The impossible is now possible
22 June 2020
Claudia Monteiro is Senior Consultant at CarringtonCrisp.
They say a crisis reveals who we are at our very core – and that’s no different for organisations.
For the last couple of months I’ve been interviewing leaders in business education.
What I’ve learnt is that who we really are as humans sits at odds with the make-up of organisations.
That is, until now.
The pandemic taught us how resilient we are as parents, workers and companions.
When normality got placed on hold, universities – often accused of organisational inertia - allowed people to unleash their creative, problem-solving skills.
These incredible human qualities, routinely crushed under heavy processes and outdated structures, have gained room to breathe, all thanks to the disruption brought about by Covid-19.
Here’s what disruption at universities taught us about ourselves and the world – though these easily apply to other organisations:
1) Let’s drop the veil – we always bring ourselves to work
Remember when back in 2017 Professor Robert Kelly was interviewed live on BBC, and his kids interrupted it with perfect comic timing? That clip went viral because it brought down the curtain on how we present ourselves at work: serious, one-dimensional, strictly-working-matters-please. Turns out we have messy lifes at home. To think that having a toddler at your next zoom meeting wouldn’t lift an eyebrow these days...
We’ve become more aware of each other's challenges – and more human in the process. Daniel Traça suggests this might be what it takes for us all to become better teachers, better managers, better human beings.
Wellbeing has been on the table at every conversation I’ve had – at Auckland University of Technology, emails after working hours have stopped, at Cardiff the University set up Wellbeing Fridays, where each person decides what’s going to serve them best. If that means no meetings, no calls, no emails... then so be it.
2) Half a leader’s job is to be present and open to change
Years ago, I had a boss who seemed to be way less busy than the rest of us in the team. I asked him about it once (admittedly, at the very end of my contract!). He saw his stillness as a sign of a supported, well-oiled, confident team. He assumed he wouldn’t be doing a good job if he was running around like a headless chicken.
The Deans I spoke to saw themselves moving away from task-based communication to a much more open, personal and present form of engagement. At King’s, Stephen Bach has been making time to speak individually to every member of staff, in Victoria, Canada, Saul Klein finds a lot of his conversations with colleagues are around offering support and reassurance.
As to my boss, I will always remember him pulling me aside on one of those stressful days, when everyone around you is being unreasonable. His words? ‘What support do you need from me?’
3) Throw away the rule book
What do you believe now to be true that you thought impossible before the pandemic?
Faculty on board with online teaching, getting rid of exams (everyone agrees they’re poor forms of assessment), senior management saying yes to activities that would’ve previously invited widespread reluctance, business schools getting to practice what they preach in the classroom (lots of setting up agile teams, pivoting, failing fast).
3) Want to compete better? Then it’s time to collaborate
The conversation on sustainability isn’t going away.
Why are hundreds of business schools churning out similar modules and programmes, when they could be teaming up instead?
There is an ocean of possibilities here, now that higher education has leap-frogged into online learning.
In Berlin, ESMT credits its recent partnership with the Future of Management Education Alliance with the smooth transition to online teaching. In the US, Coursera was approached by 4000 universities and institutes during the pandemic.
At ESADE, Ivan Bofarull, a leading thinker on higher education, leaves a word of warning though – don't try to replicate what disruptive edtech players do so well – though now is the time for organisations to ask themselves who they could partner with.
4) Universities must focus on what they do best
There’s a risk of taking technology as an end in itself, rather than a platform still searching for good design driven by pedagogy, culture and experience.
When the pandemic hit some universities had better tech infrastructure than others; for many it was a half-hazard switch to online teaching.
How can Nova replicate its can-do mindset in an online environment, for instance?
In this intersection with technology, how are universities going to push on with those back-to-basics questions: What should we teach? How can students learn better? How can we validate what good knowledge is?
5) It’s (still) a man’s world – and remote working shines a light on it
In Oman female workers have multiple roles in caring for the extended family, on top of homeschooling children while juggling their own jobs. Without the boundaries of an office to go to, their time is stretched beyond belief.
Portugal is Europe’s 4th most unequal country when it comes to the distribution of domestic chores by gender, something that Daniel Traça of Nova is all too aware of.
In April alarm bells went off as journals and research councils recorded fewer paper submissions and research projects by female academics.
Change is possible though.
At Edinburgh, the distribution of blended teaching among faculty is considering unequal circumstances for the coming academic year.
6) Look further
These conversations were in part a reaction to the pandemic news coverage and how it’s hitting higher education, a debate often focused on UK and North American reality.
It pays off to look elsewhere to truly understand resilience and innovation though.
In Brazil Fundacao Dom Cabral started a movement to lift one million small business owners out of poverty, in New Zealand the indigenous culture of collective wisdom is never removed from difficult decisions that impact on staff and students, in Oman online teaching is giving a voice to students who are culturally shy of asking questions of their teachers.
No one can deny that uncertainty will continue to colour our present. But let’s hold on to what we’ve learnt and strive for collaborations, true engagement with people and learn from places where unpredictability has been a constant. And let’s not be afraid to do the impossible - throwing away the rule book is way less scary than we used to think.