Management foresight in COVID-19 transition

Wednesday, 9 September 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


COVID-19 stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019. In the past, we have experienced epidemics such as SARS/MERS, which also belonged to the category of coronaviruses, and COVID-19 is considered to be the seventh in the coronavirus family. This is a health issue. It is a pandemic. The main difference on this occasion is that the magnitude is unprecedented. It gives us a wider scepticism to think about predicting multiple pandemics to come. It indicates that we have to get ready to live with corona. Corona is one of our future-readiness testing imperatives.

Let me next focus on management. For some, management is planning, organising, leading and controlling. For others, management is a practice. It is simply a discipline of getting things done though people. The archaeological history of management has a myriad of concepts, incidents, theories and cases. However, the living history of the management subject reveals plenty of new themes/concepts. One could say that management is a new social discipline, with a lot of stories which gained the momentum during the last five to six decades. Scholars have created theories, and folklore wisdom has created ‘folklore theories’. We tend to respect and appreciate theories of scholars. It is a situational or contextual response to given actions, people, and information. Eventually, management is by nature an integrating exercise. If I make it simple, it is about “mixing well exercise” vs. “messing up exercise”. If you mix well with the key functions of management in a given situation, we would say “it is well-managed.”

Foresight could be identified as a systematic thinking and mapping of the future. It derives by way of: prognosis (explaining the future with the past); examining trends (identifying the future in the current changes); and planning scenarios (foreseeing future with different scenarios). It does not predict but explores. One may argue that our hindsight and insights would create the platform for creating foresight. If I make it clearer, foresight is exploring what the landscapes could look like, or visualising alternatives for the future. Therefore, I may raise a question in the above context: “Have we experienced failure in our preparedness for future vs. creating foresight for our institutional future?”

Problem and complexity

In English terms, questions need to provide answers, whereas problems require providing solutions. We have an unimaginable number of problems to solve. However, if we carefully analyse this context, we are in a position to solve them, and we are compelled to solve them. We have two major types of problems. One is stemming from the existing problems prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most companies have unresolved problems which delayed due to many reasons. The second category of problems is the problems emerging due to the COVID-19 lockdown and the new demands of response. Naturally, problems now could be very complicated and multi-faceted. Generally, people would tend to set all problems into one basket. Suddenly, we picked up the phrase, “new normal”. We should not forget that it was coined in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, with a different meaning. We use it now, with an intention of changing the behavioural aspect of people. This is because we tend to understand the surface meaning of a phrase and apply it. Terms and concepts such as environment protection, sustainability, paradigm shift, cutting-edge technology, etc., are good examples for such phrases.   

If I take a look at the last five decades, it was observed that in the 1970s slow and consistent were considered as the keys for the winning formula in business. During the 1980s, it became fast and consistent for winning in association of excellence-related concepts. We saw that core competency is the basis for management during the 1990s. Many other concepts were coming to practice, such as balanced score card, business process reengineering, tacit and explicit knowledge, learning organisation etc. With the dawn of the year 2000, a plethora of terms such as re-imagine, re-design, re-visit etc. were discussed as the winning formula in association with teamwork. Further, digital-related discussions and narrations became abundant during the last decade. Industry 4.0 imperatives were heavily used, rather than applied. Now we are in the beginning of 2020. A pandemic has struck the whole world. Yet, we are now compelled to explore what should be done. The complexity of the problem is how to prioritise which issues to attend to. At the same time, it is important to clearly figure out managing the keys in the current situation. Do we experience science (knowledge) related challenges, or technology (skills) related challenges? Engineering and healthcare are predominantly skills-elated disciplines. All eyes are on a potential vaccine for corona.

