Schooling Schools for Shocks

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Wednesday, September 27, 2023
By Lee Miles
Photo by iStock/ijeab
What does crisis management mean for business schools today? And why has it become so increasingly essential?
  • Natural disasters and other crises are occurring more frequently, and often simultaneously, causing significant disruptions for business schools and their communities.
  • If a business school has not prioritized effective crisis management, it can put its resilience and its reputation at risk.
  • The assets that business schools have at their disposal—such as facilities, subject matter experts, and relationships with policymakers—position them well to lead during crises.

August 2023 demonstrated more than ever the extent to which natural disasters have become recurrent and more frequent across the world. In mid-August, a brush fire ignited on the island of Maui in Hawaii, eventually destroying the city of Lahaina. The state’s governor called the fires “the worst natural disaster” in the state’s history. The event occurred as widespread wildfires have been burning across several provinces in Canada since March.

On August 31, Hurricane Idalia, measured at a Category 4, ripped into Florida’s “Big Bend” area with 130 mph-plus winds; it brought strong storm surges and flooding that caused major upheaval and significant damage to many of the state’s coastal communities. At the same time, on the other side of the world, Super-Typhoon Saola swept into and battered the Philippines, causing major flooding and landslides. The storm displaced more than 3 million people from their homes and communities.

And, of course, we now all know what it’s like to live under the shadow of a communicable and often deadly disease like COVID-19. In certain parts of the world, people had to cope with multiple emergencies at once, such as a hurricane that occurred during COVID-19 outbreaks.

Debate continues as to what is causing the occurrence of so many high-profile natural disasters. Some claim that these events are cyclical. Others believe that some crises, such as urban fires, are the result of human activity. For example, Freetown in Sierra Leone experienced multiple fires in 2021; this includes the Susan’s Bay fire, which engulfed parts of the capital city. The Freetown example demonstrates how dangerous urban fires can be, especially when leaders have paid only limited attention to crisis management.

We can all agree that such catastrophes are happening more frequently—often simultaneously or in quick succession—and that at one time or another, we all are likely to be affected. For that reason, business school leaders will need to place a stronger ongoing focus on crisis and disaster management. It’s the only way they can keep their campuses and communities resilient in the face of so many potential threats.

The Risk of Poor Risk Management

Business schools of all sizes and in locations across the globe face a shared reality. Many have physical campuses located in disaster-prone areas, whether they’re in rural, urban, metropolitan, or coastal settings. During widespread crises, schools don’t just need to support the safety and well-being of their students, faculty, and staff and manage the costs of repair and recovery on campus. They also will be called on to assist the surrounding populations. 

Whether potential external shocks are natural or human-induced, they have only further exacerbated other more long-standing, underlying challenges such as societal conflict, political tensions, and inequalities. Adding even more difficulty is today’s 24/7 media cycle, which can attract intense public attention to the impact of disasters on a business school’s larger community.

A failure to plan for these frequent challenges can have a panoramic negative impact on a school’s staff, students, and stakeholders. Even worse, stakeholders are certain to take note of this oversight. That is why it is essential that business schools establish crisis management plans and form response teams. At the very least, they should have clear communications protocols in place.

Unfortunately, while some higher education institutions profess to teach resilience, risk, and crisis management in their curricula, many do not prioritize these issues in their own operations. Too often, a school’s approach to risk management and emergency response planning is rudimentary, outdated, poorly implemented, or not executed at all.

Poor disaster management represents a significant financial and reputational risk for any business school. But when done well, crisis management can enhance a business school’s reputation and strengthen its position in the community and beyond.

An Important Form of Thought Leadership

Effective crisis management is now an integral part of the AACSB accreditation standards. Under Standard 1, for example, AACSB asks each school to show how it “conducts formal risk analysis and has plans to mitigate identified major risks.” This process is also compatible with Standard 9, where schools are asked to document how they have had a positive societal impact—internationally, nationally, and especially regionally—in ways consistent with their missions.

Furthermore, effective crisis management prepares a business school to respond to, recover from, mitigate the impact of, and even in some cases prevent adverse events. It also presents an important opportunity for a school to bring stakeholders together to work toward a common mission and cultivate strong relationships as they make plans for the short, medium, and long term.

