Organizational Preparedness with COVID-19: Strategic Planning and Human Creativity

By Yingying Zhang-Zhang and Arup Varma

COVID-19 arrived with force and unpredictability, dragging sectors and industries to an unprecedented and uncertain situation. Companies and organizations reacted, but most were far from being prepared. Tourism, retailing, manufacturing, logistics, education, healthcare, and automobile are some of the industries most affected by the lockdown situation created by COVID-19, in order to restrict mobility and reduce the pandemic diffusion through contacts. Some examples could be of tourism sector provided by United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (2020): available data show a 22% decrease of international travels in Q1 2020, with March arrival down by 57%; this is a loss of 67 million international arrivals and USD 80 billion in receipts. The scenario continues uncertain with an estimated decline of 58% to 78% depending on the advancement of containment and travel restrictions. UNWTO (2020) estimates this scenario implies 100 to 120 million direct jobs at risk in the tourism sector, the worst result since 1950 and a disruption of sustainable growth since 2009 financial crisis. Many organizations are under pressure on how to survive with different measures and trying hard not to go bankrupt.

A European multinational’s board of directors asked a strategic question during 2009 financial crisis: how can companies think strategically when running short of cash to survive for tomorrow? Yet, it is hard to think long term when one cannot survive in the short term. However, arriving in such an extreme situation of cash shortage may also be the consequence of strategic errors, decisions made previously.. The famous entrepreneur, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, often says: repair the roof on a sunny day (Tsui, Zhang and Chen, 2017). No organization is perfect, as the market and environment changes constantly, at different degree of dynamics. Companies often have one or another imperfection in different organizational parts of structure, system, policy and practice. As the organization grows, restructures, or merges, internal resources, assets, and capabilities adjust constantly in the process. Have the organizations been preparing themselves both for growth and crisis during the brilliant sunny days? Fixing the hole  in the roof during sunny days is relatively easy with planning. If this is not done yet, when rain comes, it is hard to fix it and the situation just worsens. In the airline industry, though the whole industry is severely affected, the one who goes bankrupt first most likely has strategic problem previously, such as the case of Avianca illustrated below.     

Avianca (AVH), a Colombian airline, the second-oldest continuously running airline, and the third-largest airline in Latin America based on market share, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US Southern District of New York on May 10, 2020. Despite some progress that Avianca made in restructuring debts during the past year, COVID-19 pandemic spurred the crisis and weakened its position further, to locate it in a worse economic situation than many other airlines. Bankruptcy was the only choice to attempt protection with little government support.    

Source: Gallón, Ehlinger and Toh (2020); and CAPA (2020)


Strategic planning and the role of human resources

To prepare organizations for different scenarios, the strategic tool of scenario planning or using scenario planning software has been very useful to allow companies to confront different possibilities and options in hand for rapid responsiveness. Nonetheless, this idealistic formal strategic tool for planning is not perfect either. COVID-19 is such an unprecedented occurrence that the last comparable pandemic is from a century ago i.e.,  the Spanish Flu. Hardly any organization has taken such a scenario into their recent planning and analyzed it in advance. Henry Mintzberg has long alerted us to the the fallacy of design and planning school with emerging and non-deliberate strategies. Scholars such as Dyer (1983) estimate that around 70–80 percent of all organizational strategies are results of informal adaptive processes, rather than formal planning processes. Based on these premises, Zhang, Dolan, Lingham and Altman (2009) propose a dynamic model of strategic human resources to function in an uncertain and changeable international business environment, where uncertainty is the only certain thing that we have. That is, leadership and learning are converted into strategic human factors to trigger, build and reinforce organizational structure and system formed by a human pool of knowledge workers. No strategic plan could have foreseen the arrival of COVID-19 like hurricane. After several months of data accumulation, now we may be able to adjust a relative accurate estimate to set up scenario for analysis and planning. But organizations need to act and react at the first instant to keep making decisions. Waiting could have been an option but the price to be paid is the loss of opportunity which appears in a very short period of window opening time (Bourgeois & Eisenhardt, 1988).  

