Proper Crisis Management for Learning Professionals

Proper Crisis Management for Learning Professionals

The Best Crisis Is The One That Never Happens. But If One Does Hit Home, Be Ready To Respond.

A working definition of crisis is “a significant threat to operations that can have negative consequences if not handled properly,” according to Dr. W. Timothy Coombs, writing for the Institute for Public Relations. “In crisis management, the threat is the potential damage a crisis can inflict on an organization, its stakeholders, and an industry.” That’s not even taking into consideration (and it’s a major consideration) what it can inflict on employees.

Granted, many crises have little to no direct effect on learning departments or divisions within a corporate bureaucracy. But, as Dr. Chris Hardy of the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) found out, some can have an absolutely numbing effect on day-to-day operations.

On Aug. 11 of last year, the DAU’s brand-new Teaching & Learning Lab (TALL) —with 30 projects running —burned to the ground (photo page 31).

“It was pretty traumatic out in the parking lot watching the building burn down,” remembers Dr. Hardy, director of the Global Learning and Technology Center at DAU. “We lost the lab as well as office space and hardware for the entire department. We lost the learning analytics office, all of our smartboards, and our knowledge-sharing and curricula development facilities.

“The biggest impact was that 60 people lost their laptops and recent work. People lost all of their wall furnishings like diplomas, autographed photos — even some car keys. But, thank goodness, no one was injured, and we didn’t lose our main servers that housed the LMS, which were located in another building.”

The crisis at the DAU was totally unexpected, as fires usually are. Thankfully, they are not a common occurrence in the learning professional’s world. But other types of crises that cause anything from a minor to a major disruption in service do arise. Among governmental organizations, cybersecurity is a major concern. Among companies in the public sector,
it’s not just having a system invaded by viruses and worms but also having the electronic equipment fail completely. And organizations in both the private and public sectors suffer from unexpected crises due to severe personnel management problems.

Accenture, a management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, believes that technological change (widespread use of the Internet and mobile communications), rapid globalization, and interconnection among economies makes it more difficult for traditional risk- and crisis-management practices to keep up. It further believes that companies often find themselves preparing for and responding to the most recent crisis, while pushing into new businesses without establishing the necessary safeguards against failure.

One of the things that definitely helps is to have a written procedure in place before a crisis arises. At DAU, written crisis-related programs and standard operating procedures existed that covered various crises such as fire prevention and evacuation procedures; continued operations plans for redundant LMS capabilities; disaster preparedness plans; and the
emergency notification process — all of which cover a wide variety of possible prevention and response activities.

How to Respond to a Crisis

Before even being faced with whatever might be termed a crisis, astute organizations should be prepared for all eventualities. Accenture, a management consulting company, recommends four basic business philosophies:

>> Be prepared for unexpected failures.

>> Ensure that crisis management operates across structures, functions and divisions, both vertical and horizontal.

>> Recognize the crisis early, and take quick, decisive action.

>> Communicate thoroughly, effectively and frequently with all audiences.

The first hours after a crisis occurs are the most important. Dr. W. Timothy Coombs, writing for the Institute for Public Relations, suggests a few initial best-practices:

1) Be quick and try to have initial response within the first hour.

2) Be accurate by carefully checking all facts.

3) Be consistent by keeping spokespeople informed of crisis events and key message points.

4) Make public safety the number one priority.

5) Use all available communication channels including the Internet, intranet  and mass notification systems.

6) Provide some expression of concern/sympathy for victims.

7) Remember to include employees in the initial response.

8) Be ready to provide stress and trauma counseling to victims of the crisis and  their families, including employees.

The Crisis Management and Disaster Recovery Unit goes even further defining additional phases to effective crisis management that are longerlarger in scope:

9) Set up a business continuity project.

10) Review the different types of emergencies that can arise and assess their  risks to various business processes within your organization.

11) Identify back-up and recovery strategies.

12) Develop procedures to be followed in the event of a crisis or disaster.

13) Develop detailed recovery procedures for the business.

14) Test the recovery procedures in semi-realistic emergency conditions.

15) Train all employees to assist the business recovery process.

16) Write a business continuity document, and keep it up to date, reflecting all changes in business process and employee structure.


A crisis can create three related threats: (1) public safety, (2) financial loss, and (3)reputation loss.

“Effective crisis management handles the threats sequentially,” notes Dr. Coombs. “The primary concern in a crisis has to be public safety. A failure to address public safety intensifies the damage from a crisis. Reputation and financial concerns are considered after public safety has been remedied. Ultimately, crisis management is designed to protect an organization and its stakeholders from threats and/or reduce the impact felt by threats.”

That’s from an organizational standpoint. But on a more personal level, a catastrophic crisis can have a crippling effect on employee morale and, ultimately, efficiency.

So managers must, with some dispatch, deal with employees who might get hurt physically and/or psychologically, notes the Asia Risk Management Institute: “Unfortunately, one of the critical errors in crisis management planning is the strong tendency to focus attention and efforts on systems, operations, infrastructure and public relations, with people coming
in last on the list of concerns and hence often ending up neglected. This is a serious problem; organizations need to pay greater attention to the impact of critical events on employees, their families and the community as a whole for one simple reason: business recovery cannot occur without motivated employees.”

If the crisis does indeed affect employees (and most do), managers should offer a compassionate understanding of what the employees must be feeling. Cold communications do not work in a crisis. By speaking honestly and communicating with employees, the crisis will be more likely to pass quickly, allowing the business to get back on track.

“Our employees reacted differently,” Dr. Hardy remembers. “Some took it in stride, some went through tough emotional times with the loss of their office, intellectual capital on their laptops, their precious memorabilia, pictures and family items. [So] supervisors and HR had to be sensitive to each of their needs. We also got them together discuss their losses, to
recognize with themselves and each other possible different emotions to expect.

“What became very important was to get people taken care of and recover as much as possible of personal effects, relocated, and back on the job. We also had several town-hall-type meetings to discuss as a team their needs and concerns. Later, we conducted a team picnic sponsored by the organization and attended by its president that let us know her appreciation and her support for the future. The rest of the university coalesced around us the provided emotional support.”


Not many learning professionals will face a crisis as devastating as the DAU did in September 2012. But having a set of logical, compassionate, step-by-step written procedures helps get any organization back to speed in the shortest possible time frame. (Photo courtesy DAU)


Once employees’ needs are taken care of, organizational needs must be addressed. That includes getting a business, department or agency back up to speed as quickly as possible.

Follow-up concerns specific to the DAU incident were ongoing communications with the fire department, notifying leadership, relocation, re-equipping and re-location at an alternative work site in order to continue its mission as early as the next day.

Depending on the nature of the crisis, leadership must determine the next steps toward ameliorating the damage. (See sidebar.) By taking the proper steps, organizations can recover effectively from any given crisis. But the key is to make it “go away” — in all respects, as quickly as possible.

“Within a period of weeks,” Dr. Hardy remembers, “our folks were operating again. We had to borrow classrooms when needed, but the lab projects kept going.”

The DAU’s new TALL facility was to be completed this summer. “We did learn some things,” he admits, “so it will be a lot more agile as far as configuration. But the projects — the work itself — never stopped.”

And that’s good crisis management taken to the nth degree.

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