Business schools possess a potent mix of assets that they can draw upon to help others that are affected by sudden external shocks. For example:

  • Schools can offer regional emergency planners the use of residence halls, arenas, and IT facilities to provide refuge for residents and help with recovery.
  • Schools can provide access to experts whose knowledge can help stakeholders throughout the region weather crises. For example, supply chain management researchers can help communities work out logistics of collecting, storing, and distributing necessary resources effectively, in ways that balance “just in time” and “just in case” priorities.
  • A business school’s faculty often have long-standing and continuous relationships with regional policymakers and communities, which positions them to guide interventions that enhance resilience at local and regional levels.
  • Driven by a desire to help others, many students and faculty can develop initiatives and form volunteer groups to aid those in need before, during, and after a crisis.

The examples are endless. So much so that some AACSB-member business schools have made crisis management a distinctive part of their reputations, thought leadership, teaching identities, and policies. Rohrer College of Business in New Jersey, for example, has embedded crisis management modules in four core courses, reaching 1,000 students per semester.

Bournemouth University Business School in the United Kingdom has a dedicated Disaster Management Centre that offers assistance to communities in need. The center also offers modules to students enrolled in its tourism, sports, and event management courses, as well as makes educational opportunities and research available to professionals worldwide. When students have such opportunities to become expert crisis managers, they can gain a comparative advantage over their peers at other institutions.

Focus First on ‘Quick Wins’

Put simply, business schools must serve as role models in their regions by developing integrated management planning and procedures of their own—in effect, by practicing what they preach. But the good news is that, as they cultivate and harness their own internal resilience to disasters, they will work toward fulfilling accreditation standards.

More important, they also can direct their efforts externally, maximizing opportunities to develop thought leadership and build resilience across their regions. Business schools can deliver real, meaningful, value-added societal impact that can make a difference in the lives of local populations affected by crises.

One great place to start is to focus on “quick wins.” For example, a business school might start by assessing which hazards are most likely to impact its operations, infrastructure, and campuses. Ideally, this assessment should involve the creation or refinement of a risk register—a tool that outlines and tracks potential risks.

Next, academic leaders can ask straightforward questions: Which elements of the school’s plans, processes, procedures, and preparations can be updated to address these potential hazards with the least difficulty? Which areas seem most “fixable” in terms of establishing new policies, outlining clear plans, setting aside or assigning resources, and implementing change?

One of the most important “quick wins” is to create a communication strategy. How will faculty and students coordinate and communicate with each other if communication networks are affected? What role will incident management teams play? What strategies will these teams need to deploy? What systems and equipment will they need to act quickly and effectively as a disaster unfolds?

One might refer to these areas as “single points of failure.” These are gaps that can be most easily identified and resolved, but they also are areas where inaction would likely lead to wide and overwhelming systemic problems and breakdowns during crises.

Schools also can learn from each other. Through international associations like AACSB, they can share their experiences, discuss their challenges, and develop best practices for the common good of all.

No Time to Wait

One thing is clear: Schools should not delay in addressing these gaps, because there is no way of knowing what the next external shock will be or when it will arrive.

As part of its own mission, AACSB highlights how important it is for business school leaders to establish up-to-date risk management. The association encourages business schools to lead boldly and innovate in ways that ensure their own resilience and contribute to the resilience of others.

I am delighted to share that AACSB is offering a new Crisis Management Seminar, which will be held in November at its Tampa office. Those who attend will discuss ideas for integrating crisis management into their schools’ missions and strategic plans, as well as the ways that their crisis preparation links to AACSB accreditation standards.

Attendees will learn from schools with effective emergency response plans already in place. In addition, they will take part in exercises that will introduce practical ways that attendees can engage in effective crisis management at their institutions.  

As facilitator, I look forward to sharing experiences and best practices with colleagues and discussing how effective emergency planning can transform a business school’s strategic plan. Such preparation not only enhances a business school’s reputation during any time of crisis, but also positions any institution to make a positive societal impact in its community.

Lee Miles
Professor of Crisis and Disaster Management and Deputy Dean, Bournemouth University Business School
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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