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COVID-19 as an Organizational Learning Opportunity

How a crisis can bring lasting, positive change to work

Article written by: Saku Mantere

Artwork by: Getty Images

Organizations learn constantly. They would not survive in the face of competition if they didn’t. Yet this learning is often gruesomely slow. Organizational practices and routines tend to stick and organizational structures tend to persist. But all this seems to change when there is a crisis—and herein lies a possibility.

One enduring insight that I have gleaned from studying organizations and organizational change is that the experience of working in an organization causes one to think that many things, if not most, are impossible to change. This is not about resistance to change in the form of a malaise among operative staff, but rather, it is a condition that seems to affect everyone who works in an organization.

I got my first taste of organizational change—or lack thereof—as a 23 year old, when I was elected president of a student union with more than 10,000 members. I learned many leadership lessons during the year I was in office—an experience that only cemented my interest in becoming an organizational theorist.

One lesson I learned was that, even among students with few commitments or real economic interests, the organization seemed like an insurmountable obstacle to change. When people join organizations, they are quickly socialized into believing that some things are important and possible to change (we can call such beliefs the strategy of an organization), while most other improvements are simply impossible to attain.

Changing the once unchangeable

The interesting thing is that disruptions in an organization pry open the lid of Pandora’s box allowing new possibilities to arise.

The officials of that same student union taught each other to believe that it was impossible to build new student housing because of institutional resistance by local city officials, only to be surprised when a major international sports event created a sudden demand for temporary housing for visiting athletes. That temporary demand over one summer served to uproot an institutionalized obstacle that had been in place for decades.

Through my work on university boards during mergers between several universities, I have seen entrenched beliefs rewritten at a pace that would have seemed unbelievable during the preceding decades of stability.

Prior to the merger, professorial career systems or compensation could not be touched. Blending universities, however, obliged all parties to rethink coordination. Similarly, the redesign of academic programs was typically a challenging undertaking, but the new circumstances created a unique sense of urgency. Ultimately, all of the programs were restructured and almost all of them were merged, creating much simpler and more elegant offerings for students.

An organizational life cycle is conceived as a succession of short, dramatic periods of change or renewal, interspersed throughout long periods of gradual transformation.Scholars of organizational change like to draw a distinction between radical change (sometimes called strategic change) and gradual change. An organizational life cycle is conceived as a succession of short, dramatic periods of change or renewal, interspersed throughout long periods of gradual transformation.

Periods of radical transformation are crucial for organizations to remain adapted to their environments—serving their customers in profitable and sustainable ways. The long periods of gradual change frustrate change agents to the extent that the metaphor “burning platform,” borrowed from the gruesome fire at the Piper Alpha Oil Platform in 1988, is often used to evoke the urgent need for a major shift. Sometimes “not having a problem” is a problem unto itself, because organizations tend to delay learning and adaptation until it is too late.

A future ripe with possibilities

As I write this, the extent of the devastation that will be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic remains a matter of speculation. If we focus only on the economic damage that has ensued, it is safe to assume that many ventures and organizations will be destroyed through no fault of their own but because of an unforeseen and dramatic global economic downturn. Clearly, the demise of an organization in this period of crisis cannot be traced to a lack of learning.

However, dramatic events reveal new possibilities and call into question entrenched beliefs about what can and cannot be done. I have been struck by my colleagues’ enthusiasm for and ease in adjusting to their new circumstances. Students and professors have shifted their learning online, while financial controllers have reinvented practices to facilitate remote work and keep the organization functioning. Academic leaders are consoling and inspiring, and parents are inventing ways to keep working remotely while being there for their children.

I do not intend to provide a silver lining for human suffering or economic catastrophe. I am simply pointing out that the current crisis is an opportunity for many organizations to examine their practices as they are adjusting to new circumstances.

When non-essential meetings are eradicated, we get to examine which work practices are ultimately value-adding for performance, well-being, innovation, and sustainability. When online work becomes a necessity, the necessity of business travel is also questioned, which promises potential benefits ranging from those affecting the global climate to the well-being of families—people travel less and are home for dinner.

Except perhaps for those who work for small ventures, I don’t know of anyone who does not suffer somewhat from needless bureaucracy in their organization. Now that we cannot maintain many practices of bureaucratic control in organizations, we might find that we are better off without some of them. In this sense, the COVID-19 crisis is a massive organizational learning opportunity.

Saku Mantere
Saku Mantere
Professor, Strategy & Organization
Editor-in-Chief, Delve

Article written by: Saku Mantere

Artwork by: Getty Images

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