Addressing organizational preparedness needs to focus on these dynamic strategic factors to trigger the creativity of individuals, aggregated at organizational level of innovativeness (Zhang, Zhou & McKenzie, 2013). Through reflective learning (Tsui, Zhang & Chen, 2017), leaders, managers, employees, staff, or any knowledge worker related to the organization could contribute novel ideas in a systematic and channeled manner to maximize its effectiveness. Leadership building corresponding organizational culture and values is required to make this happen, and get it done. Organizations need to be capable to appropriately explore and exploit the individual level creativity and internalize it into the organization’s (Zhang, Zhou & McKenzie, 2013).


According to the database of World Bank Group (2020), 180 countries have closed their schools as of late April, with 85% of student out of school worldwide.

Multilevel and multi-dimensional preparedness – the case of education sector

With the COVID-19 being such an unprecedented surprise for the world, academia is one of the worst affected sectors. Though universities and schools continue to operate by turning in-class teaching to online, many primary and secondary public schools have simply closed and sent students home with a list of schedules to be replicated as if at school. Higher education at undergraduate and graduate level continues relatively regular classes using platforms such as Canvas, Zoom, and similar media. As the world struggles to understand how to deal with COVID-19, one thing has become clear. For most of us, life will never be the same again (Li & Lalaina, 2020). The educational sector has not fared much  better in comparison with tourism industry, though the impact is reflected in different dimensions. According to the database of World Bank Group (2020), 180 countries have closed their schools as of late April, with 85% of students out of school worldwide. UNESCO estimates over 1.2 billion children are out of the classroom globally (Li & Lalani, 2020). Over 220 million students’ tertiary education is estimated to be disrupted due to the institutional closure because of COVID-19 (World Bank Group, 2020). Working from home has been a popular practice for most academics and students via online class during the period of COVID-19, including top universities like Harvard and Cambridge University, with a few exceptions like National Taiwan University and International University of Japan. The traditional face-to-face classroom is more of an anomaly. At this point of evolution of the occurrence, scenario analysis could be practiced to make an estimate of optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic scenario of the ease of the lockdown and social distancing practices of COVID-19 for Fall term course’ commencement. The most realistic scenario at the moment seems that certain degree of travel restriction will still apply for some time — consequently, for most universities they will continue the application of remote teaching as during current containment. But the question is: have organizations in the educational sector prepared themselves in the pre-, during-, and post-COVID-19 era? See our proposed framework in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Organizational preparedness framework


The current evolution in the sector started with Chinese universities and schools, which delayed  commencing the academic term after their return from Chinese New Year Holiday (January 25 as the first day of Chinese new year 2020) due to the outbreak. Later on, most of them started online teaching and even with some other administrative support activities such as admission and placement tasks, led by Tsinghua University and Peking University among others. Some universities in Hong Kong started this virtual process earlier in November 2019 when the demonstrations forced the closures of many schools. An international student carrying out his exchange program in Hong Kong University of Science and Technology commented that he had to be repatriated due to the turbulence and was continuing his study program online. An associate professor of human resource management at Wu Han University commented in March, “I am still in Su Zhou, my hometown where I was taking my Spring Festival holiday. University told me do not return at the moment and wait for further instructions.

For some educators in the United States and Europe, it was almost not a surprise to learn that many universities around the world had made the transition to online teaching in response to the global pandemic. Most, if not all, had made this transition during a period of one or two weeks in February and March when the pandemic diffused rapidly in these continents. A female faculty member in a university in California said, “I am working from home. With kids running around, it is very difficult.

Organizational level strategic preparedness: Yet it is true that few could have predicted COVID-19. At  best, we are academics, researchers, managers, innovators, but not psychics. But a key factor for going through the major changes in the educational sector with COVID-19 is the online teaching, a change of the means on how to deliver the services in this particular sector. This tendency has been there for a long while with a list of different technological tools developed over time (See a list of distance learning solutions by UNESCO, 2020). These who have been in the online teaching before or at least incorporated certain digital measures in the integrated educational system are at advantage. This could be part of the system level of technical preparedness, but essentially it is the leader’s vision on the future trends of the industry which makes strategic decisions, according to the dynamic strategic human system proposed by Zhang et al. (2009).

