June 15, 2020

Creating Institutional Memory for Crisis Management: Six key steps

Managing through a crisis helps to hone skills, but it can also highlight areas for improvement. Here are six steps to consider when documenting what worked — and what didn't.

institutional-memoryWhen Britain's prime minister Harold Macmillan was asked what would determine his government's course, he famously replied, "Events, dear boy, events." The extraordinary events of the COVID-19 crisis have pushed global governments, institutions, and businesses to previously untested limits. In the absence of a multilateral response, leaders have been equally criticized for being too slow and overly cautious or engaging in knee-jerk reactions without enough collaborative planning. When the post-pandemic dust eventually settles, it will be interesting to see what level of introspection occurs and what we can all learn from it.

Now is the time for global mobility professionals to take stock and assess their responses, too, as well as their organizational readiness for managing the inevitable future events that will come our way.

Developing a toolkit with what we know now will help mitigate the possibility of future inconsistent approaches and exposure to risk.

Capturing institutional memory is an essential part of that toolkit. As organizations have increasingly come under pressure to cut costs and reduce staff, institutional memory has suffered. It is vital for the global mobility function to record and regularly review its crisis management and duty of care responses. Policies and processes need to be clear and easy to access for all members of the team.

Here are six key steps to consider when building your strategy:

1. Identify and manage key stakeholder needs

Global mobility teams are asked many questions as emergency events unfold. To answer effectively, it is critical to understand who your stakeholders are and be in regular dialogue with them (for more on this, see engaging with stakeholders). Consider all sources you’ll need to access that data, and how to keep that information current. In a crisis, one of the first things an organization needs to know is where its people are, and what their work authorization or immigration status is. We see the importance of this in the trending compliance issues relating to business traveler tracking and adherence to the EU Posted Worker Directive. One global mobility professional we spoke with recently admitted that they were unaware of around 200 movements in the organization. If properly tracking all movement wasn’t high on your organization’s list of priorities before, now is a good time to put systems and processes in place to cover all eventualities and foster greater cross-departmental communication. The business will need to know where its employees are, and global mobility will need to know whether assignees have family members with them—as both will have a significant impact on subsequent actions.

The structure of the global mobility program will dictate who the internal and external stakeholders are. Organizations with greater consolidation in their global mobility supply chain may find pulling critical information together under pressure faster and easier than those with a more fragmented system.

External stakeholder information might be segmented by the scope of the services provided. Questions for your tax and immigration providers, for example, could be about the triggering of unplanned tax liabilities or visa over-stays. What are the tax implications if assignees or business travelers are stranded in a country and cross a tax threshold? What if assignees or business travelers must over-stay visas, due to unexpected border controls or travel restrictions? Global mobility teams should have an understanding for each location of the number of days in country which will trigger such potential liabilities, plans to deal with the possible outcomes if those days are exceeded and an awareness of any ‘exceptional circumstances’ that might be applicable.

Partnering with additional external stakeholders, such as a relocation management company, household goods shipping or other destination service providers can help put appropriate strategies in place for many of the other details. For example, consider protocols for managing repatriation services when the assignee cannot be present, such as providing a power of attorney to close out contracts or guidelines for packing and shipping. If an assignee is only temporarily evacuated, you may look at having a property management firm to handle suspended occupancy services.

2. Communicate

How to communicate with the assignee and family members is of primary concern during a crisis, when individuals may be experiencing varying degrees of isolation, loneliness, or helplessness. Having strategies in place and back-up plans for continuous communication to support their safety and mental wellbeing are critical.

Identify what channels are available and most appropriate for effective communication. Many organizations have introduced chatbots as part of a wider HR transformation. This can be an effective tool for communicating a standard policy approach which may still hold even after unusual events. For example, if the policy states that a cost of living adjustment would only be reviewed out of cycle in the event that a currency fluctuates by more than 10%, and the strategy is to adhere to the policy as stated, then a chatbot could help manage any queries coming in that are related to that question, freeing up your time to focus on more complex needs.

Consistent and early communication with business managers is equally important but challenging if a flurry of documents are issued at the same time. The recent crisis has highlighted that managers may agree to a ‘stay-put’ approach one day only to show up in their home office the next. Getting key messages out early and repeating them frequently, across several delivery channels, will help the business control the information.

3. Adapt the Policy

The swift response required when responding to shock events will often result in unbudgeted expenses, such as early termination penalties, or other exceptional costs associated with supply shortages and increased demand during abnormal strains on the system. While in the moment of crisis, the organization is quite rightly prioritizing the wellbeing of its employees, but it is also worth considering whether to track this additional expenditure. Most organizations have reasonably robust processes in place to capture policy exceptions, but in stressful moments, it’s easy for standard operating processes to fall by the wayside, including exception approvals. Line managers are liable to be making decisions quickly and without consultation, so mobility may need to capture certain costs retroactively.

Policies should be clear on which costs the organization will bear in extreme circumstances, such as those around temporary accommodations and return flights.

4. Catch a crisis early

Some events occur so suddenly that the only solution is to react instantly, taking immediate and affirmative action. Others can offer a brief window of opportunity for some planning and reaction. In setting out the global mobility crisis management strategy, consider how the team will identify and respond to early warning signs. Again, much depends on the team’s setup and the wider infrastructure within the organization, however monitoring regional situations and considering ‘what-if’ scenarios will help with more efficient and effective execution.

5. Include crisis management as part of the onboarding process

One good practice for fostering retention of institutional crisis management responses is to include those details in the initial induction materials for all new team members. This may be especially relevant if a significant proportion of global mobility activities are carried out in a shared service center environment, where there may be a higher turnover of staff than in a centralized function, or with teams organized into regional hubs. Building institutional memory may need to be a higher priority to some global mobility teams who, by virtue of their structure, rely more heavily on documented processes and protocols.

6. Conduct regular reviews and audits

A formal annual audit and review of the global mobility crisis management processes and protocols will also help ensure that institutional memory does not become distorted, and it is worth building good habits to maintain these on an ongoing basis. For example, if the organization changes any part of the mobility supply chain, the crisis management process should be included in the official implementation and documentation.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld memorably said; “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know.”

There is a risk that as world economies begin to recover and organizations start to bounce back, global mobility’s attentions will be sharply focused on day-to-day activities; resuming delayed assignments; tracking business travelers who can move freely across borders again and so on. The lessons learned from managing a crisis might easily get put to the bottom of the pile – a possibility further compounded by crisis fatigue. Without a deliberate focus on creating and protecting institutional memory now – at a time when all the successes and missteps are still fresh in team members’ minds – organizational amnesia can begin to take hold again. Global mobility should strike while the iron is hot to ensure that it is fit for the future. While  the next event might not be of pandemic proportions, there will be a next event – that’s one of the known unknowns!

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Stuart Jackson

Stuart Jackson

As Account Director at Sterling Lexicon, Stuart focuses on working with clients to optimize their global mobility solutions. Stuart has worked in global mobility for 24 years. His broad experience of working with different program sizes across a variety of industry sectors helps to bring success to clients' programs and wider business strategies. If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article or learn more about Sterling Lexicon, please do not hesitate to contact Stuart Jackson at stuart.jackson@sterlinglexicon.com.

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