Knowledge & Tragedy

I took a crisis communication course the first semester of my doctoral program. Since then, I have developed a fascination with risk and crisis communication. In fact, I am continuing my research on Knowledge Management to fulfill the requirements for the Certificate of Risk Communication. The more I dive into risk and crisis literature, the more convinced I become that predicting, preventing, surviving, and learning from crises and disasters are primarily communicative processes. What can we learn from past crises and disasters? How does knowledge management play a role in our learning?

Kamryn recently posted about the 1986 Challenger tragedy and the incompetency in managerial decision-making. I often use the communication surrounding this tragedy to illustrate the concept of groupthink to my students.

20th Anniversary Of The US Space Shuttle Challenger's Explosion


Kumar and Chakrabarti (2012) provide another interesting perspective in the context of the Challenger disaster about the ways tacit knowledge creates bounded awareness. Bounded awareness occurs when individuals “overlook relevant and readily available information, even while using other available information, and take a decision that is either suboptimal or entirely erroneous” (p. 935). They discuss the implications of prior successes, particularly how decision-makers “make important knowledge appear trivial and/or irrelevant and in turn reduce the perceived likelihood of failure risk (p. 943). In the case of the Challenger tragedy, NASA had experienced a wealth of prior success. The authors postulate that these experiences caused decision-makers to develop meta-knowledge that they were faultless. This meta-knowledge “blunts their sensitivity to risk and cripples their ability to recognize the relevance of critical new information even when it is readily given to them” (p. 945).

The investigation of NASA after the disaster was widely publicized and many case studies were written about the events leading up to the explosion that killed seven people. Other disasters have garnered just as much attention. A more recent tragedy was the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Chua (2007) provides a comparison of the disaster response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This researcher conducted a textual analysis investigating the prediction, implementation of disaster plans, and management of the relief and rescue operations related to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. There were obvious, glaring differences in the responses of local, state, and federal agencies. Chua (2007) highlights the importance of knowledge creation, reuse, and transfer in the context of disaster. An important aspect of knowledge creation is spanning the “knowing-doing” chasm. He also maintains that reusing knowledge as “lessons learned” is critical. Bridging the knowing-doing chasm and learning lessons from Katrina helped organizations better prepare for Rita.

Hurricane Katrina Hits Gulf Coast

NEW ORLEANS – AUGUST 31: (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Wang and Lu (2010) ask important questions about what knowledge transfer channels are used during times of organizational crisis. During adverse events, “decision makers are often forced to make critical decisions, based on limited information and knowledge and with time pressure, in response to situations marked by a high level of ambiguity and uncertainty” (p. 3935). They identify the major challenge of knowledge transfer and crisis management as identifying those who have the knowledge needed to address crises. Finding these critical actors in organizational communities of practice “enables the organizations to identify and resolve organizational problems in a more efficient manner, and, in turn, reduces the impact of organizational crises” (p. 3938).

In addition to finding the right people and appropriate channels, there is also a socioemotional dimension of knowledge transfer. Transferring knowledge from one entity to another is deeply affected by trust and reciprocity (Chua, 2007). In considering the unacceptable circumstances that occurred during the Katrina disaster, I understand how it might be difficult to trust organizations like FEMA in the wake of another disaster. Knowledge plays a fundamental role in how we predict, respond, and learn from disaster. I look forward to continuing my scholarship in knowledge management as it aligns to risk, disaster, and crisis communication.


Chua, A. Y. K. (2007). A tale of two hurricanes: Comparing Katrina and Rita through a knowledge management perspective. Journal of the American Society of Information Science and Technology, 58(10), 1518-1528. doi:10.1002/asi.20640

Kumar J, A., & Chakrabarti, A. (2012). Bounded awareness and tacit knowledge: Revisiting Challenger disaster. Journal of Knowledge Management, 16(6), 934-949. doi:10.1108/13673271211276209

Wang, W. T., & Lu, Y. C. (2010). Knowledge transfer in response to organizational crises: An exploratory study. Expert Systems with Applications, 37(5), 3934-3942. doi:10.1016/j.eswa.2009.11.023

8 thoughts on “Knowledge & Tragedy

  1. One thing we learn — especially with trust — is that some kind of reciprocity is required in order to develop those kinds of bonds. Thus, this is the challenge for mega-entities (non-persons). How do they show that they are part of the community — that they are engaged? How do they build relationship? Give back in very obvious ways? It’s a hard problem.

    • Trust-building is a big issue. I’ve faced this as a researcher in Eastern Kentucky. Even though I am from the area, people often think we intend to treat them as “subjects” rather than “participants”. I’ve had to use my persuasive skills to reassure them that we mean no harm and value his or her perspective as an individual. I think this is why I gravitate toward community-based participatory research.

      • It’s hard. If you get some time, you should talk with David Nemer — he did a major ethnography study in the favelas of Brazil. You two would have a lot to talk about.

  2. Pingback: The Knowledge Management Environment | hereticalpoetical

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