To be part of these first movers in this segment, universities’ administrators or leaders can allocate resources to invest in developing these necessary capabilities and gain competitive advantages over time. Digitalization has brought the global industries and businesses in a revolution that changes our ways of doing and being. Strategically deploying internet enhances internet marketing capability and consequently the international market performance (Liu, Zhang-Zhang & Ghauri, 2020). Beyond the functionality as marketing instrument, internet and its related IT systems are also critically relevant as part of vehicles to convey and deliver the products and services that an educational institution may provide. This is even an essential for the COVID-19 situation. This system level and technical dimension of preparedness supports an appropriate implementation and functioning of the organizational strategic direction set by leaders. There are different degrees of sophistication. Some actively design and develop different new products and services supported by this digital IT system, while the others merely utilize some existing developed products adapting into organizational needs depending on the mix of strategic vision, available budget and operative implementation decision.

Leading universities such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford have started their initiatives many years ago. With or without offering online degrees, online learning programs, courses, and platforms, there have been different approaches to strategically position one in the forthcoming digitalizing education sector with large investments into it. This is not always true for many other universities. Some public universities might face lack of funds to invest in IT infrastructure. During the COVID-19 crisis, some local universities told their instructors that they were free to choose Zoom, WebEx and others to conduct online class, but the institution would not pay for a premium account allowing a better functionality in the usage of these accounts. Instructors needed to pay from their own pocket if they don’t want a break of zoom session after 45 minutes of free usage. Between these two extreme poles, the majority of universities are in the middle of this continuum occupying different positions in terms of system level technical preparedness, partly depending on the previous invested system and partly depending on the future vision and available financial capabilities.

As Business school professors, we have been watching carefully as universities around the world have been scrambling to adapt their delivery models and other student services to the new reality. Given that the situation is still evolving as we write this at the beginning of June 2020, it is tough for anyone to deliver the final verdict or offer a clear roadmap for the future. However, universities don’t have the luxury of waiting and watching, and must act right away, and adapt as the situation develops. Immediate changes occur for faculty and students to be able to successfully make the transition, so what is the individual level cognitive preparedness?


Learning: The key for COVID-19 period online teaching

Zhang et al.’s (2009) model proposes learning as another dynamic strategic human factor to trigger cross-level strategic changes. Learning as a knowledge internalization process, occurs much at individual level, and organizations need to be capable to adsorb this learning at collective level into the organization for further knowledge accumulation, diffusion and new knowledge generation (Zhang, Zhou & McKenzie, 2013). A cross-level of learning and knowledge transfer process is desirable for both inter-organizational and intra-organizational as Liu and Zhang (2014) find in their empirical studies.

For the shock of COVID-19, most individuals  have not had time to adjust to the shock and be prepared for what was to come in terms of the change of work and living. Learning by doing, trial-and-error has been the principal method that faculty members adopt to start their adventures in using IT software to conduct remote teaching. Depending on the sophistication level of the organization chosen IT tools, training sessions have been organized or provided, or not. In spite of provided IT support, a fast and sudden change of this kind is not easy for  faculty members at different stages. A professor in Pennsylvania shared a YouTube video link among colleagues: “This has been Day 2 in our sudden move from in-class to total online teaching.  The YouTube video below says it all!” In the video, a senior faculty was playing guitar and singing, “At first I was afraid. I was petrified… And so I’m back. Students are gone… It took all the strength I had not to lay down and die. Kept trying hard to mend the pieces of my syllabi…Oh, as long as I know how to zoom, I know I’ll be alive. My students still will learn. And my paychecks I will earn and I’ll survive. I will survive. Hey Hey”. The video was uploaded on March 16, and had 2.2 million views in a month and lots of comments. One teacher from Argentina said, “This is so brilliant, feeling so identified.” Another from Singapore commented, “Your lyrics are exactly what we’re facing now.” Another from Australia, “Just did my first zoom training session and heading off to another…You’ve made me smile on a very scary day.”      

