The Chinese symbol for crisis combines the symbols for danger and opportunity. The current crisis presents terrifying risks and extraordinary opportunities to our country, our organizations and the field of HR. Given the current landscape, peacebuilding offers some insights and tools to think creatively about options for a post-COVID-19 world. Sadly, the current issues affecting Western CHROs and organizations are hauntingly familiar to the work of the United States Institute of Peace in conflict zones. Dramatic unemployment, health disparities, border disputes, travel restrictions and violence related to resource scarcity—these are no longer distant concerns. The current situation presents a huge opportunity for CHROs to work with their C-suite partners to bridge the divide between business strategy and a broader array of stakeholders.
What We Can Learn from Peacebuilding
The world is hungry for enlightened leadership. On April 15, 2020, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) issued a statement of support for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s call for a global ceasefire. This call has been endorsed by over 70 countries as well as by leading religious figures such as Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. The swift endorsement by so many is heartening and indicates the strong desire of citizens and their leaders to turn their energies from fighting each other to fighting the virus. Neither the United States nor Russia have endorsed the ceasefire.
For those not familiar with USIP, a brief introduction lays the foundation for comparison and insights between the field of peacebuilding and issues related to the current crisis. Since its founding in 1984 as an independent, nonpartisan institute, USIP has linked research, training and policy with practical action in conflict zones around the world. Early sponsors of the Institute were World War II veterans who returned home and served in Congress. Experiencing first-hand the ravages of WWII, they insisted that it was in the national interest to study the strategies of peace as rigorously as we study the strategies of war.
Infectious disease outbreaks have been all too common in fragile, resource-deprived states. In 2011 USIP published Pandemics and Peace, a ground-breaking work by William Long, who is updating his research to include the current pandemic. His work includes cases studies and explores why cooperation and sustainable solutions emerge in some cases and not others. In fact, virus outbreaks have occasionally resulted in deeply contentious countries coming together to combat a common problem. For example, the Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians worked side by side in 2006 in response to the bird flu and again in 2009 in response to the swine flu. We know that in the right circumstances, and with the right leadership, communities can come together in the spirit of addressing long-term threats despite short-term conflicts.
The reason international cooperation emerged in some cases and not others is complex and highly contextual. Long developed a model for exploring the nature of international cooperation.
While rooted in conflict zone field research, Long’s model is comprised of fundamental elements of human systems and human behavior. Breakthrough thinking often emerges when applying a model from one field to another. Thus, adapting Long’s three Is of international cooperation provides new ways of thinking about organizational and economic recovery from the pandemic. Each of the three elements require leadership, whether by officials or citizen movements.
This pandemic demonstrates the breadth and depth of global interdependence. As HR executives, we must be able to hold both a global and local mindset. Even as we craft organizational recovery strategies, we need to understand the global landscape and identify current and emerging interdependencies.
The Three Is as Framing
As strategic advisors, we can adapt the three Is model to better understand potential strategic responses from our field and our organizations:
- Interests: Focus on the equitable, sustainable, long-term interests of multiple stakeholders vs. immediate and short-term solutions.
- Institutions: Establish, nurture and leverage influential and interconnected networks and organizations.
- Identity: Inspire a broader, shared sense of self; a global mindset and commitment to the common good.
As HR executives, we need to challenge a broader definition of the interests driving business strategy. Our organizations tend to focus heavily on the short-term interests of shareholders. Much has been written in recent years about the need to broaden business strategy and governance to include a more expansive group of stakeholders. Indeed, the SEC has issued revised guidance expanding corporate responsibility and transparency in this regard. These issues have broader implications for societies:
- Compensation. Significant economic divides in any county, such as the gap between executive compensation and working-class wages, threaten societal stability. Income inequality is an issue that needs to be acknowledged as a risk to society and businesses. We need to fundamentally rethink compensation philosophy and structure in our organizations.
- Healthcare Investment and Treatment. According to a recent Harvard study, without massive investments in testing, tracing and selective isolation, the current widespread physical distancing will need to continue for 12 to 18 months and will cost trillions of dollars. The government’s underinvestment in public health initiatives saved money in the short-term but resulted in devastating long-term effects.
Major international organizations like the United Nations, World Health Organization and International Monetary Fund create a powerful foundation for the world’s economy. These organizations provide oversight and checks and balances against oppressive regimes and protect human rights. As influential as these organizations are, business writ large is the single most powerful force on the planet. CHROs can be the torch-bearer for using this influence to protect workers and enhance the health and wellbeing of all citizens.
- Restructuring Supply Chains. Businesses will play a critical role in the creation of a post-pandemic world. Supply chains inevitably will be diversified in response to the pandemic to be more local and national, and businesses by necessity will reestablish a more sustainable multi-lateral approach.
- Mapping Core Competencies and Services. What happens when the world no longer needs the goods and services than an organization provides? What core competencies can be quickly shifted to provide essential goods and services? This pandemic demonstrated the need and the ability to shift core competencies. General Motors shifted from cars to ventilators. New Balance turned from making sneakers to making hospital-grade masks. Distillers have used their alcohol supply to produce hand sanitizer. CHROs know their organizations’ core talent and competencies and can be essential partners to helping businesses pivot as circumstances dictate.
HR has been instrumental in expanding workers’ sense of identity and the broader role of business in society. We have designed and engaged the workforce in:
- Vision, mission and values,
- Employee engagement initiatives,
- Social responsibility efforts, and
- Diversity, inclusivity and equity commitments.
These people-oriented initiatives have contributed to the public’s higher sense of trust in business than government. CHROs have been on the forefront of this vote of confidence in business. How we respond as advisors to our companies and advocates for workers may be a defining moment for our field.
Our Call to Action
We know from Long’s field work that transformation is possible when leadership leverages the three Is. The business community has a commendable track record of stepping up in times of crisis with innovation, investments and expertise. Here are some areas that demand our immediate attention:
- Returning to work needs to be measured and controlled in order to ensure the safety of our workers and the American public.
- Business needs to be at the forefront of bridging the digital divide by ensuring that all employees are equipped to telework and helping their families secure the technology they need for homeschooling.
- Assembly lines and manufacturing needs fundamental redesign/restructuring to protect workers. Physical distancing, personal protective equipment and systematic testing must be standard operating protocols.
- We need to advocate for government investment in widespread testing, as it will allow the safe return to the workplace and will accelerate the return of the economy.
- We need to leverage our professional networks to share strategic thinking and partnership. The People + Work initiative launched by Accenture in partnership with leading CHROs Lisa Buckingham of Lincoln Financial, Christy Pambianchi of Verizon, Pat Wadors of ServiceNow and Ellyn Shook of Accenture is a powerful example of strategically leveraging a network. People + Work is an employer-to-employer exchange that connects talent pools impacted by downsizing to rapid upscaling opportunities.
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. This pause, and the devastating toll it has taken, seems to be lasting forever. But it is a moment in time when we are reminded that we are all in this together. There are many lessons to learn—and most of those lessons will be about how we can better understand and influence human systems and human behavior. CHROs and our business colleagues have the opportunity to help create a post-pandemic world. It will not emerge by repairing a torn garment—it will require us to weave new cloth.
Kathleen Ross, Ph.D., is Chief Administrative Officer at the United States Institute of Peace and an Editor-at-Large for People + Strategy.