Michael Cross

Assistant Professor of Management Michael Cross

*Editor’s Note: CC Biz Buzz is a new monthly column series that will feature insightful commentary from a member of the Columbia College Robert W. Plaster School of Business faculty.

I have been proud and amazed to see the degree of flexibility exhibited by the students, faculty and administration of Columbia College as we recently pivoted to a virtual campus.  We’re not alone in this, as we’ve seen colleges and universities, secondary schools and elementary schools all make this shift to try to salvage the end of the 2019-20 academic year.  Of course, it’s not just the world of academics that has had to do this.  We’ve all had to adapt to a rapidly evolving new normal.

I’ve been reflecting on the flexibility and resiliency of humankind as I’ve observed events from the screen of my laptop.  Given that I’m still in the throes of the Spring Semester and that I am a Management professor, I’ve also been reflecting on the nature and importance of flexibility in the workplace.  A quick internet search returns some insightful headlines and opening lines:

  • “A flexible company will look for ways to find something that works more efficiently than what you’ve already done.” (If I may, I’d like to modify that to, “A flexible company will look for ways to find something that works,” to fit our current circumstance.  Still, the principle holds.)
  • “Flexibility has taken on a pivotal role in decision-making.”
  • “A flexible work attitude will allow emergencies to be less disruptive to the flow of the business.” (That one is particularly striking at the moment.)
  • “There’s so much more that flexibility can do to improve business.”

All of these internet search quotes are from sites that pre-date COVID-19, but their cogency is magnified exponentially today.

In my strategic management and international business classes we frequently discuss how flexibility needs to be built into our planning processes, our operations, and our relationships with strategic partners.  Flexibility allows us to be nimble, to adapt to changing environments (including such “black swan” events as COVID-19), to respond to expanding or shrinking markets, to reduce risk, and to rise to the occasion when new opportunities or threats present themselves.

Flexibility is an essential business skill, and it is based upon both a personal mindset and a business culture.  It is something we have to cultivate.  As businesses, or organizations of any kind for that matter, we have to fight off organizational inertia and core rigidity.  We have to be flexible to thrive and, sometimes, just to survive!

As we’ve moved to virtual classes, my students have gotten a good taste of what this might look like in the business world.  In preparation for end-of-semester group presentations, teams of three or four students are collaborating outside of class through teleconferencing and document-sharing technologies.  As we’ve held virtual class sessions, some students have occasionally been unable to connect via the internet and have had to resort to dialing into a session on their phone.  In one instance, a team set up a FaceTime session so that a teammate could not only talk with the group but could see what was on the screen.  Given those occurrences during the preparation stage, they now know it’s a real possibility that something like that may occur when they do their virtual presentations for the rest of the class.  They have to be ready as a team to hand off presentation duties to another team member if the designated presenter isn’t able to connect.  Each team member needs to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to dial into the session for audio only and have a copy of their presentation ready at hand so that they can follow along as the presentation proceeds.  This approach of planning for the unexpected and developing contingencies is what the business world had become in the virtual world, even before COVID-19.  They are getting a taste for just how many balls might have to be juggled to make a business presentation work in the virtual world.  In other words, this is workplace reality experienced in the virtual classroom setting.

Albert Einstein posited, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”  A defensive secondary coach might put it this way: “Bend… don’t break.”

Dear readers, please be flexible.  Be smart, be safe, do the uncommon and use common sense.  And wash your hands!

Michael Cross is Assistant Professor of Management at Columbia College’s Robert W. Plaster School of Business.  He teaches management courses after more than 20 years in management roles in a 35-year business career.