Largely depending on individual self-learning, community sharing has been also very helpful to foster the learning experience and accelerate the process of maturation from an incipient to a veteran user of any distance learning solution tool. In one faculty meeting, a professor asked, “Some students do not use video camera during zoom class. What should I do? I am not sure if these students are really on the other side of the computer, or just sign in with their names and then leave.” In this manner, mutual support among faculty members both in terms of technological and emotional sides are useful. However, the challenges brought by virtual classes are multiple, not only for faculty members, but also for students.


Simply put, many do not have access to the requisite software and hardware to be able to take classes from home.

Customer-Supplier technological learning and preparedness

University students are considered as a special type of customers who receive the product and service of knowledge chosen. Instructors are a kind of special supplier embedded in the educational organization to provide part of these products and services. Both students and faculty members experience the preparedness problem at individual level in terms of technological challenges. As for working/studying from home, not all students and instructors have access to the same type or level of technology at home. Thus, the sudden requirement for all students to attend classes from home has put an unfair burden on families that are unable to provide the facility. This is not just an issue between developed and developing countries. As the USA learned recently, this is an issue impacting a largenumber of families in that country. Simply put, many do not have access to the requisite software and hardware to be able to take classes from home. In addition, even those that do have access, are burdened now because both parents might be working from home, and all the individuals at home, including the student’s siblings might need to use the same computer and access internet at the same time for online class attendance. Facility sharing within the family unit can become a source of conflict to optimally utilize technological resources at the right time for online class participation. Intensified heavy online traffic may also cause the slowdown of internet access via wireless connection.    

Fewer than half of students participated in regularly remotely conducted lessons in some cases. The high absence rate appeared particularly among low-income students with limited and spotty access to home computers and internet connections.

(Source: New York Times, April 6, 2020)

Technology on the side of faculty members is more demanding, in order to maintain teaching quality and present the in-class lecture as dynamic. Technology access is not so problematic on the side of students, but coordinating both sides to have optimal functionality may be a challenge for instructors. One commented that, “definitely I will buy a tablet and pen to connect with my PC for next term, because the function of blackboard in Zoom works better.” Another found that deploying two monitors of PC was very helpful since one could show the cameras of each student, and another for the teaching materials such as power points. The other has been considering, if lockdown continues with the COVID-19 or teaching online will be extended, to purchase a projector so then the office room simulates a classroom setting. Some claimed that their universities didn’t provide any training in utilizing virtual classroom software; some others stated that they did provide full support to faculty; while most others would say that some rapid training sessions were provided but those were far more from sufficient to have an optimal quality teaching as what they normally perform. Many instructors expressed the desire to receive more quality training and support on IT utilization. Right now, many perceived that they have been getting along with the tool by themselves, some informal exchange with peers, and other online sources that one searched.  


Some international MBA students questioned the online teaching mode as substitution to their high-tuition-fee in-class program.

Cognitive and emotional learning process and preparedness

Preparedness is not only about the readiness of technological infrastructure, but beyond. Next, it is critical that faculty and students are prepared to be able to teach and learn at home. Many students require structure, a sense of community and peer pressure, to successfully learn at the university level. Some international MBA students questioned the online teaching mode as substitution to their high-tuition-fee in-class program, “I come here to experience the whole environment, ambience and connection with others in the school. By doing it online, what is the difference if I do it from my home country?” Social interactions among peers, with instructors and other surrounding environment are added value for higher education, especially for business schools. By coming to physical class regularly, completing group assignments with deadlines, and with the fear of penalty, many students are able to pull through. A pre-COVID-19 report of New York Times in 2018 raised the concern that online courses harm the students who need the most help. Among other reasons, there is the reduced interaction or no interaction with the instructor.

