reading COVID-19  news  on a cellphone
PHOTO: Erik Mclean

COVID-19 has exposed many organizations as being unable to react quickly enough. When a pandemic has the potential to grow exponentially, decisions that can mitigate against its growth need to be made quickly.

Information that loss of smell was a key symptom for COVID-19 began to emerge in March 2020, yet many governmental and international organizations took weeks and sometimes months to add this new symptom to their symptoms list. Understanding why organizations are slow to publish critical new information is essential if we are to deal with rapidly changing environments.

Some organizations are slow by nature and the larger the organization and the more removed it is from its public, the slower it is. A constant criticism of the government is that it isn't responsive and adaptive enough. New, critical information comes in and the organization is simply incapable of responding in the most timely manner.

Organizational ego and rigid thinking play a role too. Often, organizations are unwilling to admit that they got it wrong, that their original ideas and thinking were not correct or fully comprehensive. A doctor once told me that a typical doctor diagnoses based on what they learned in medical school, that they are often unwilling and unable to take in new information, particularly new information that challenges their established set of beliefs.

Most organizations are reluctant to review what they have published, partly because of professional pride and ego. Content often goes through a major, often political, process of sign-off. Once it is published it is “set in stone” in the minds of many in management. Clearly we need better ways to review new information and make changes to existing information, where appropriate.

Organizations are generally absolutely awful at managing already published content. There is a sense that a subject has been dealt with. 'Ah, we have a list of symptoms. Job done.' The idea that content can and should evolve based on new information is a real challenge for many organizations. They don’t have the processes or resources to deal with that sort of idea.

I heard someone from GOV.UK once state that it took 17 steps to change or remove a piece of content. Yes, 17 steps. Nobody wants to change and update content because they are measured and rewarded based on what they create and publish. As a result, the processes and systems in place to change content are usually terrible and cumbersome. We must make updating much simpler, easier and faster.

In many organizations, each senior manager, each unit, has an ego and agenda. Managers want to be seen to be “doing something” about COVID-19, whether what they are doing has any real relevance or not. Units, divisions, departments, they all want to publish something that connects them with COVID-19. Without proper management, you get a flood of what I call tiny task content. This often overloads the web team, who become so busy publishing all this stuff, they have no time to manage, review and update critical information.