Post-crisis recovery and the co-creation of knowledge
The global crisis unleashed by COVID-19 has provided a jarring reminder of many easily forgotten truths. Perhaps the most striking of these is that even today, in an era when technology has made the sum total of our collective wisdom available on a hand-held device, nobody has all the answers.
This debunking of our assumed omniscience recalls what historian JB Bury labelled “the illusion of finality” – the misguided conceit that there is nothing left for us to learn. By extension, it shows us that there is very little – if anything – about which we can be entirely certain.
The pandemic has also made clear who really keeps the world spinning. The task is not the exclusive preserve of the self-proclaimed “masters of the universe” or the inhabitants of “ivory towers”. The difference-makers are more often than not the people whose quotidian endeavours routinely go unremarked when times are comparatively calm.
Such individuals and groups – key workers, carers, community members – have many valuable insights to offer. They bring first-hand experience, frontline know-how and the habitual application of common sense. Yet their voices are seldom heard when there are decisions to be reached or solutions to be devised.
These two realities – humanity’s enduring fallibility and the undue marginalisation of groups that in fact have much to contribute – serve as a useful starting point for post-crisis recovery. They are the foundations of a process that business schools and many other stakeholders can not only inform but also benefit from: the co-creation of knowledge.
Two types of brilliance
It is well documented that the optimum means of having great ideas is to first have lots of ideas. As double Nobel laureate Linus Pauling memorably observed: “Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.”
Of course, one person alone might be capable of having lots of ideas and may even be able to muster the degree of critical scrutiny required to identify the best of the bunch. But to obtain a genuine diversity of ideas it is usually necessary to involve a genuine diversity of idea producers.
Business school management theorist Meredith Belbin famously demonstrated this in his groundbreaking research into cooperation and collaboration in the workplace. Carried out almost half a century ago, his studies introduced the argument that the most effective teams are those with a mix of different types of people.
Belbin eventually cohered his findings in his 1981 book, Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail. He summarised his conclusions by encouraging organisations of all kinds to reflect on the relative merits of “a collection of brilliant minds and a brilliant collection of minds”.
My own research, much of which focuses on community engagement, has repeatedly underlined this distinction. I have seen the co-creation of knowledge used to build synergies between experts and non-experts; I have seen it used to bridge the divide between individual and state-driven interventions; and, most compellingly in light of current events, I have seen it used to underpin spectacular transformation in a post-crisis environment.
From disaster to renewal
In March 2011, following a massive earthquake 43 miles out to sea, the Japanese coastal town of Minamisanriku was devastated by a series of tsunami waves that hurtled towards shore at up to 400mph before sweeping across the mainland. More than 800 lives were lost. Around 3,000 buildings were destroyed, as were roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. The beach, the heart of the local fishing industry, was left strewn with tonnes of shattered debris.
The Japanese government set aside $263 billion for reconstruction and revitalisation across 20 prefectures, but Minamisanriku was not high on the list of priorities. Incidents such as the meltdown at the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant dominated the political and economic agendas. So residents took matters into their own hands.
What followed was the co-creation of knowledge in full effect. Small businesses, entrepreneurs and the community at large came together to revive the town, with researchers, visitors and other non-“insiders” quickly joining the regeneration effort.
Crucially, nobody claimed to have all the answers. Nobody purported to have much to convey or little to absorb. Many voices were heard, and many ideas were aired. In the parlance of academia, the approach was pluralist and participatory.
Minamisanriku has since thrived. It has even been credited with inventing “blue tourism”, which is rooted in resilience, sustainability, place-based practices and the beauty of nature – a stark contrast to the town’s expected fate of embracing “dark tourism”, which stems from a morbid fascination with death and destruction. I have never witnessed more powerful evidence of how the co-creation of knowledge can turn disaster and despair into renewal and hope.
Shaping a post-pandemic world
With economic activity at multiple levels notably diminished or even at a standstill, renewal and hope are now much needed once more. Businesses of every size and orientation are being forced to question their relevance and direction amid the rapid proliferation of “new normals”. The co-creation of knowledge can help fuel the innovation and change to which crisis invariably gives rise.
The wider worth of business schools’ involvement in this process cannot be disputed. We have a wealth of expertise and experience to impart, not least with regard to how businesses might survive and even thrive in the face of extraordinary challenges.
What may be less appreciated is what we can derive from the process. Here we must again remember that no-one has a monopoly on the best ideas. By definition, the co-creation of knowledge does not result from a one-way flow of information and acumen. Business schools can learn an enormous amount by engaging with small businesses, frontline workers, communities and many other parties.
This is especially important when notions such as “stakeholder capitalism” and serving the greater good are manifestly moving from the margins to the mainstream. Today profit is increasingly balanced with a sustainable form of pragmatism, as highlighted by the growing emphasis on environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations. By co-creating knowledge, we can further advance this agenda.
Ultimately, as already seen with an existential threat such as climate change, shared problems demand shared solutions. The “right” answer might not even exist, but the chances of getting closer to it are likely to be hugely enhanced by granting everyone a voice. As business schools, we should not deem the co-creation of knowledge somehow beneath us: we should view it as absolutely essential to how we can shape and understand a post-pandemic world.
By Mihaela Kelemen, Professor of Business and Society, Nottingham University Business School.