Many students now required to learn from home do not have the essential structure that they are used to, or the guidance as needed. With more freedom and less peer pressure within a learning community, it is possible that some would fall behind, and not be able to complete their assignments on time or absorb the material in a timely fashion. Some instructors noted that, “these students switch off their video camera often are these who passively participate in regular classes. I sent them a private message via zoom during the class. Some switched on the camera then. But some kept quiet. By the end of zoom session, the one without video camera didn’t leave the session even though I sent another message. It was clear for me that he was absent but only his name attended the class.” Clearly, students need specific training on the effective self-learning with preparation in advance of the online session for the success of the online learning experience. Without certain technological equipment like camera as a reality or an excuse, students may turn off the function of video and mute the voice to minimize participation. In turn, this will affect the learning effectiveness. Therefore, training on self-discipline and preparing students’ expectation in participation should also prove to be helpful.  

Many faculty members are not fully prepared for the online teaching, either. The fact is that many faculty members are having difficulty using technology themselves, and this frustration could lead to blaming it on the students or the system. Another instructor in Europe used Zoom incorporated in Canvas, and found it very practical for students’ discussion forum and Q&A. She recommended using video clip materials in advance of class, and have more personalized consulting to students’ questions. It seemed to be very effective, according to her experience in the finished term. There are a variety of online teaching modes. To which extent the university administration, faculty members and students are prepared for that to come?


Learning expectation and effectiveness gap

Universities around the world use different types of faculty, including tenured or tenure-track, part-time or clinical faculty and adjuncts — many of whom are industry executives. Not all of them are prepared at the same level in terms of conducting online teaching. More importantly, most universities, in general, rarely have a training program for instructors. In the new scenario, this will become a real issue. Not only needing to learn and control with proficiency IT systems, faculty will also have to redesign their content and delivery in order to make it suitable for online delivery.

Many business school faculty members are performers (some are stars in their own mind) who believe the way they deliver the material is what makes it work. No doubt this is true for many, and in business schools, the need for faculty to be performers is very high. However, given that the students will now be watching the faculty member on a computer or a desktop or sometimes even on their phone where they may be the size of a postage stamp (or even smaller), most of the performance will be lost and will not be able to serve the desired purpose. Clearly, faculty will need to re-think their delivery and make it suitable for this new medium. Without access to full equipment to record a stage show like TEDx talks, online instructors now are more limited with their space movement when conducting lectures. Instead of being able to move around in a spacious classroom, they have to sit in front of a PC screen. Instead of being able to supplement their lectures with body language to foster effective communication, faculty members now find themselves with limited communication means through slides, discussion, blackboard and facial gestures.

Faculty will have to redefine their own expectations – clearly, the traditional ways of conducting classes will not work, at least not for a long time! Yet, the student expectations from the faculty member will be at the same level or even higher, because the students do need to get jobs and internships and ultimately be successful executives. Around the world, many faculty members like giving assignments and conducting group discussions using simulations that are very well designed to help students learn intricacies of the subject. Most of these will not be possible in the new environment where all instruction is online. Yet, the learning that was happening through these methods is still critical. This would mean designing new assignments, exercises, case studies, group participation and so on and so forth – indeed, all the different components that make up a typical business school course – in a manner that allows these components to be measured through distance learning. If a class size is small, it is still relatively easy to handle the dynamics. But a regular class size of an MBA could be 50-60, how can the class interaction be smoothly handled in such as dynamic setting? Teaching assistance would need an extra monitor to follow up all students’ participation. Instructors need to learn a new capability to sense the virtual classroom dynamics instead of the physical presence. Traditional eyes contacts to detect and influence participants’ engagement do not work in virtual class any longer, because nobody can tell that the instructor is looking at one particular student or another. Everyone is tense in their small-screened image to hold their head up and be carefully with any single movement.  

If faculty members are not fully prepared for online teaching, especially under the current situation of shifting to virtual classroom in a short time period, they may not be able to be fully familiar with and take advantages of these fancy IT components. Experienced senior lecturers may even have more challenges than junior faculty members in terms of the IT utilization. Like one starts to use a non-native language to conduct classes to a group of native speakers, IT-averse faculty members can be in an awkward position as IT is the main means – language – to express and communicate with the students in the virtual classroom. The awkwardness may add negative value to the knowledge confidence in the class content — a drawback to the pedagogical effectiveness.  


