Message from the Chair:
A better version of ourselves
Dear UNICON colleagues,
Last week, and for the first time in UNICON’s history, our directors conference took place under a virtual format. Valuable insights on the current state of our industry and the future world of work and lifelong learning were shared, through relevant presentations and opportunities for virtual interaction during the sessions held. Based on such insights, as well as on the current situation we face, I would like to reflect on the future of our industry, our consortium and ourselves.
What does the future look like? What are its implications regarding executive education and lifelong learning? For many individuals all over the globe, the scale of the coronavirus crisis calls to mind the 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis events, which reshaped society in lasting ways. In addition to the challenges that took place during such events, the mobility and social interaction constraints that we currently face increase the complexity of the situation we are going through.
As shared on different media over the last couple of weeks, a crisis on this scale will reorder society in dramatic ways, for better or worse. For a start, the comfort of being in the presence of others might be replaced by a greater comfort with absence, especially with those we do not know immediately. Instead of asking, “Is there a reason to do this online?” we may be asking ourselves in the near future, “Is there a good reason to do this in person?” – and might need to be reminded and convinced that there is.
While not everything can become virtual, of course, several areas of our lives may uptake on genuinely useful online tools. Health care systems providing telemedicine so demand and installed capacity are handled in a more effective and efficient manner; allowing partial homeschooling or online learning for kids within families that may prefer such alternative; just to mention a few. It is true that not every job can be done remotely, but many people may learn that the difference between having to put on a tie and commute for an hour or working remotely at home was always just the ability to download one or two apps, plus permission from their boss. So, once organizations sort out their remote work strategy, it may be harder – and more expensive – to deny employees those options.
Also, and once the current situation improves, we may reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods – for health, specially – and public services. The food we eat from a restaurant that denies paid sick leave to its cashiers and kitchen staff may make us more vulnerable to illness, as does the neighbor who refuses to stay at home in a pandemic because our public school failed to teach him science or critical thinking skills. It may also, one might hope, strengthen the idea that government requires highly prepared and specialized individuals. The colossal failure of government administrations both to keep a healthy society and to slow down the pandemic-driven implosion of the economy, might shock the public enough in different parts of our world to insisting on something from government other than emotional satisfaction.
As we are already witnessing, individuals are also being reacquainted with scientific concepts like germ theory and exponential growth. Unlike tobacco use or climate change, science doubters are being able to see the impacts of the coronavirus immediately. We may expect that public respect for expertise in public health and epidemics would be at least partially restored.
In the executive development context, and when a crisis like this one is faced, leaders are forced to think and behave in ways that may feel unfamiliar. Whether it is a technological, financial, natural, or health crisis — at work or in the community — crises demand that leaders take an emergency response plan and adapt it as new evidence and factors present themselves. So, effective leaders need to remain calm and maintain a sense of perspective, in order to reduce loss and adapt as required. They also need to nurture and enrich a humble and continuous learning perspective, since the volatile and uncertain context demands new knowledge and skills to adapt and succeed.
The coronavirus pandemic is already causing immense pain and suffering. But it may also force us to reconsider who we are and what we value, and, in the long run, it could also help us rediscover a better version of ourselves. And just as one of our primer representatives said last week after our COVID-19 flash survey results were shared: peer-to-peer support and input will be very valuable assets at a time like this.
During the closing remarks at the end of our conference, I shared an Albert Einstein’s quote: “It is in crisis that inventiveness, discoveries, and grand strategies are born”. There is no doubt that these times present unprecedented challenges that will shape our world, our industry and ourselves. As such, we will need to think and act in ways we have never thought before, if we want the university-based executive education industry and our own units to adapt, evolve and succeed.
Marco Serrato, Ph.D.
UNICON 2019-2020 Board Chair
Associate Provost, The University of Chicago