Business: One Solution to COVID-19

Matthew A. Waller
Dean of the Walton School of Business

It will take years to comprehend the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has only taken a few months to understand the initial damage.

This heartbreaking situation has resulted in more than 350,000 deaths worldwide, suffering from sickness due to more than 5.7 million confirmed cases of the virus, loneliness due to social distancing, increases in suicide, record-level unemployment and business failures, and many other problems.

While our minds naturally turn mainly to the medical industry for hope, business in general is providing scalable solutions with innovations that actually solve real-world pandemic-related problems. Here are a few examples from medical and non-medical industries:

  • Many large pharmaceutical companies are trying to quickly develop COVID vaccines, including Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Roche.
  • A startup in Senegal has created a coronavirus test kit that will cost $1 and provide results in as little as 10 minutes, saving more than $100 over existing test kits.
  • Innovations in telemedicine are leading to more proactive and personalized medical care for all patients, not just those connected to COVID-19. Many experts have argued that telemedicine should have been adopted years ago. The pandemic opened the door for changing the health-care business for the better.
  • The impact on travel, especially on the airline industry, has resulted in expediated innovations for the use of facial recognition and “immunity passports” for travelers.
  • There are innovations in the use of drones and robots to identify virus hotspots by using computer vision systems that can recognize signs of the disease.
  • While facial recognition and drone applications present challenges associated with privacy, business is creating solutions to those problems through the use of technologies such as blockchain. For instance, a partnership involving the World Health Organization and tech companies like IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft developed a blockchain-based platform to help track COVID-19 cases. By using blockchain, “The system creates digital identifiers that cannot be linked back to the data source and that prevent the dissemination of personally identifiable information.”
  • There are even innovations in “simple” products like face masks. Entrepreneurs are making masks that are more comfortable, more effective, recycled from plastic, and even manufactured using 3D printers.

All of these innovations and many others offer hope for a better world as we move forward as a global community, but there’s an important caveat: The firms that provide these solutions have to survive and thrive by putting business theory into practice.

A key reason why businesses exist is to solve problems for customers, and businesses that do it effectively earn more business. Those that solve problems for customers, however, only survive by operating efficiently and effectively. In addition to solving a problem, they must develop business models that work in terms of pricing, sourcing, production, distribution, etc. They must also be able to scale their solutions to customer problems in a cost-efficient manner. That requires finding the right employees, developing processes, acquiring and implementing technology to enable the processes, and securing the financial resources.

A solution that only works in a lab is not a real solution. So real hope for the post-pandemic future rests in innovative solutions that come from sustainable businesses. The principles taught in business schools help solve customer and societal problems in ways that are scalable and practical. Business colleges have an important role in researching and developing advanced theories that are applicable throughout industries, while training existing and next generation leaders who can help make hope a reality.

Matt Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He currently holds the Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair.