Information Sharing During Crisis Management in Hierarchical vs. Network Teams

The month of May turned out to be ridiculously busy, so much so that I haven’t been able to blog. And when that happens, I know I’m doing too much. So my plan for June is to slow down, prioritize and do more of what I enjoy, e.g., blog.

In the meantime, the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management just published an interesting piece on “Information Sharing During Crisis Management in Hierarchical vs. Network Teams.” The topic and findings have implications for digital activism as well as crisis management.

Here’s the abstract:

This study examines the differences between hierarchical and network teams in emergency management. A controlled experimental environment was created in which we could study teams that differed in decision rights, availability of information, information sharing, and task division. Thirty-two teams of either two (network) or three (hierarchy) participants (N=80 in total) received messages about an incident in a tunnel with high-ranking politicians possibly being present. Based on experimentally induced knowledge, teams had to decide as quickly and as accurately as possible what the likely cause of the incident was: an attack by Al Qaeda, by anti-globalists, or an accident. The results showed that network teams were overall faster and more accurate in difficult scenarios than hierarchical teams. Network teams also shared more knowledge in the difficult scenarios, compared with the easier scenarios. The advantage of being able to share information that is inherent in network teams is thus contingent upon the type of situation encountered.

The authors define a hierarchical team as one in which members pass on information to a leader, but not to each other. In a network team, members can freely exchange information with each other. Here’s more on the conclusions derived by the study:

Our goal with the present study was to focus on a relatively simple comparison between a classic hierarchical structure and a network structure. The structures differed in terms of decision rights, availability of information, information sharing, and task division. Although previous research has not found unequivocal support in terms of speed or accuracy for one structure or the other, we expected our network structure to perform better and faster on the decision problems. We also expected the network teams to learn faster and exchange more specialist knowledge than the hierarchical teams.

Our hypotheses are partially supported. Network teams are indeed faster than hierarchical teams. Further analyses showed that network teams were, on average, as fast as the slowest working individual in the hierarchical teams. Analyses also showed that network teams very early on converged on a rapid mode of arriving at a decision, whereas hierarchical teams took more time. The extra time needed by hierarchical teams is therefore due to the time needed by the team leader to arrive at his or her decision.

We did not find an overall effect of team structure on the quality of team decision, contrary to our prediction. Interestingly, we did find that network teams were significantly better than hierarchical teams on the Al Qaeda scenarios (as compared with the anti-globalist scenarios). The Al Qaeda scenarios were the most difficult scenarios. Furthermore, scores on the Post-test showed that there was a larger transfer of knowledge on Al Qaeda from the specialist to the nonspecialist in the network condition as compared with the hierarchical condition. These results indicate that a high level of team member interaction leads to shared specialist knowledge, particularly in difficult scenarios. This in turn leads to more accurate decisions.

This study focused on the information assessment part of crisis management, not on the operative part. However, there may not be that much of a difference in terms of the actual teamwork involved. When team members have to carry out particular tasks, they may frequently also have to share specialist knowledge. Wilson, Salas, Priest, and Andrews (2007) have studied how teamwork breakdowns in the military may contribute to fratricide, the accidental shooting of one’s own troops rather than the enemy. This is obviously a very operative part of the military task. Teamwork breakdowns are subdivided into communication, coordination and cooperation, with information exchange mutual performance monitoring, and mutual trust as representative teamwork behaviours for each category (Wilson et al., 2007).

We believe that it is precisely these behaviours that are fostered by network structures rather than hierarchical structures. Network structures allow teams to exchange information quickly, monitor each other’s performance, and build up mutual trust. This is just as important in the operative part of crisis management work as it is in the information assessment part.

In conclusion, then, network teams are faster than hierarchical teams, while at the same time maintaining the same level of accuracy in relatively simple environments. In relatively complex environments, on the other hand, network teams arrive at correct decisions more frequently than hierarchical teams. This may very likely be due to a better exchange of knowledge in network teams.

Patrick Philippe Meier

3 responses to “Information Sharing During Crisis Management in Hierarchical vs. Network Teams

  1. Thank you for the abstract; good read!

    Given that the “teams had to decide as quickly and as accurately as possible what the likely cause of the incident was: an attack by Al Qaeda, by anti-globalists, or an accident,” and the reference to “arriv[ing] at correct decisions,” was this a two-part experiment?

    Did the first part of this experiment focus on identifying “the likely cause of the incident” and if so, did the second part focus on determining a decision to make once the “cause of the incident” was established?

    If there a decision to be made, how was one decision, more so than others, judged to be the “correct decision?”

  2. Thanks for for bringing to light this very important aspect of the dependence of information sharing on the nature of team structures. I think that the study reveals a set of potential recommendation on the most suitable structure of the crisis management teams.

    After reading your blog I remembered an article titled, “Cause and Consequences of Crises: How Perception Can Influence Communication” published in the Social Science Research Network. The article analyzed whether the crisis managers reaction to a crisis is dependent on the factors (or causes) leading to the crisis. Analyzing a group of crisis managers in Sweden, the study revealed that the perceived causes behind the crisis influence the execution of information communication during crisis. Based on this research I wonder whether the crisis management teams have flexible information communication procedures and whether the team structure of the crisis management team are also flexible. If yes, then which is the most suitable communication procedure and team structure? Is it the network teams – as pointed out in your blog.

    Another important aspect of this study was that it distinguished between the information flow between the crisis management team, and the dissemination of information to the public. As per the study, proper communication of information to the public is equally important as the inter-team communication. I guess it is a further testament to the increasing importance of proper information flow to (and from) the crowd in time of crisis.

  3. Awesome post Patrick, as always. This actually makes me think about the next level. I agree that information sharing and management is better managed in non hierarchical environments, but what about decision-making based on those information?
    Accuracy, velocity and management of information all needs to be the best possible to lead to action, so is this the best structure for decision making too? What are the differences and the problematic related to a network system of decision making?
    I think that in this issue the same Al Qaeda structure has something to teach (totally decentralized structure with independent cells acting on their own), but it would be cool to do this experiment in terms of decision-making and implementation of actions in crisis management.

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