Think globally, act locally – with a twist

Covid has stripped many organisations to the bone, forcing them to examine and become crystal clear about who, and what, their priorities are. By Kate Kearins.

As I write this it’s December 2020, the final month of what arguably has been one of the most challenging years most of us have ever experienced. It’s rare that I seek (or find) comfort in cliches, but there’s an adage that strikes me as particularly relevant, as a philosophy and a practice: think globally, act locally.

In searching for the source of this saying, I learned that it was coined in 1915 by the so-called father of regional planning, Patrick Geddes. Wikipedia describes him as a Scottish planner and conservationist whose holistic approach to urban issues was hailed as revolutionary. He combined big-picture thinking with astute financial analysis and great attention to detail. In so doing, he helped transform run-down housing and urban areas into valued spaces and places to live and work.

“Local” for me is AUT, so I offer these thoughts based on the experiences of my own professional backyard in the hope they might resonate as 2021 begins.

People-centred: At the most fundamental level, New Zealand’s tightly managed borders mean we might most easily look inwards to build our collective capacity, the strength of which will be key to weathering the economic, equity and health challenges of 2021. Resources are stretched (that’s a given) and times are tough for many. Within the tertiary sector, life and ledgers without international students are challenged. As for so many other organisations and industries, Covid has stripped us to the bone, forcing us to examine and become crystal clear about who, and what, our priorities are.

For AUT, staff and student success go hand in hand. Pre-Covid, there was perhaps a tacit assumption that most of our students could access the fundamentals of tertiary life – food, space to study, technology. The virus ravaged such assumptions.

During and after NZ’s lockdowns, we heard sobering stories of students forced to give up their studies in order to help feed their families, of others driving to hilltops in order to find a decent internet connection, and still others writing essays in a corner of the garage. Our staff proved their dedication to our students, delivering food parcels, laptops and data cards, as well as virtually (and virtual) 24/7 access to academic support and pastoral care. For other organisations, Covid will have forced a similar self-examination of their key stakeholders and their respective needs. While tough to do, these internal audits can serve us in the long-term, helping ensure that we prioritise the people who reflect and respond to our core businesses’ goals, values and objectives.

Policy-backed: 2020 has been the year of the pivot. For many, that feels like a hackneyed euphemism that does little to describe the apprehension and exhaustion that comes from months of lurching, reeling and side-stepping as the world we thought we knew came to a halt. In 2021, it will be vital for organisations to have policies and guidelines that simultaneously allow for flexibility (WFH is a thing) and compassion while also underlining the need for business stability. There is increasing evidence about how companies can simultaneously nurture their bottom lines and their people through innovative HR approaches. Draw on a strong evidence base and the lived experiences of your people to inform your HR policies and practices in order to build robust and systemic resilience across your business.

Pandemic-proofed: The arrival of effective vaccines looks promising. However, the distribution and uptake of vaccines will continue to highlight vast socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic disparities around the world. In the face of such inequities, the challenge of, and commitment to, global health and well-being must inform our local actions and attitudes. Here in New Zealand, that is arguably already happening: the Kiwi “team of five million” has largely accepted that our individual freedoms have been temporarily curtailed in the name of our collective health.

As Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has told us: “People are not the problem. The virus is the problem. People are the solution.”

Perhaps that’s just another way of saying “think globally, act locally” – albeit with a 21st century, Covid twist.   

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology.

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