Preparedness in terms integrity and honesty

An additional challenge in the transitional period of online learning at home is the notion of integrity and honesty, which will take on a much bigger role than before. While integrity and honesty always mattered in academia and we expect students to do the work themselves, and not plagiarize or cheat from others, the truth is that the current conditions increase the temptation to cut corners. When students are given assignments to be completed at home, there’s now the possibility that some would be tempted to simply go onto the internet and search for an existing assignment that fulfills the requirement.

The chance of this happening increases now as most students are unsettled having never faced any situation like this before. In addition, the lack of peer pressure and the unavailability of peer help can lead students to seek unfair means. This includes the earlier mentioned case that many students don’t want to switch on their cameras to log on but do not respond. Clearly, some may have genuine reasons because they may not have enough bandwidth for the whole family to be able to be on the camera at the same time. But some may be using this as an excuse to simply “show up” in theory. There is no way for the instructor to know the real reason, and this is a problem. Instructors can call the name for discussion to check if the number is small; but this method will be ineffective if the class size is big.

In all such cases, the importance of honesty and ethics will now get magnified. Many universities already have policies outlining the importance of ethical behavior, and the potential penalties for unethical behavior, but in an environment where the teacher and the student are physically separated enforcing this is going to be tricky. This could also happen when students are required to take online quizzes. Some faculty members give students limited time to answer a large number of questions, as this would reduce the chances that students would have extra time to cheat. Some others have suggested requesting the student to video tape the quiz taking process to ensure the integrity. 


Organizational preparedness uncertainty

Through a framework of multilevel and multidimensional organizational preparedness, we can visualize how leaders may work it through to be better prepared via enhancement of learning experience across individual, system, and organizational level, to interconnect key service delivering persons (i.e. faculty members) with the customer side in the tertiary education.  

Even when the COVID-19 pandemic event passes, social distancing may still be practiced at different degrees depending on the company, industrial and country context. In universities around the world, including business schools, remote teaching during an unexpected event like COVID-19 is a popularized phenomenon. Moreover, many claim that the world would never be the same again. That is the uncertain question on whether online teaching is a temporary transition in most school until things go back to normal, or will continue as the leading means to conduct class. Depending on the premise, strategic planning based on the differentiated scenarios may vary significantly. This is of the major concern for higher educational institutions’ administrators, faculty and students.

Years ago, massive open online courses (MOOCs) were predicted to disrupt the educational industry like many other industries. Coursera and Khan Academy are some of these leading examples. Many US universities have initiated their own online programs and collaborated with MOOCs as a means of students’ attraction for admission purpose. This digital segment grows but it is not yet  mainstream for the education sector. However, now both instructors and students are experimenting with the virtual classroom and starting to get used to it since they are forced to and there are no other alternatives. It will be hard for those who have been learning, adapting and changing their behavior pattern for a long time period, to revert to the initial point. There are  pros and cons with remote teaching. Once the initial barriers to acquire the familiarity in IT usage is overcome, advantages are more evident than before. As a consequence, switching back to the former mode implies an additional cost.

Indeed, with the sudden need to switch to online education, many instructors have struggled with the medium. As the virus continues to impact the world, they will need to learn faster and become conversant with the medium. Beyond initial technical training on the software chosen by the institution such as Zoom, Canvas, Cisco Webex, or Teams, community building among faculty to share the online teaching experience is also needed. Forums, Webinars and online sharing have been spreading exponentially in last months to share the online teaching experience. Content varies from how to adapt the syllabus of a classical interactive class of business schools to an online class, to conducting online tutorial sessions via forum space and motivating students’ participation in virtual class, and utilizing existing video resources to prepare students before class are all of importance to know before going ahead for next online courses.

