*Editor’s Note: CC Biz Buzz is a monthly column series that will feature insightful commentary from a member of the Columbia College Robert W. Plaster School of Business faculty.
On a Saturday afternoon in mid-March, I received the following text message:
“Did you ever have to close for catastrophic reasons?”
You know what this was about don’t you? Mid-March was the time when everyone was scrambling to close face-to-face operations and transition to working from home – if there was any work to do at home. In the case of my friend who was texting, they owned a retail store, but not an essential one. In fact, she was the new owner of the business I had sold to her in the previous year. Unfortunately, this was not anything I had experience with. While I had owned that location since 1995, and even ran a retail operation during the tragedy of 9/11, as well as the Great Recession, the coronavirus pandemic was a new one for me.
Let’s face it, it was a new one for everyone. Knowing what to do given the circumstances had no playbook. We had no experience to rely on and therefore, we felt like it was a total blindside. When I step back and reflect on the past four months however, I wonder was it really a blindside? Was there anything we could have done better as a business community to prepare?
In business, we know a few things that are true. First, the business world moves fast. Things change quickly and we should anticipate that this is the norm. To become complacent and expect things to remain the same will likely result in failure over time. We also know in order to be responsive to the rapidly changing environment, it is vitally important to continually analyze the market and develop intelligence that allows us to be strategic in operations.
Many times though, it is hard to see the forest for the trees. This is especially true for small business owners as they are busy with day-to-day operations; strategic planning time is difficult to come by. If they look outside the organizational walls at all, business managers only tend to look at their local market. What is going on in our hometown, or in the region that we serve? Are new competitors entering or exiting? Is there a big plant that is opening or closing?
Information collection should be ongoing not only at the local level, but also in the national and global market. Areas of interest include changes in the economy, technology, culture, demography, competitors, political, legal, and in the natural environment too. The natural environment is not just about the amount of natural resources that are available for production such as oil or cotton, but also things that happen in nature that adversely affect our business outcomes. Things like a bat-borne illness that turns into a global pandemic.
All this said, I don’t know the answer to my question. I think some would say that it was simply too much to understand and process at the time, and three months was not long enough. Others might say they saw it coming. In my opinion, if business owners were caught off-guard, they should spend some time reflecting on what they missed, and develop their tools for intelligence-gathering for future events.
I’ll close with the opening for my final MGMT 345 Intrapreneurship: Corporate Entrepreneurship lecture when we were deep in the throes of online course delivery and synchronous Zoom meetings:
“There is no time in history that I can remember or imagine, that has tested the need for corporate entrepreneurship more than this time. The challenges to businesses are immense. We talk in this class about the rapidly changing external environment — well here it is. Watch closely everyone. You will learn so very much!”
Becky Bocklage serves as director of Columbia College’s Fishman Center for Entrepreneurship.