26 Mar, 2020

What does this all mean for Boards in the education sector?

In this blog, Patrick Dunne, Board Chair at Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA) writes about what the COVID-19 pandemic means for education and jobs, and how boards in the education sector must respond.

There has never been a more testing time for Boards. Covid-19 feels like SARs, 9-11 and the Financial crisis all rolled into one. The existential threat to businesses and more importantly to our colleagues, friends, families, and selves is real.  

It’s hard to put things in context when we are being overwhelmed with information and advice. But as Board members, we need to be decisive now in protecting our people and organisations. 

At the moment, the numbers affected in the context of the wars of the last century, the AIDS or Syrian crises, seem small. But this feels different. The speed with which it began and the acceleration in cases and deaths is unnerving. The obvious fear in politicians and health officials’ faces and voices and the acceleration of the death toll, especially in Italy, suggests far worse to come. 

If you are into scary charts, the John Hopkins University map showing recorded global COVID-19 cases in real-time makes the danger clear. 

Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University & Medicine

Yet China, if you believe the numbers, seems to have got a grip of it quickly and businesses and communities are recovering rapidly. 

Even if things turn out to be not as bad as feared, an effective vaccine is found and economies recover, things will be different and we will view and approach risk in a profoundly changed way. 

What does this mean for education and employment? 

Most countries in the world have closed their schools and those completing their education are entering the job market. The crisis will have a profound effect on young people and especially on those most vulnerable. A blog by the World Bank explores the impact of this: 

"As we have seen from previous health emergencies, most recently the Ebola outbreaks, the impact on education is likely to be most devastating in countries with already low learning outcomes, high dropout rates, and low resilience to shocks 

The outbreak of the virus and lockdowns at the national level could be used as a test for the education technology interventions for distance learning. Unfortunately, few systems arrived at this point fully prepared." 

In countries already struggling with high youth and graduate unemployment, the long term social and economic consequences of a year of lower employment could be profound.  

Smart investment in distance learning and Education Tech, as China and Korea have shown, can mitigate these effects. However, you need the capital to invest and the underlying infrastructure to enable it to work. 

Employers will have to step up, innovate and recognise that it is in their long-term interests to ensure that young people are well educated and have fulfilling jobs. Hard at a time when business is tough, but investment in apprenticeships, scholarships and properly structured work experience can deliver value today as well as drive innovation, brand loyalty, and productivity. 

The nature of employment and people’s relationships with employers is more precarious now. A bright spot has been the recognition that many of the lowest formally qualified and paid, that we all depend upon. Let’s hope that the appreciation they are being shown continues in tangible ways. 

Communication technology is proving an incredible force for good enabling a measure of business continuity and a sense of community to be maintained. 

Expectations have never been higher, and we will all be judged on how we step up to the crisis. 

So, what does this mean for boards in practice? 

With the number of those working from home rocketing, the pace of change to the world of work will also accelerate. The Chartered Management Institute’s inspired Management 4.0 initiative may go forward at warp speed. So many of us are likely to change the way we manage as a result of this. 

The investor in me thinks that there will be some brilliant opportunities for businesses to buy others, invest in capital equipment and innovate if they have the cash and mindsets to do it. 

The Charity Chair in me feels so grateful for unrestricted reserves and their power to preserve capabilities and momentum when there is an external shock to the system.  

At ESSA, we continue to grow the team and board. We need to keep the pace, the mutual respect and the diversity of thought that has enabled us to make such swift progress since we started. Everyone we add needs to be part of the culture, bring something that will increase the chance of achieving our vision, and be able to adapt to the changing nature of the Board's work as we grow our impact. 

Calm, clear, decisive, empathetic, motivational and realistic leadership will be required from us all with the Board taking a lead.  

The quality of the Chair to make the most out of the board they have will make a huge difference. If you haven’t got the right Chair for a time like this, then someone else will need to step up and fill the vacuum without the title.  

I’m a natural optimist and believe that most Boards will emerge stronger and more tightly bonded, forged through crisis. Already, I have witnessed in the last few weeks individuals putting the organisation’s and their teams’ interests above their own. They have been brilliant in ensuring oversight as well as providing supportive insight to help the executive with their response.  

We may also see many board members staying on past their term dates with good and bad outcomes as a result. The best will know how to do this well and step back when the time is right. Others sadly not. 

Focusing on purpose, people and process to drive choices will matter more than ever. We all need to ensure that we have the right strategy, resources and governance to achieve our vision.

As with the financial crisis, it is going to be hard to look after everyone’s interests in a perfectly balanced way. So, tough choices will need to be made. 

The quality of the relationship between the Board and the executive is critical in all of this. This is not time for a parallel universe or for people to be trying to do each other’s jobs. We must take an adaptive healthy Venn like approach, as described in "Boards", where the Board and executive priorities are clear. 

Making decisions with incomplete or imperfect information in a fast-changing context is always tough but it is where the best boards make the biggest difference. It will be vital to be able to distinguish between fact and interpretation, and not confuse worrying with thinking. 

(See the original version of this article on LinkedIn


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