If the travel restriction is removed, vaccine is discovered, and social distance practice is also relaxed in a post-COVID-19 era, things seem to be able to return to the origin and life could be the same as before. Would that be true? Most likely  not. The general environment will be changed in a definitive manner. Consumer behavior has been changed. In the shifting process from face-to-face class to online class and returning to face-to-face class in International University of Japan, a two weeks experience of online class has shown that 40% of the students preferred continuing with online class instead of switching back to traditional setting. This action experiment has been lasting for months in a majority of universities around the world and consumers’ behavior and preference definitively has been impacted with COVID-19 period’s experience.  


Post-COVID-19 challenges: How far are the organizations prepared?

Having said that, the question is how prepared are we for such an occurrence, and the events that will likely follow in the era of post-COVID-19? Based on different scenarios that may come once the lockdown is over and COVID-19 becomes a distant memory, universities could adopt one of three options: to continue completely with virtual classes, to return to regular traditional form of teaching, or to choose a hybrid mode to combine both. It is not realistic to foresee an immediate massive move of universities to move forward to a full online mode of teaching, as the current situation is a temporary forced one rather than a voluntary choice of the majority higher educational institutions. However, COVID-19 will leave a profound mark on the education sector. First, even though lockdown will end sooner or later, COVID-19 crisis will still go on for a long while. That implies that many universities are considering their Fall term classes continue online or turn back to offline. University administrators have debated intensively in this regard in various internationalforums. Many universities are expecting remote teaching will be present in next term.

A hybrid model seems to be feasible and desirable in a later stage of COVID-19, which may eventually be popularized in a post-COVID-19 era.

Most of the current online teaching basically is to take the face-to-face class to a virtual space, with the same timetable, almost same material with some slight adaptation. This is not the type of mainstream online courses in the era of pre-COVID-19. A hybrid model seems to be feasible and desirable in a later stage of COVID-19, which may eventually be popularized in a post-COVID-19 era. No matter the pace of this digitalizing education sector, different levels of the organization need to be better prepared from the angle of technology and cognition. Reflective learning allows leadership being able to figure out the best strategic direction to pursue.


Strategic vision through reflective learning

A more-recovered-from-COVID-19 Chinese data distinguishes investment in education and that of education IT. Both have been top investment destinations among others. With COVID-19, people see more evidently the opportunity it presents with the already-initiated online education. It benefits many stakeholders except the existing incumbents in the educational industry, established universities. This latter will resist the change if they are not initiating or joining the EdTech movements. EdTech, like FinTech, will become the mainstream trend to dominate the sector, but not monopolize it. Definitely the online university will expand market share. The iStanford and online Harvard will increase their online part of revenue share. MIT doesn’t have an official online degree yet but has a collaboration with Harvard on the online learning tool and other online education programs.

In the long term, like it happened in the banking industry, will EdTech be the trending topic to replace traditional universities? But in the short term, it just marks this tendency. With EdTech, JV or alliance with Google, Facebook or Alibaba or Zoom or other major industry players would be necessary if one doesn’t possess strong proprietary IT platform. What is the strategic vision of the university and their leaders regarding the digitalization of the world? This strategic vision implies the direction university will set in terms of digitalization of their institutions and determines the degree of organizational preparedness.



These who are visionary with the digitalizing educational sector have better degree of preparedness and the advantages to deal more smoothly with this current COVID-19 remote teaching, because they possess existing technological infrastructure, resources and capabilities to handle online teaching, and the knowledge to replicate and train others rapidly. Some others may follow up this trend faster than planned or make up their mind if they have been considering for a while. However, a complete transformation to online in higher education will not be a fast resolution in the short term. Partly, it is the social interaction adding value to higher education, which is not substitutable in short, especially the current technology such as AI is not yet very advanced. Partly, it is the administrative heritage and organizational resistance to changes that slow down the process. In the United States, and increasingly in other parts of the world, the tenure system dominates university faculty. The concept of tenure means that faculty can continue to teach as long as they are physically able, with no fear of being terminated for unacceptable performance. This, of course, means that faculty do not have to keep updating or upgrading their skills. In the current scenario, this can prove to be a huge disadvantage as many faculty members are not comfortable having to use computers to teach. That is, very likely the hybrid model will be the best we can see in a post-COVID-19 scenario. Though, how to combine these two modes, in which way, is another question to explore. Resistance exists no matter which direction to go. These who have been getting used to online systems will resist on giving up newly acquired teaching skill. Remote teaching also provides more flexibility and better time management to these who have to commute long distance to university for fulfilling their job responsibility, which is a normal practice in society like Japan.

