Energising resilience, accelerating agility, and leveraging collaborative partnerships for recovery

19 April 2021

By Professor Yipeng Liu FAcSS (Director of the Centre for China Management and Global Business, Henley Business School, University of Reading)

Photo by grainfalls on Unsplash

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic; 23 March 2020 witnessed the first national lockdown in the UK. More than one year has passed, and people, organisations and societies have experienced unprecedented challenges, including with emergent new ways of working and living.

Alongside the roll-out of vaccination programmes around the world and the promising light looming at the end of the tunnel, what have we learned, and how can we design and implement appropriate management practices and policy measures for a recovery-ready strategy to boost the economy and bring our lives to a new normality?

The management of a global health crisis is a complex affair. It requires individual, organisational, and institutional responses and large-scale coordination. Some Asian countries appear to have contained the virus and secure vital supply chains more effectively than other countries[1]. For instance, Singapore, South Korea, and China have demonstrated early success in flattening the curve of the pandemic. These countries have commonly leveraged advanced digital infrastructure and information and communication technology (ICT) capabilities to trace contacts and manage containment measures by promoting collaborative innovation efforts between public and private sectors. To do this, three essential concepts underpinned by the social sciences are critical for individuals and organisations to navigate the global challenges and to foster recovery and growth. They are resilience, agility, and collaborative partnerships.

Resilience has become more crucial than ever[2]. In organisation and management studies, resilience can be understood as the skill and the capacity to remain robust under conditions of enormous stress, change and disruption. It is important to develop an appropriate resilience capability for individuals and different types of organisations, because they may encounter different levels of risk with varying coping strategies and capacities[3].

Existing organisational adaptation theory seems to be inadequate in the face of life-threatening events such as natural disasters, terrorist attack and pandemics. But readiness is surely a critical element. Readiness, including readiness to use big data, was clearly crucial in the establishment and implementation of an effective pandemic response system. Conducting simulation exercises to ensure individuals and organisations, including communities, schools, hospitals, companies, and public agencies, can respond effectively during crisis and disasters, was also key.

Agility denotes the organisational ability to organise internal resources in responding to the external environment, whether this presents crises or opportunities. Understanding and leveraging agility can speed up the process of recognising opportunity in an entrepreneurial team setting[4]. Thus, agility is closely related to the quality of response processes, including how to control and contain the pandemic, and how business activities may implement a phased-recovery strategy. However, agility in real-world practices does not always generate positive results during extreme events. It is not just the willingness but the ability to act that matters.

While the combined effects of the pandemic shocks from crisis, disruptions and uncertainties have been felt by the vast majority of business and organisations, the magnitude of the effect is not the same for them. Even within a particular sector, the effect is likely to diverge depending on the organisational responses and their coping strategies, especially in their use of different types of collaborative partnerships. Simply put, the organisational form of collaborative partnerships can be especially important for organisations in coping with crisis while building resilience.

While there are many different types of collaborative partnerships— such as mergers and acquisitions (M&A), joint ventures, partnerships between Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and Multinational Enterprises (MNEs), university-industry partnerships, and entrepreneurial partnerships— the key characteristic of collaboration centres on the cooperation of individuals across traditional organisational boundaries. Of particular importance during COVID-19 was collaborative partnerships based on multi-actor collaboration between public and private actors as a driver of innovation.

A brief illustration of the resilience, agility and collaborative partnership framework is the case of Singapore’s whole-of-government approach (WOG) in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic[5]. Singapore is well known for its proactive use of ICT in providing government services. The existence of a stable ICT infrastructure has mitigated adverse impacts on the society and economy by, for instance, assisting home-based learning and remote working. COVID-19 also stimulated the innovative collaboration of research and development (R&D) sectors in healthcare institutions and public agencies to improve the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the development of advanced test-kits. Manufacturing sectors have championed product and process innovation by rapidly adopting new technologies such as intelligent warehouse management systems, predictive maintenance, robotics, 3D printing, and artificial intelligence (AI) in effort to boost the production of PPE.

While there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, there are useful lessons about how countries can capitalise on digital infrastructure and ICT capabilities in responding to COVID-19. The existence of digital infrastructure is a prerequisite for rapid response, yet the readiness and willingness of people and organisations are at the core to determine the recovery trajectory. It is worth bearing in mind that there are societal differences between the East (e.g., Singapore, China) and the West (e.g., UK, Europe, USA). The institutional arrangements, for instance, government power, attitudes towards data-sharing and privacy, can significantly affect the speed, scale and effectiveness of policy initiatives and organisational action. In facing life-threatening grand societal challenge, individuals may be much better off by sacrificing own interests and acting disciplined in the pursuit of community benefits and solidarity for our collective society.

The Chinese word for ‘crisis’ (危机wēijī) may help in understanding what we need.  It is made up of the two words Wei (危 = crisis) and Ji (机 = opportunity), indicating the positive aspect inherent in responding to a crisis. The importance of building more capacity for resilience, agility and collaborative partnerships is one insight that the social sciences can give organisations and governments to help now, and to prepare for the challenges of the future.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19

[5] Lee, Lee, & Liu, (2021) Catalysing Innovation and Digital Transformation in Combating COVID-19 through WOG Collaborations in Singapore. Public Money & Management (Forthcoming)

Professor Yipeng Liu FAcSS is Professor in Management and Organisation Studies and Founding Director of the Research Centre for China Management and Global Business at Henley Business School, University of Reading, UK. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. His research interests centre on entrepreneurship and innovation, global talent management, business sustainability, and emerging markets. His recent books are Research Handbook of International Talent Management (2019), and Innovation in Global Entrepreneurship Education (with Heidi Neck, 2021).

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.