command or ex officio leader."