A viral story

March 7, 2020 • ILE LAB • Boaz Tamir

For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7) 

Traveling on a crowded train one afternoon I emitted a little sneeze, making my three neighbors jump. In that awkward moment I realized that along with billions of others, I too had become an exhibit in the most popular reality show of the day: the coronavirus horror show.

We are bombarded with headlines from situation rooms, statistics of new cases and deaths, images of healthcare workers in spacesuits, press conferences and news flashes, and above all – surgical masks. And then there was the infected individual who visited a costume store, and all at once preparations for the costume festival devolved into public panic. Even though the epidemic narrative bears only a partial relationship to reality, it has been blown into world-altering proportions, with the potential to curb globalization processes and generate a shift in business models and management principles.

Reality is being shaped by the narrative reverberating through the media and social networks. Decision-makers on the micro (organizational) and macro (national) levels are operating on the basis of an unfounded narrative and thereby increasing the sense of helplessness. Never mind that the common flu is more lethal, or the coronavirus’s minute fatality rate among children and youth, and very low fatality rate below age 45. Whether out of judicious discretion or hysteria, the world has put itself under a lockdown that threatens the economic strangulation and jobs of hundreds of thousands of workers.

The world is undergoing a chaotic upheaval – an event of the type known as  “Black Swan” (Nissim Taleb). Nobody can realistically assess the risk to their personal health, let alone the collateral impacts on the economy, society and politics caused by the media amplification and reverberation.

The same is true for the decision-makers in the public systems: a health system that is strained to cope with routine situations will not withstand waves of corona patients that require a different alignment. Can the economic system withstand the closure of schools and kindergartens over time? And who is going to compensate the owners and workers of the small businesses, hotels and shops, and the public transportation drivers who remain unemployed after having contact with an infected individual?

The fundamentals of a hysterical narrative in the age of globalization

The world is learning the hard way that even AI technology was unable to detect the sources of the epidemic, let alone stop it. Advanced technology in the fields of medicine, natural sciences and pharmaceutics is still unable to provide a suitable response in real time.

The coronavirus is undermining the “modern” management paradigm. It can already be stated that the size of an organization is emerging as a weakness – hierarchical organizations are being revealed as fragile and the decision-makers are in the dark. Companies have announced international travel bans, and the cancelation of conferences, exhibitions, and business meetings. Do virtual communication systems offer a sufficient alternative to interpersonal encounters? Should all office workers be shifted to virtual work from home? And how do organizations under lockdown manage multi-participant meetings?

Above all, the coronavirus crisis is offering the world a lesson in humility and the limits of human power. This global pandemic is showing the world its interdependence and the tough choice between isolation and separatism and openness and cooperation. In the heat of the moment, let us return to the clear voice of Greta Thunberg, who reminds us of the urgency of concurrently tackling the threats to the environment and care for the vegetation and life that may be the source of the emergence of the virus. The lessons from the resonse to the epidemic in China and Iran teach us that cover-up and concealment are not effective. Neither are the Western media’s response patterns, which have caused public panic. Anyone who tries to present global warming as a “hoax” may be boosted the coronavirus horror show. Coping with the epidemic requires transparency, full disclosure, and research based on scientific methodology.

Instead of the appearance of the “black swan” becoming the norm, this event offers anyone concerned with management with a global laboratory for the inductive study of ways to deal with unprecedented phenomena. 

As spring arrives, we will be able to evaluate how the responses to a virus that took on a life of its own changed the world order. Perhaps some of this will lead to inductive lesson-learning and ultimately to the development of an updated management theory. Perhaps we will discover how a flexible agile organizational culture built as a decentralized network of independent teams (and teams of teams) shows resilience and rapid adjustment to a changing reality, and not only in the business context.

 Boaz Tamir, ILE.

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