COVID-19 is a challenge for business schools, but we can support each other through it

The first weeks of our national lockdown are complete and none of us is sure how many more lie ahead. It is strange how fast life has changed in such a short time. We’ve gone from having to review travel to/from a handful of high risk countries, to realising that we might need to think about working remotely, to an enforced lockdown in less than a month.

When the Chartered ABS held its annual conference in November 2019, one of the themes of many conversations was the strategies of member business schools as they contemplated digital learning. None of us would have been confident in saying that we could effect a wholesale switch, mid-year to online delivery. And yet, by and large, that is what we have all done. It is amazing, even if it is imperfect.

In everything from the basics of getting food and other essentials to figuring out how to deliver teaching and assessment remotely, we have come an amazing distance in a short space of time. Twenty years ago I wrote a paper on the processes of rapid and radical transformation that argued that one of the key drivers was increased uncertainty. That paper discussed the need to escalate the level of uncertainty if change still wasn’t happening as fast as required. In retrospect, many of us thought that Brexit was more than enough turbulence. Whatever your political views, talk of “getting Brexit done” seems a distant memory. As a colleague said to me the other day, it’s much more about “getting breakfast done these days.” Coronavirus has given our business schools and the wider HE sector, uncertainty in spades and it has produced radical new operating models being created in real time.

What most of us have achieved in the short term is a coping mechanism for delivery of this academic year. As I discovered when I couldn’t log into a digital classroom this week, we are all doing our digital “growing up” in public. And yet, attention has already begun to turn to next academic year. Contingencies for delayed starts and on-going interruptions are being developed. As we do so, we are learning lessons that will stand us in good stead if we are mindful to pay attention to what is working well and less well before normal operating conditions return.

Like many of you, I have spent the first week of the UK’s national lockdown in a series of digital meetings and lecture theatres. For the most part this has worked brilliantly with only occasional technical glitches. There are however, some observable differences in these digitally mediated meetings that go beyond the obvious.

The first is that they have tended to be shorter, more focused and more decisive. In part this is probably driven by the undercurrent of crisis but it may also be a consequence of the medium. When I’m on campus, and the meeting is in my diary for two hours, it tends to expand to fill those two hours. Much of that time is spent hearing people present things that you could have dealt with in pre-reading. Or worse still, it is spent hearing people rehearse familiar lines of argument. He’ll say X. She’ll tend to object by arguing Y. An hour later we’ll conclude that the answer lies somewhere between X and Y and notice that we’ve only dealt with the first agenda item and are now behind schedule. Much of that time is wasted and I’ve noticed less of these patterns in week #1’s digital meetings.

If the first difference is that people are more judicious in choosing when to unmute their microphone and make a contribution, the second difference is that cyberspace creates a parallel and visible chat facility. I held an all-staff meeting in my own school and whilst the meeting was going on people were making points, agreeing/disagreeing and committing to follow things up outside the meeting. In the face to face equivalent, none of that is visible to the whole. Elements of subterfuge no doubt persist in digital meetings. The unspoken commitment to “say 'yes' but do 'no'” will still be there. But digital meetings appear to create more opportunities for more people to be more engaged with each other than the physical equivalent.

Finally, and most strikingly, there is a third difference that I have observed in my first week of digitally enabled lockdown. It is the simple joy of seeing people. In daily life on campus, we are more likely to rush between a series of meetings whilst barely acknowledging each other. I’ve trialed meetings that start with an informal catch up for the first 15 minutes but even that hasn’t approximated the genuine warmth of seeing people this week. Of course, the deprivation of not seeing nearly so many people is at play but optimistically there may be something else going on.

What is observably true is that we are making more conscious choices about what matters most. As “normal” circumstances return it will be a missed opportunity if we don’t at least consider whether we’ve been forced to figure out more efficient ways of operating. This externally imposed digital efficiency could be squandered unless we make a conscious effort now to think through lessons learned and to identify processes that have been improved. It isn’t possible to operate indefinitely on a war footing but equally, we’re discovering that we can make decisions much more nimbly we might have thought possible.

In that context, I would like to remind you that the Chartered ABS offers a forum for sharing some of those lessons across our institutional boundaries. In the coming weeks we’ll continue to offer training opportunities and to create spaces for those conversations. As and when our national conferences come back on stream there will be much to learn from each other and the chance to catch up with friends new and old. In the meantime, I wanted to remind you that the Chartered ABS has been quietly lobbying on issues like the timings of rankings, and more. We’re also continuing to argue the case that business schools have a vital role to play in helping the wider economy cope with the short term and long-term consequences of the Coronavirus.

There is a clear focus on the heroism of frontline NHS workers. However, there is more than one frontline and there are many other heroes quietly going about their business just beyond the media spotlight. Many of your colleagues will be performing heroics in supporting staff and students through a stressful and uncertain period. Please take care of yourselves and your loved ones and remember that the Chartered ABS is here to support you.

Thank you.

Professor Robert MacIntosh, Head of Schools of Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University, and Chair, Chartered Association of Business Schools