Faculty Focus

Managing the Storm

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Managing the Storm

Olga Bruyaka, associate professor of management, never thought she’d live to see so many strategic management theories put to the test all at once. Then COVID-19 happened.

Her research? “To find what drives competitive advantage for firms. How can companies prosper and create not only financial value for shareholders but also do good in society?”

And two of the biggest industries she had begun studying before the pandemic struck were airlines and biopharmaceuticals. We sat down with Bruyaka to find out what she’s learning and how she thinks businesses big and small can manage the storm.

How would you describe your area of research?

I study how companies can improve their performance and survival by investing in research and development and introducing new technologies and products. Nowadays, companies can rarely do this alone, and, thus, engaging in inter-organizational relations (e.g., strategic alliances) becomes crucial. In addition, when something like COVID_19 happens, weathering the storm together might not be as bad as going through rough times alone. Companies engage in a variety of strategic alliances with different partner organizations simultaneously. This led me to study how companies manage their various ongoing alliances in a portfolio (i.e. alliance portfolio diversity). I also look at the performance implications of diversity in inter-organizational relations. I try to answer the abovementioned questions by studying companies in the biopharmaceutical industry as well as the airline industry.

And then COVID-19 happened. How did this affect your research on the biopharmaceutic industry?

What we are now doing is comparing patterns of change, looking at the evolution of this disease and its response compared to previous pandemics, one of those being SARS. Specifically, we want to look at the development of vaccines for these diseases in the biopharmaceutical industry. Will the biopharmaceutical industry profit from the vaccine? Is this all philanthropic work? Or is there something in between? Being a strategic management researcher, I’m interested to see if the biopharmaceutical industry will achieve any tangible outcomes, but I am also looking at more intangible ones, like learning. Any crisis for a company is also an opportunity to learn and develop certain skills. In comparing previous crises to what is happening now, we should be able to see some companies learn from their past experiences and, I believe, develop a vaccine faster.

You had also been studying strategic alliances within the airline industry when the pandemic hit. What new questions are you asking now?

I have been studying adverse events and alliance termination. We know the airline industry has been hit pretty hard, but not only by the pandemic—scandals, accidents, media coverage. The idea is to look at these adverse events and their characteristics and link that to the behavior of companies in an alliance. One of my questions now is, will these companies help a partner in trouble or will they run away? There are many good reasons to stay but there are also many good reasons to leave, especially in our era of social media and how quickly something negative can spiral and taint reputations. Do crises break their trust? How and why do they make these decisions and, what happens when they do?

What about companies that have begun making new products or providing new services, like General Motors churning out ventilators instead of Chevys. What effect will this have on them?

Many people look at a company from the perspective of the product itself, but what really contributes to the company’s competitive advantage is not the product, it’s the technology and resources. What we see on the surface as something completely unrelated is possible because there is some overlapping technology. How they are able to pivot, change, adapt is actually an opportunity. We see that clearly in many emergencies. We see companies moving from one market to another. That’s what I’m interested in. How do they do this? What is the underlying knowledge and resources these companies have that will allow them to make these adjustments? And, also, to what extent does this external shock help a company really update their knowledge, go after new fields and technologies they were not planning to go for? And how might this external push help them in the future to do better even in their traditional markets?

Beyond these giants, how do you predict companies of all sizes will adapt (or not) to a post-pandemic world?

Some will react by trying to go back, back to the way things were before. Some may emerge without many changes, except perhaps a slimmer workforce and less resources. I think that’s not the best response. Some companies will look at this crisis as an opportunity to change things, learn, use this to reset or pivot. Those companies, I think, will stand a better chance of adapting to a post-pandemic world. Those companies that are proactive in planning, taking into account that everything around them will change, those will be the ones succeeding.

What were you thinking when you realized some of your theories would soon be tested in a world-wide crisis like this?

It was very sudden. But we immediately started asking how can we help? As much as any researcher would be happy to have an opportunity to be part of a natural experiment, I want this to end. I’m hopeful that we will be able to provide some insights, not only for companies, but also for those who engage at the policy level.