Making a Difference Through Healthcare Management

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Monday, April 6, 2020
By Ruth Boaden
Image by iStock
Managing healthcare has never been under such a spotlight. How can business schools respond to the current crisis and contribute meaningfully long term?

As the COVID-19 crisis perfectly shows, systems cannot be “managed” using approaches we have traditionally taught. The trendy managerial acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) has probably never been more relevant.

So what, in this context, should business schools be doing to ensure that they are helping stakeholders manage under such unprecedented conditions? And how, specifically in the context of health, can we best support healthcare managers?

Our guiding mission at Alliance Manchester Business School is “Original Thinking Applied,” and today this remains as vital as ever as we seek to work out how to apply our thinking to the present crisis. In the short term we need to focus on the “applied” aspect. Namely we must be alert and ready to take opportunities—including those outside our disciplinary and methodological comfort zone—as well as reach out proactively to current and potential partners. In the longer term, keeping sight of our mission and developing original thinking will enable new knowledge and impact.

Business of Healthcare

As my colleague Naomi Chambers, a professor of healthcare management, points out, while the business of healthcare is not that different from other sectors in terms of strategy, horizon scanning, and supply chain and human resource management, the profile of healthcare managers, in the U.K. at least, is low.

Generating public (as opposed to shareholder) value therefore casts a very different perspective on management and involves the whole community. A key challenge—and opportunity—for business schools right now is to shift their perspective and utilize their approaches and knowledge in the context of public interest.

At schools that engage with healthcare management, the approach to healthcare teaching and research often focuses on operations management, organizational behavior, psychology, and leadership development. This interdisciplinary approach—both across business school disciplines and more widely across other university departments like health science and medicine—is key, in my experience, to effectively addressing issues in healthcare management.

Culture and Process

Management involves both culture and process. Developing leaders who understand and can tackle cultural challenges, as well as enabling them to also manage and improve systems and processes, is something many business schools do. At Alliance Manchester Business School, for example, we have been cultivating this dual focus for many years through our provision of leadership programs commissioned by the National Health Service (NHS).

Analyzing and improving processes through research and practice, and through approaches such as PDSA (plan, do, study, act) rapid cycle improvement, are vital because new ways of working are being developed very quickly.

We have been delighted to hear of graduates from our programs using the results of their development to support the current challenges. Over time we know that learning about culture and change will be needed, but at present the system and process aspects are the most dominant.


What is also clear is that partnerships matter. Business schools may be “applied” in their research and education, but we need to further build on, and exploit, our partnerships with practitioners and with other colleagues. We can’t wait for organizations to come to us; we must reach out and show how we can help. Just the other day a research collaborator asked me, “How can we capture our learning as we’re doing this?” Working together to address this has turned into my own personal challenge of the week!

Another key question to address is which of the changes being hastily set in motion now will provide valuable insights for the future once the crisis is over? To answer this, we need to use existing networks of researchers as we work out what research is feasible and useful in the current environment. This brings another challenge, however. I wonder if there are other applied researchers like me who are frustrated at those who want to “study” the crisis from a distance rather than thinking about how to contribute in the moment?


One of my colleagues who is contributing right now, Duncan Shaw, a professor of critical systems, is working directly with the senior response team for COVID-19 in Greater Manchester, and across several other U.K. areas. Drawing on his work over many years on disasters and critical systems, he is advising on best practice and how we can learn from previous disaster responses, as well as contributing directly to the development of the current approach and its implementation.

We have also quickly assembled an interdisciplinary team led by Alliance Manchester Business School to synthesize international and national learning, and to advise and carry out real-time research on the ground, which will lead to immediate impact as well as longer-term academic contributions. This drive is built on existing partnerships, new networks, interdisciplinary collaboration, and a desire to make a difference.

As we all know from our daily lives right now, this crisis is challenging us to work differently, with new people and in new ways. But ultimately, for business schools, isn’t that what we are supposed to be about?

Ruth Boaden
Professor, Alliance Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester
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