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‘VUCA’: an old idea for a new crisis

| October 28, 2020 | 0 Comments


‘Strategic leadership is the process used by a leader to affect the achievement of a desirable and clearly understood vision by influencing the organisational culture, allocating resources, directing through policy and directive, and building consensus within a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous global environment which is marked by opportunities and threats.’

In the late 1980s, when the US Army War College was developing thinking in a post-Cold War era that reflected a more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, I don’t believe that it could possibly have imagined the current global situation in which the world finds itself today. Although the resulting term – VUCA – only really gained currency in the late 1990s, especially after 9/11,2 it soon translated into strategy for organisations and companies to respond to this new world order. In a nutshell, VUCA has become a model through which planning and policy management can be facilitated in education and attached institutions. VUCA is not a new concept of strategic thinking for schools, but now, more than ever before, its relevance should be unquestioned.

‘Compass over maps’

The global pandemic we are facing is a volatile force with which to be reckoned. The speed with which it bred, from its genesis in a market in China to entire countries going into apocalyptic lockdown, caught most governments unaware. Changing variables of national responsivity (resources, medical care, funding) and international cooperation (closing borders, limiting travel) have affected education systems and institutions in all countries. Education in South Africa – indeed, the world – has been thrown into an unimaginable crisis, with lockdowns and national regulations restricting movement. Whilst it has to be acknowledged that this global catastrophe has shown the capacity of many schools (in reality, teachers!) to adapt and go online, it has also highlighted the inequality of education in South Africa – from underfunding, to a lack of basic needs, to the wage gap.

However, that is not the focus of this article. Rather, what can we learn from this? In a country that lacks any real educational direction, schools need to find that direction for themselves. And they need to begin with a clear vision. Decisions made by school leadership teams going forward will first need to counterbalance the turmoil of the economic challenges facing parents of children attending independent education institutions (as well as fee-paying parents at state schools). Furthermore, the economic depression is going to force independent schools to reconsider what is important when it comes to funding their wider curriculum.

Second, the challenge facing teachers is to take forward what really worked from an online perspective. Teachers have come to appreciate the technological issues faced by learners – and we have been forced to adapt our methods and pedagogies. As for the learners themselves: never before has an opportunity presented itself for young people to take ownership of their own learning process. Schools always do plan for the future, but the question is: what will that future now look like? We have no maps to guide us through this volatility, but let our vision be a compass.

‘Seek first to understand, then be understood’

What we have learned during this pandemic is that the lack of predictability has led to uncertainty. Whilst scientists are beginning to understand the virus and its vectors, vaccines are being developed for an organism that by its very nature will mutate. Whilst schools may develop a vision for a postCOVID-19 world, when and how will we implement our policies, considering that the social, political and economic landscape is in constant flux? All that schools can do is to respond to available data and create understanding. It behoves school leadership teams to develop strategies that apply beyond their functional areas to make sense of this crisis. What will be key to developing an understanding is an engagement, through clear and precise communication, with all aspects of a school: students, staff and parents. There is a certain vulnerability and authenticity that school leaderships teams require – to ask for help, to collaborate with the wider staff and to be seen working and caring.

‘Simplicity rules’

It is stating the obvious that schools find themselves in a situation of immense complexity. Schools are being bombarded with many contradictory ideas, in terms of the way forward for education, the application of safety protocols and the opinions of the many. School leadership teams will need clarity to tune out this multitude of misinformation and disinformation, to make the best decisions possible with the most accurate data at hand. School leadership teams need to stay connected to the staff, as they are the daily interface between the school and its policy implementation. Perhaps, more accurately, they need to ‘tune in’ to the mood and wellness of the staff. Tom O’Shea, organisational agility practice leader, puts it thus:

The members of your organisation must all share a mindset of commitment to being focused, fast and flexible fuelled by achieving excellence in the five drivers… anticipating change, generating confidence, initiating action, liberating thinking and evaluating results…. There are a set of agile operating principles that will help shape an organisational agility operating system, [including] a focus on simplicity, speed, synchronicity, fluidity, modularity and scalability.

Schools must remain agile

As government ministers prevaricate and social media influencers struggle to interpret the vagaries of the regulations, there has been an increase in ambiguity. The resumption of school on 1 June 2020 is a case in point: the scheduled announcement the day before schools were due to open was rescinded and replaced by a communiqué that did not clarify whether schools could open or not. Parental anxiety has added to the white noise – which has, in turn, resulted in schools’ decisions being scrutinised and questioned. Purpose and conviction can make sense of the chaos, but it is going to need leadership teams with agility. This will enable the team to connect across the organisation and to implement the necessary solutions. What has been confirmed, as a corollary to this, is that teachers are key. With fewer than two weeks’ notice, teachers were forced to redesign course materials, rethink their methods and reconsider pedagogy, all the while learning to function within an e-classroom.

Talking about the ‘new normal’ is a misnomer – pandemics are not new, and nothing is going to be normal for a while, if ever. Schools and teachers need to take advantage of the challenges we are facing. The national education ministry will now be forced to be held accountable for mismanaged funding, a lack of educational resources and poor planning in the roll-out of basic infrastructure in many (rural) schools. Independent education, acknowledging its inherent advantages, has to take advantage of what is being created. This virus has been the greatest disruptor education has seen and so, we cannot go back to what we were, as the opportunity exists for us to discard old ideas and ways of doing things. For this, we need to prepare – but remember, always put your mask on first.


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Category: Spring 2020

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News posts added for Independent Education by Global Latitude DMA

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