New normal/VUCA world and COVID-19 implications

As I have indicated, the term, “new normal” was used in the aftermath of the financial crisis to emphasise community engagement, whereas at present it applies to highlight the changes in people’s behaviour. The focus of concepts is to keep on changing. Coming back to the VUCA acronym, which was popularised by the US military way back in 1987, it has been used with a clear meaning and focus. It is about how well we can predict the outcome of our actions vs. to what extent we know about the situation. In that light, volatility (rate of change), uncertainty (unclear about the present), complexity (multiple key decision factors), and ambiguity (lack of clarity about meaning of an event) are applied to understand the nature of the external environment. Undoubtedly, it is still appropriate to the current context. No need to unnecessarily panic to find out new dimensions. Analyse VUCA in an appropriate way. Further, I want to stress that in 2017, Bill George from Harvard University proposed VUCA 2.0 to set out our own terms, without just succumbing to complexities in the external conditions. He originally suggested vision (see through the chaos/find your true North), understanding (understanding the organisation’s capabilities and strategies), courage (step up to the challenges and make audacious decisions) and adaptability (flexible in adapting to rapid changes). We may now realise that whether COVID-19 is a pandemic or not, the concepts related to it are amply available for us to relate and apply.

Scenario planning

The term scenario planning is often associated with the strategic management discussions. It was popularised by Shell during the 1960s. A scenario planning is not a strategy. A strategy can be set to a particular scenario. Robust strategies are required to meet demands in multiple scenarios. If I simplify it, a statement as to how will we (blank) in the future. You may add or fill the functional area to the blank. If we convert to a technical answer, let me give one example. Plot a map by taking one key as Uncertainty (+-) and other key as Impact (+-) to figure out which actions are to take and manage. Thereby, it creates four quadrants for us to choose what to look at. One could figure out a number of scenarios (e.g.: Scenario 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and corresponding strategies (e.g.: Strategy 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). You may identify which corresponding strategy to adopt under what scenario. I am attempting to explain it in plain language. If we take management literature, scenarios are discussed in line with driving forces, changes, winners and losers, opportunities and threats/challenges, etc. It goes on saying scenario planning as a process of discovering, exploring, mapping, and creating exercise. Consultants tend to suggest it as preparing (getting ready), relocating/escaping (space where less turbulence), and reinventing of collaborations (creating spaces) activities. Eventually, an organisation should have a game plan to meet numerous scenarios.

Existing management concepts and applications in the current context

There are concepts and applications abundantly available which can be derived from the living history of management discipline. The nature of those concepts are that they are emerging one after the other. Therefore, one may coin this phenomenon as ‘stories/narratives’. It is mixed, and some do not prefer to use theories, and instead request to apply ‘practical solutions’ to ongoing problems. We should not forget the fact that practical solutions derive from different management stories (from multiple theories). If we apply a couple of concepts in general, for example in measuring performance, one can easily apply tools such as balanced score card. It establishes cause-and-effect relationships rather than just presenting volumes and figures. It connects measures related to one another, and the network of relationships which make up the strategy. Companies can easily rework their lead and lag indicators for business performance in this COVID-19 pandemic transition.

Also, there are a number of problem-solving techniques that one can comfortably apply in their current business demands, such as cause and effect problem analysis tool, pareto analysis, business canvasses, etc. The other models such as blue ocean strategy-related models, change management tools, are very handy in a circumstance like this. Let me reiterate, there are an abundance of concepts. My focus is practicality, and to see whether such concepts and tools are implementable. 

Getting ready for future pandemics from a management point of view

Management foresight means getting ready today. We have realised during this COVID-19 period that we have failed in getting ready from a preparedness point of view. I would like to express some concerns with a great reluctance, as to how some award-winning companies are struggling to manage their regular financial management challenges, particularly employment decisions, at this stage.  It is clear that some sectors experienced sudden shock, and others faced invariable restraining conditions. Having been exposed to different scenarios, could it be possible for higher level managers to merely argue, first to lay off people, and then to take other measures subsequently? It shows a conundrum about their way of management or nature of the management practice. Can we identify a managerial response which is humane and moral binding? It is high time for us to get ready for any possible upcoming pandemic. Let us start with appropriate business continuity plans in place now, and setting regular reviews to keep updated. A crisis fund could be arranged, and allocations should be made on consistent basis to meet similar future demands. Further, an agenda item of questioning institutional readiness for facing future shocks should be included in every monthly meeting. Assigning responsible people to look after audit queries (internal and external) is mandatory. Eventually, our current initiatives should not be merely targeting a propaganda drive, yet it must be actionable or implementable for the future. 

The writer is a Faculty Member / Management Consultant at the Postgraduate Institute of Management, University of Sri Jayewardenepura (