Business Schools, Knowledge Management and COVID-19 – an early perspective

The global economic and commercial tsunami that is currently raging across all sectors has revealed general shortcomings in our systems’ ability to deal with organically developing, hyper-complex challenges, and business schools are not immune.

Stating the obvious, it is clear that the vast majority of organisations, governments and corporations do not seem to have effective contingency plans in place to cope well with this type of crisis, despite probably having lengthy risk registers. Business schools too have academics expert in strategy, crisis management and planning trained specifically to ‘think outside the box’. Even so, this crisis is uniquely challenging and changing hourly, and should not be underestimated.

Short term actions such as moving delivery on-line and closing down physical spaces are early indications of the first, relatively easy ‘panic’ phase. Principles of good knowledge management and edtech are creating some more than effective bridges, but this is only a temporary fix.

Few now believe that the impact of COVID-19 will be fleeting or that we will go back to pre-virus normality sooner or later. This blog therefore suggests that business schools will need to plan and adapt to long-term changes now, and fast.

What have we learned already only a few weeks in?

  1. On a national decision-making level, various governments have chosen very different approaches to the crisis with varying results, some of them best termed “catastrophic”
  2. Some organisations can function in a limited way, temporarily with much reduced human contact, and a little quick reconfiguration, such as digital communication companies and some financial institutions, which are already virtually ethereal in nature
  3. Few organisations can replicate fully what they were doing and how they were behaving ‘pre-virus’
  4. Any existing contingency planning is often redundant unless you can predict the problem accurately, (and you can’t)
  5. One person’s crisis is another person’s opportunity, such as pharma and home entertainment providers (1)
  6. Many management and decision-making tools and techniques are rendered useless when a game changing situation happens and then keeps unfolding outside the rules
  7. We are it would seem much more connected than we ever believed, there is a domino effect happening before our eyes; as organisations shut down, they adversely impact a few others and on and on….(think Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ leading to the greater good but in reverse, left largely unchecked, it seems to have led us to an unsupportable network)
  8. Business School education (suitably modified) can be effectively achieved without mass participation

What options will be left for business schools after the crisis?

At the senior/strategic level, scenarios do need to be thought through in the next few weeks and months to develop an appropriate school recovery plan. But the need for accuracy and a definite path is probably the first thing to be rejected.

Managers responding to crisis often understandably seek out more reliable data so their decision making power can be augmented.  Business school programmes probably advocate this as good practice, but in a crisis much data is not reliable (who believes the infection rate figures?), and may well serve to hold up decision making.  Where preservation of cashflow is a priority, speed is crucial.

Business schools are now well and truly in a 'VUCA' world, a phrase originally coined by the US Army War College to describe the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity of globalised modernity, for want of a better word. No single individual, specific group of experts, or even global organisations specialising in epidemics hold all the answers, let alone the answer, Likely because the answer does not exist. For example, with so many societal norms and behavioural changes imposed and adopted, many are realising that any strategic plan should have built-in flex and aim more within ‘boundaries’, as opposed to closely prescribed destinations. (See figure 1 below, which highlights this need for flex in strategic and operational direction).

Obvious options to consider are going to focus on moving learning and knowledge, not people, primarily by deploying edtech well.  But where does this leave many schools with vast, expensive campuses based primarily on students being there?

Has the virus given us a wake-up call?

Grandiose ‘five year plans’ have long been more the Vice Chancellor or CEO’s fantasy than a sound planning process in a VUCA world. Here, the seriousness and urgency of the coronavirus pandemic has unmasked a far greater threat to Business Schools than the virus itself. In this new world, Business Schools will now have to work hard to become ‘trusted guides’ in this new wilderness.

Coronavirus has made us realise starkly and with no notice that overreliance on international student income came with a massive risk that the tap may be quickly turned off.

So, as the situation unfolds, we desperately need our business school leaders to ask the right and/or the most difficult questions to prompt an open-ended conversation about the new paradigms that govern what a future School might look like.

Our belief is that if we can find new ways to communicate and collaborate, honestly sharing and generating insights, (the whole purpose of effective knowledge management) nimbly making and applying decisions, new models can and will emerge.  What they will look like is now our challenge.

By Dr Steve Ellis, Business Faculty Dean at Regent’s University London and Jakob Werdelin of Werdelin Education.



The authors are hosting a free online webinar series to help participants explore the latest ways of thinking that have been triggered in response to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. You can find out more and register your interest here.