Crisis represents danger, but also opportunity, according to a Chinese proverb. Opportunity could only be identified and grasped by these who are prepared for. Be open minded to encourage new idea generation and creative solution providing in a moment of uncertainty where no explicit and certain rule is to follow. Both Tencent and Alibaba have performed well during the COVID-19 to expand in several business areas. Focusing on human talents and innovativeness have been their focus of preparation and managerial principle. Assess the preparedness of your organization and see how well it may survive in this uncertain-is-certain environment.

Table 1: Key tips for universities, instructors, and students on drawing the best from online learning/teaching

Universities 1. Invest sufficient resources in software and hardware acquisition
2. Regularly train faculty and staff in online teaching methods
3. Offer a hotline for faculty, staff, and students for online teaching help
4. Foster and sustain culture of flexibility and innovation
5. Revisit and revise curricula and teaching methods
6. Train students at initial orientation in online learning methods
7. Assist students to acquire necessary technology through loans or scholarships
Faculty 1. Be ready to unlearn old instructional methods
2. Attend training and be open to learning new instructional methods
3. Update syllabi and slides to fit online teaching methods
4. Devise new cases, exercises, and group activities
5. Re-think and redesign class participation
6. Update assessment methods and techniques
7. Foster a sense of community through extra-curricular online activities
8. Make allowances for students’ family situation(s), as relevant
Students 1. Take responsibility for your learning
2. Switch on your webcams and participate in class, per instructor guidelines
3. Help classmates who may not have access to same technology as you
4. Modify your expectations of what a class/lectures/instructor should be like
5. Offer suggestions to instructors and your university on how they could improve online learning
6. Be flexible


Finally, in the educational sector, what is clear is that universities, instructors, and students will all have to do their bit – be flexible, resilient, and prepared for the unexpected. Table 1 presents a summary of the key tips for all 3 stakeholders to help academia around the world rise to this challenge

About the Authors

YingYing Zhang-Zhang is currently a Full Professor of Management at Graduate School of International Management, International University of Japan (IUJ). Prior to her position at IUJ, she was a faculty member at CUNEF (Complutense University of Madrid) in Spain. She has also held several visiting positions as professor and scholar around the world in the US, Latin America, UK, and Germany. She publishes frequently research articles in management journals and has written several management books, with the latest one Leadership of Chinese Private Enterprises (2019 Academy of Management George R. Terry Book Award Nomination). She is a board member of Women in the Academy of International Business. Contact:

Dr. Arup Varma (Ph.D., Rutgers University) is Interim Chair and Professor in the Management Department at the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago. Dr. Varma’s research interests include performance appraisal, and expatriate issues. His research has been published in several leading journals including Academy of Management Journal, Personnel Psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology, Human Resource Management Review, Human Resource Planning, Journal of World Business, International Journal of Human Resource Management, Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, Dispute Resolution Journal, and Organization Development Journal. From 2001 to 2004, he served as the Book Review Editor for the Human Resource Management Journal, and has also been a guest editor (for special issues) of several leading journals — the Human Resource Management, the Journal of World Business, the International Journal of Human Resource Management, the Journal of International Management. Human Resource Management Review, and Personnel Review. He is also the co-editor of six books – Performance Management: A Global Perspective (Routledge, 2008), Doing Business in India (Routledge, 2010), and Managing Human Resources in Asia-Pacific (Routledge, 2013), Performance Management Systems: An Experiential Approach (Sage, 2020); Indian Business: Understanding A Rapidly Emerging Economy (Routledge, 2019); and Spirituality in Management: Insights from India (2019, Palgrave Macmillan).


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