A look back at the lockdown: Resilient responses in retrospect

Monday, 22 March 2021 00:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The combating of COVID-19 is far from over. We need to move ahead with confidence, having sound strategies fittingly formulated and energetically executed


It has been over a year where we Sri Lankans experienced a lockdown related to COVID-19. It was more communicated as a curfew, a term better known to us thus far. It was a time of transition from a normal to a new normal, with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA 1.0) was in our doorsteps inviting us for a required response of vison, understanding, confidence and agility (VUCA 2.0). Today’s column reflects how we collectively responded to the ravaging pandemic with resilience, as a community, with emphasis on a premier postgraduate entity. 



Overview 

The Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM) being the largest state sector postgraduate entity in Sri Lanka, identifies itself as the ‘nation’s management mentor’. During its 35 years of existence, it has produced over 350 CEOs, over 3,500 senior managers and over 35,000 trained professionals. It is interesting to share how PIM fulfilled its obligations during the lockdown with initiatives, involvements, and insights. 

Much has been said about the rapid spread of COVID-19 which became almost like the third world war. Nature had stricken back. It has not spared any cast, creed or country with cruel implications associated. It was a clarion call for the learning community of PIM to collaborate in the name of humanity. Needless to stress the mature adult response that must be demonstrated in taking care of oneself and others with sound hygienic practices. The PIM has been conscious about the dire economic downturn globally, regionally, and locally with its associated multiple social impacts. 



Initiatives 

Several initiatives by the PIM can be categorised as financial, professional, and intellectual, with the involvement of PIM’s staff, faculty, students, and alumni. It was an opportunity for us to pay our tribute to our motherland. The PIM was the first state sector higher education entity to contribute Rs. 5 million from its self-generated reserves to the COVID-19 Healthcare and Social Security Fund established by the President of Sri Lanka. 

Interestingly, the PIM has been the only state sector higher education entity that does not get any funds from the treasury neither for its recurrent expenditure nor for its capital expenditure for over the past 20 years. Despite the fact that the PIM is having an ongoing building expansion project, self-reliance by itself has shown a significant signal to other state sector educational institutions to have a different revenue model.  With the presence of MBA study groups in Dubai (UAE), Doha (Qatar), Muscat (Oman), Kuwait City (Kuwait) and Dhaka (Bangladesh), the PIM can be viewed as the most global, state-sector higher education entity in Sri Lanka. Despite current setback with regards to air travel restrictions, the PIM has built a solid financial base for the post-COVID-19 era with a healthy blend of local and overseas program offerings. 

The COVID-19 pandemic offered several key opportunities for the PIM, somewhat parallel to the post-Tsunami era, where the PIM professionally contributed to restoration, reconstruction, and rehabilitation; we started working on multiple fronts. The final year project of the MBA program of PIM is an invitation for the participants to apply what they have learnt in a practical and value-creating manner. The faculty of PIM who are the project supervisors are much geared to work with their respective ‘learning partners’ in identified areas such as business revival, organisational re-structuring, etc. Work has already begun to have a tailored set of MBA final projects to explore post-COVID-19 issues. 

PIM Genesis, our business incubator has started providing advice for the affected Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SME) for their survival and success. There is a dire need to offer such guidance as the SMEs contribute to over 52% to the Sri Lankan economy. With the involvement of PIM alumni in financial and other relevant sectors, this has become very demanding and highly appreciable. 

The post-COVID-19 era will offer a plethora of intellectual prospects in management. We started working on multiple fronts, since last March, despite being home-locked. Each faculty member was asked to develop a study framework in his/her respective specialisation, with emphasis of key managerial challenges in the post-COVID-19 era. They are supposed to work with an assigned student or a pair of students with a solid literature review and a sound theoretical underpinning. It is expected to have a deep dive into Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) to understand the now common VUCA 1.0 and the response of VUCA 2.0. This has been a vital part of a series of virtual discussions. 

We started a compilation of a comprehensive case study collection. Plans have begun to deploy research students to explore cases of transformation from survival to success amidst COVID-19. With the guidance of the PIM Research Centre, several cases will be documented, presented, and published as a PIM case study collection. 



Involvements

There was a need to switch over to online learning platforms and to conduct assessments through take-home mode. There was a high degree of adaptability demonstrated by the faculty. They did much more. LinkedIn has become a popular platform for the faculty to have constructive discussion on managerial aspects of post-COVID-19. Moving beyond mere posting of facts and figures, value chain-conversations have been initiated by several faculty members. 

