Remembering the Past as We Prepare for the Future

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Friday, September 10, 2021
By Robert Fleming
Photo by iStock/guvendemir
The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is a fitting time for business schools to reevaluate how they’re preparing students to manage future crises.

On September 11, 2001, the world changed forever. At 8:46 a.m. Eastern time, terrorists piloted a plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Within the next 90 minutes, a second plane struck the South Tower, a third one hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a fourth was brought down in western Pennsylvania by courageous passengers fighting off the hijackers.

On that day 20 years ago, I was spending my morning preparing for the business policy classes I would teach the next day at Rowan University’s Rohrer College of Business in Glassboro, New Jersey. I knew I would have to abandon my planned lessons and address the events that had just unfolded. While I wasn’t sure that I should encourage, much less facilitate, such a discussion so soon after the tragedy, my crisis management background and concern for the well-being of my students convinced me that it was the right thing to do.

Understanding Impact

In class on the following day, my students and I struggled together to make sense of the realities of the event. After acknowledging that our world would never again be the same, we considered the personal and professional implications such large-scale disasters might have for them throughout their lives and careers. Specifically, we talked about how, as individuals and future business leaders, they needed to understand crisis management and develop the skills necessary to prepare for and address tragedies and emergencies.

We also talked about how the 9/11 events would affect the organizations they had been assigned to work with on consulting projects just two days before. These included a commercial airline, a hotel chain, and a major theme park. While the students were not able to make accurate estimates about the business impact of 9/11, they knew with certainty that the unprecedented tragedy would have repercussions for years to come.

For instance, students realized that, when commercial flights resumed, many individuals would be less inclined to fly for business or pleasure given the heightened concern for airline safety. The corresponding decrease in travel would certainly hurt the hospitality industry, which would have direct effects on the hotel chain and theme park that were now consultancy clients. Students also realized that, even while striving to recover from lost business, organizations would have to come up with long-term plans to ensure the continued safety of their employees and customers.

But we also discussed more personal concerns and reactions. Given the proximity of Rowan University to New York, it was not surprising that many of my students had friends and relatives who worked in the city. Many of them were grateful for the opportunity to have these conversations in the classroom so they could start to confront their many newfound thoughts and concerns.

As individuals and future business leaders, students needed to understand crisis management and develop the skills necessary to prepare for and address tragedies and emergencies.

They also shared thoughtful insights of their own. One of them said that, in life, there are moments when it is appropriate to “stop the trains” and take time to consider what really matters—caring for people. I found this an interesting analogy, as the U.S. had suspended commercial air travel immediately after the attacks.

In the days and weeks that followed, the “instructional trains” started running again in a reasonably timely manner. However, my students and I all recognized that there would be instances when unscheduled stops and conversations would be expected and appropriate. For the rest of the year, as we continued on our learning journey, we periodically took time to look at unfolding world events and relate them to our strategic management discussions. The students recognized that these pauses were a necessary part of developing the insights and critical thinking skills they would need to become visionary, agile business leaders.

Planning for Disaster

After that day, my approach to teaching changed. Twenty years later, I continue to incorporate the lessons of 9/11 into my classroom, particularly when I teach our school’s capstone course. I still focus on helping students develop traditional mission-critical strategic management skills. But now I also proactively commit to ensuring that our graduates are fully prepared to address unexpected disasters.

A theme that runs throughout the capstone course is ensuring organizational resilience, survival, and success in times of crisis. My students and I debate management strategies related to crisis prevention, preparation, recognition, resolution, and recovery. We discuss various disasters that organizations might face; and we estimate the impact that crises can have based on their frequency, severity, scope, duration, and consequences.

I ask students to deconstruct a variety of emergency situations, including financial scandals and major weather events. For instance, Hurricane Sandy took a devastating toll on our region in 2012, shutting down businesses in New Jersey and New York City for an extended period of time. We contrast regional events such as Hurricane Sandy with the current COVID-19 pandemic in terms of impact on a company’s revenues, profits, market share, customer retention, and reputation, as well as on an organization’s ability to resume or continue operations.

The most interesting dynamic in this class is watching students take the lessons they have learned from earlier crises such as 9/11 and apply them to more recent events such as the pandemic. For instance, students see that the terrorist attacks caused business leaders to adopt a more coordinated and collaborative management approach. Governments also began to develop robust response mechanisms—as an example, the U.S. formed the National Incident Management System, which allows federal and nongovernmental organizations to work together to mitigate and respond to incidents.

Students come to understand that the virus, like the 9/11 attacks, has changed the world in which we live, work, and travel. As they synthesize the knowledge they acquire from comparing these two events, they gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence they will need to meet the challenges they will face in their own business careers.

Students come to understand that the virus, like the 9/11 attacks, has changed the world in which we live, work, and travel.

During these discussions, students learn that various organizational stakeholders—including customers, employees, business owners, and suppliers—will have common interests in times of crisis, including the goal of getting the business back in operation. They also discover that business leaders might have to take on various roles as they participate in crisis management activities.

Rohrer College’s capstone course currently includes a crisis management module, and similar modules will soon be added to several other business core courses. These learning modules are designed to ensure that our graduates have skills in the various crisis management activities and understand the discipline-specific roles and responsibilities of business professionals in times of emergencies. For instance, a marketer might have to quickly shift gears when a crisis changes public sentiment, or a supply chain manager might need to react fast when emergencies close shipping routes. We are encouraged by how these initiatives align with the risk management programming guidance coming from AACSB.

Taking Time to Ponder

Over the past 20 years, I have come to appreciate the fact that, as faculty members, we can become overly focused on ensuring that we cover all our planned course content and meet all our learning objectives. This makes it difficult for us to deviate from our plans during times when circumstances suggest that we should.

But it is up to faculty to recognize and respect such times and to facilitate teaching moments where students can ponder the crises they are likely to face during their careers. Creating those moments has become one of the most meaningful and rewarding aspects of my work. Graduates have told me that this approach shaped their mindsets and contributed to their success in managing emergencies.

I would expect that many schools have found ways to revisit the events of September 11 in their classrooms this semester. Remembrances of that day could be an essential learning cornerstone, a springboard to conversations about other topics that are critical for students to understand.

While the reality is that many of our students were born after the attacks, educators still have a professional responsibility to encourage our students to learn from the past as they conscientiously prepare for the future. We can ensure that they become visionary business leaders who can learn from past tragedies and are ready to meet the many challenges of a dynamic, evolving world.

Fleming is a professor of management and former dean at the Rowan University Rohrer College of Business in Glassboro, New Jersey, and has an affiliate appointment as professor of crisis and emergency management.
Robert Fleming
Professor of Management and Professor of Crisis and Emergency Management (Affiliate Appointment), Rowan University
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