I HAVE LONG stressed the importance of preparing business school students to lead during times of crisis. In a 2016 article in BizEd, for example, I noted that “the contemporary world in which we live and work can change profoundly in a fairly short time as a result of environmental forces often beyond the control of an organization or industry.”
I wrote that sentence largely in reference to preparing our students to grapple with the fallout from disasters such as the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. But today it’s not only our students learning to handle crises, but all of us. As business educators, we are struggling with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are trying to figure out how we can effectively, efficiently, and safely deliver the remainder of the current semester even though our campuses are closed.
Unlike disasters such as 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy, which were geographically and chronologically specific, the COVID-19 outbreak is having a worldwide impact. It has no known end date. As a result, all of us are having to learn how to navigate a radically changed present and an uncertain future.
In one way, as professors, we are incredibly fortunate in this crisis. We have technologies available that have allowed us to transition our programs from traditional to remote delivery. Because so many of our course offerings already were offered as online or hybrid offerings, we could regroup and move forward in a manner that would have been impossible a few years ago. As we rebooted our courses online, we have largely been able to maintain the quality of our students’ educational experience.
However, as we begin to settle into a new routine, I encourage my faculty colleagues to allocate some of the time they might have devoted to normal research activities to becoming students of crisis management themselves. If we enhance our understanding of the current crisis in the following ways, we will be in better positions to teach our students to face any crisis they might encounter during their business careers:
Develop contingent mindsets. By looking at the crisis in the context of multiple contingencies, faculty will have new insights to bring to their courses. Plus, they’ll be more capable of leading their institutions through the challenges that lie ahead.
Know the process. A successful crisis management process includes these essential activities:
- Understanding and anticipating the potential crisis situations an organization might face.
- Evaluating potential crisis situations based on likely frequency and severity.
- Recognizing the business impact of different types of crises.
- Preventing, when possible, or minimizing the organizational impact of a crisis.
- Managing and leading decisively throughout a crisis.
- Recovering successfully from a crisis.
Look at the COVID-19 crisis from every disciplinary angle. Students often too easily assume that organizational roles and responsibilities related to crisis management are limited to certain critical disciplines, functional areas, or management levels. It’s no different for faculty. However, we cannot limit our own understanding of crisis management if we are to equip our graduates with the sustainable skill sets to help their organizations survive, regardless of their discipline or function.
In reality, an “all-hands-on-deck” multidisciplinary approach is key to navigating the complexities of a crisis. This is the approach that our universities have had to articulate and implement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s the only way to successfully mitigate and recover from a crisis in a timely manner. The COVID-19 pandemic might be a crisis of unprecedented size, scope, and uncertainty, but it requires that all members of an organization—regardless of level or discipline—follow a comprehensive crisis management process if they are to help their organizations plan for and resume normal operations.
Talk it over with students. Now’s a great time for business faculty, in all disciplines and programs, to use their own experience as a foundation to discuss crisis management with their students. Although the extent of coverage will differ from course to course, faculty can have discussions based on shared experience about the environmental factors that led to this crisis, as well as organizational exposure and preparedness. They can discuss the possible length and extent of the current crisis, and what impact it might have on an institution’s customer base, reputation, profitability, or ability to operate. They can talk about its impact on mission-critical activities, task interdependencies, and operations.
In accounting, faculty can talk about the important role accountants will have in keeping track of all crisis-related expenses, some of which may be recoverable. In finance, faculty can discuss how financial analysts are preparing realistic financial recovery strategies and providing essential guidance to senior management. In information systems, they might focus on the ways IS professionals are doing the heavy lifting during this crisis to support the sudden transitions in product and service delivery models. In human resource management, they might look at the array of personnel activities and issues that are arising in this ever-changing environment. And, of course, faculty teaching courses in supply chain management and logistics will be highlighting the significant changes happening in these fields as a result of the current pandemic.
Then there are factors that are crucial to getting an organization back on track for survival and success, regardless of discipline: sound management, strong leadership, informed decision making, skillfully developed and implemented marketing, and entrepreneurial thinking.
We all can hope that we will never again encounter a crisis such as this one, but that is highly unlikely. That’s why, as we continue to shelter in place, we can channel the frustration we feel during these uncertain times to revisit our course plans. I challenge all business professors to take a few minutes each day to consider the roles they can play—and the course enhancements they can make—to prepare students to manage the future crises that lie ahead. To ask, once the pandemic is over, how will you better prepare your students to become skillful crisis managers?
I have found that setting those minutes aside myself has been beneficial. I’ve spent the past month converting my courses for remote delivery, and now that spring break is over, it’s great to be interacting with my students once again. But as I try to stay on track to teach my courses well in spite of the pandemic, I’m reassured by the No. 1 rule of successful crisis management: When people work together, they can emerge from any disaster stronger than they were before.
If we, as business faculty, work together—with administrators and staff, our students, and each other—we can minimize the pandemic’s impact. We also can do so in the knowledge that we will eventually be able to return to our students, our schools, and our colleagues. In the meantime, stay safe, and rest assured: We can keep the instructional trains running!
|Robert S. Fleming is a professor of management in the Rohrer College of Business at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. He previously served as dean of the college. He also holds an affiliate appointment as a professor of crisis and emergency management.