It was heartening to note the contribution of PIM faculty through regular columns in the print media such as Daily Financial Times and Sunday Observer. Despite the limitations of printing the newspapers and circulating among the entire island during the lockdown, the complementary e-papers became popular. The appreciations received by the business community and the applications highlighted were very encouraging. 

Despite the proliferation of webinars of varying standards of quality and relevance, the PIM faculty contributed in an impactful manner through their participations. There were over five webinars organised by the PIM Alumni (PIMA) with the involvement of one PIM faculty together with other PIM ‘products’ who are proven business leaders. ‘Leading the transformation in shifting from survival to success’ was the overarching theme used in promoting pertinent online deliberations. 

There was an encouraging response from the students in a variety of ways. The key was the adaptability of the changing context, which was essential. Instead of physical sessions, all learning involvements had to be converted to online. With a proven online learning management system (LMS), named ‘Prajna’ (Wisdom in Sanskrit), it was an easy transfer. We were also having a locally developed platform with the collaboration of a communication provider, and the ‘M-learning’ through that has been found to be very useful. The way students positively responded to getting involved in sessions using Zoom webinars and lecture recordings using Loom and other compatible technologies has been encouraging.  They were regularly guided by a series of encouraging messages from me. 

As the first response to the island-wide lockdown, we decided to convert all sit-down exams planed for the end of the term to be take-home exams. With the guidance provided by the faculty, it was a very satisfactory performance with due adherence to plagiarism avoidance requirements (through the similarity index monitored by Turn-it-in software). 

Despite restrictions for physical movements, the student community got involved in various service initiatives such as financial contributions, working with their respective organisations in distributing essential items to needy and creative contributions in the social media platforms. Figure 1 is such an illustration of an animated video made by a group of students highlighting the physical distancing required to avoid the spreading of the virus. 

It was heartening to see some eminent and prominent personnel who play an active role in the COVID-19 task force in Sri Lanka are PIM alumni. Rising to the occasion, the non-academic staff of PIM responded committedly by attending to assigned tasks from home. Desktop publishing of Professional Manager, the flagship publication of PIM and managing the Prajna learning portal are two such examples. It was an acid test for us to see how effective telecommuting could be. 



Insights 

The flagship publication of PIM targeting the practicing professionals, published a special issue containing a collection of comprehensive articles discussing a variety of managerial dimensions in the post-COVID-19 progress. The faculty and alumni of PIM both showed interest in contributing such informative and insightful articles. It was an issue similar to what we did after Tsunami titled, ‘Tsunami Challenged’. 

Based on the research findings, comprehensive collection of research papers will be published as a special issue of the Sri Lankan Journal of Management (SLJM). Being the only Sri Lankan management journal hosted by EBSCO, the globally renowned research database, it will have a wider reach to share the authentic insights of the COVID-19 challenge. This will highlight the salience of success practices such as the use of tracing method to identify virus contacts with the use of military intelligence and healthcare personnel. 

It was encouraging to see the National Science Foundation (NSF) taking a timely step of organising a research conference on COVID-19. It was all about the impact, mitigation, opportunities and building resilience with a fitting theme ‘from adversity to serendipity’. The PIM was so glad to be a strategic partner for this noteworthy endeavour and I was part of the steering committee of the conference, that was ably led by Prof. Ranjith Senarathne, the Chairman, NSF. Moreover, the annual research conference of PIM (PIMARC) will also be focusing on the research findings related to COVID-19 in reaching a wider audience of research scholars, learning managers, administrators, decision makers and implementors. Based on the progress of faculty and student research, it is planned to be held during the latter part of 2021. 



Way forward 

I recall how I coined the very first message to the PIM student community during the lockdown, where I stressed the mature adult response we needed to demonstrate, in taking care of ourselves and others with sound hygienic practices. It reminds me what Victor Hugo observed. “Nations, like stars, are entitled to eclipse. All is well, provided the light returns and the eclipse does not become endless night. Dawn and resurrection are synonymous. The reappearance of the light is the same as the survival of the soul.” The combating of COVID-19 is far from over. We need to move ahead with confidence, having sound strategies fittingly formulated and energetically executed. 

 

 


(Prof. Ajantha S. Dharmasiri can be reached through director@pim.sjp.ac.lk, ajantha@ou.edu or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)


 

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