Managing Beyond COVID – Organizational Learning?
Gerhard has been living in Taiwan since 2002 and has worked as a teacher, academic manager and director of studies. He is currently with the British Council Taiwan where he looks after professional development and training. He is currently pursuing an EdD in organizational leadership. In his free time, he enjoys board games, like chess, and doing or watching magic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The suddeness and impact of COVID-19 has left many parts of the ELT industry in disarray. Schools have closed, teachers have been left unemployed and those on zero hour contracts were left without any income. The impact has been particularly harsh on onshore ELT (markets like Australia, the UK, the USA, Canada) where students travel to learn English and then often progress into tertiary studies. This has brought scenario planning and strategic planning to the fore and highlighted the importance of proper strategic planning for organizations, but also the importance of knowing what to do when there are changes and challenges to your future plans.
Unlike other industries, ELT and education were two industires that initially responded very well to the new challenges, particularly the speed with which teachers were able to learn to take classes online and learn how to work with new online technologies and applications. This is evidence of how ELT is generally very focus on professional development for teachers and an indication of the learning organization culture that many feel exist within their organizations. Unfortuntely, as the COVID-19 crisis continued, it became more and more evident that there were some problems with organizations that considered themselves learning organizations, predominantly based on two reasons. One, the learning was not organization wide, and marketing and sales campaigns were not designed around online learning, neither were operations team ready to cope with the massive changes brought on by online learning. In addition, the learning that happened during COVID-19 was forced by circumstances rather than learning by design. Organizations that want to ready themselves for the future would have to ensure that the learning that takes place is in fact learning by design.
The second reason has to do with industry regulations in different countries. In Australia, ELICOS (English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students) providers have to deliver 20 hours a week of courses to be considered an ELICOS centre. Without an influx of students due to travel restrictions, one possible option might have been to relax the 20-hour requirement to allow these colleges to access the local market (immigrants and international students who opted to remain in Australia or classes for young learners) and allow them to study for 2 or 3 hours a week. The problem with this is twofold though, as it would have required a change in regulation (short term) and a completely new approach to sales, marketing, and operations. The ability to respond to challenges and changes like these highlight the importance of learning by design and ensuring that your organization is change tolerant, meaning ready to change at short notice and maintain the change to develop resilience as an organization.
Strategic planning and strategic agility
Strategic plans are generally set for a few years, and indicate the direction the organization is going in over a period of time. When a challenge like COVID-19 hits an organization, the strategic plan becomes a useless document unless there is specific strategic agility build into it. Strategic agility refers to how you establish and maintain leadership unity, resource fluidity, and strategic awareness. It is very important to have all three elements present, as it would be pointless if there are fluid resources (people or finances) that cannot be deployed because there isn’t leadership unity and the leadership team cannot decide or agree on how to assign the available resources to either deal with a challenge or take advantage of a new opportunity.
It was evident from the initial response to COVID-19 that staff form an integral part of the resources of ELT organizations. However; based on a small scale research study I did during the latter part of 2020, smaller organizations (and some larger ones) ran out of money very early on, and this is partially due to accounting systems that spend money when it is received rather than accrual accounting that realises income when classes are delivered rather than when income is received. The opposite would be true for organizations that work with larger government contracts where payment is often may after course delivery is completed. The main benefit of using an accrual accounting system is that it allows better control of cashflow if you are only realising income when classes are delivered, as this means that refunds, as was the case with COVID-19, would leave you short in terms of future income, but not short in terms of current cashfow and cash commitments.
With resource fluidity, ensuring that there is cashflow available to deal with challenges and changes, while ensuring that the learning culture in your organization ensures that staff members are ready to learn new skills and respond to challenges should be key takeaways from the COVID-19 crisis. This is of course easier said than done, but ensuring that this learning happens by design rather than by chance allows for better succession planning and talent development.
Leadership unity and decision making
Organizations that have performed well during COVID-19 had to make difficult decisions in a very short period of time and often these decisions were very centralised. This highlights the importance of leadership unity, as many senior managemet teams had to ‘rally around the flag’ to ensure their organizations survived. The stronger organizations maintained or altered their direction through available data and clear communication, and then moved decision making ability to the teams on the ground. This level of decentralised decision making, with clear guidance towards the purpose and direction of the organization allowed smaller teams to deal with immediate crisis situations and come up with novel solutions to problems. These problems could have been as simple as ‘How do we get the resource packs and materials to teachers if they are suddenly working from home?’, but allowed teams to dictate on the ground strategy while the senior leadership team dealt with the organizational direction and provided guidance and support in terms of on the ground decision making. This level of trust is something that should be imperative for organizations going forward beyond COVID-19 and is an example of how standard good management practice helped organizations cope with the COVID-19 crisis.
While strategic plans helps organizations to set future goals and work towards them without distraction, they could prevent leadership and management from noticing things on the periphery, whether these be new opportunities or challenges from new entrants to the markets. Strategic awareness requires the management team to consitently be aware of strategic opportunities and challenges. Examples of this might be where ELICOS centres started providing other types of classes to fill up classroom space, or rented classroom space to other organizations. This might even become part of the organization’s strategy in the long run. A more specific example, and not related to COVID, is a centre in Brisbane that rents out its classroom space to a church on Sundays. The ability to be aware of how you can maximise space and income and think about it strategically would be very important going forward.
Hindsigt is 20/20 and we might be considering all the things we could have done differently to prevent or mitigate some of the problems or challenges we are facing right now. While this article only touches on a few areas, it would be good to consider how we might have responded differently and make these differences part of how we operate going forward. Some ideas for that would be:
- Ensure that organizational learning happens by design and not by chance
- Create a culture of learning across the organization and in all departments
- Scenario plan potential challenges and consider how these scenarios might inform learning and succession planning in the organization
- Have a proper strategic plan to give your organization direction and purpose, but also ensure that your staff and organization is change tolerant
- Ensure leadership unity so you are better equipped to deal with challenging situations
- Consider how fluid your organization’s resources are and where they might be best applied in different scenarios
- Be strategic aware and on the lookout for challenges, threats and opportunities.
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Managing Beyond COVID – Organizational Learning?
Gerhard Erasmus, Australia