A think piece by: Winston Sutherland – 23 May, 2020

The term world class is synonymous with the countries which are also called ‘developed’ or ‘first world’ and organisations that are described as ‘high performing’. World class is the benchmark term for what good looks like. According to Merriam-Webster, the first recorded use of the phrase was in 1939 and meant ’being of the highest calibre in the world’. Today, every developing country aspires to achieve ‘developed’ status. Many public service systems aspire to be world class, a centre of excellence, or high performing or similar tag. Countries aspire to have economies and health systems and a standard of living that meets the criteria set for world class. Organisations wanting to mimic this epithet go as far as labelling themselves ‘world class’ but as we are witnessing in the current Covid-19 pandemic this idea of world class has failed the acid test in country after country in the developed world. Even organisations specifically set up to deal with this sort of situation did not fare well. So, is it time to rethink world class? Is it time to redefine world class? Is world class the goal? And how would we go about defining and creating a world class organisation? I have set out a few ideas to complete this paper.

Being the best in the world means being the best in the world in good times and bad. Best in the normal day to day run of life as well as in a crisis. But this has not held true in the Covid pandemic. The health system of country after country in the developed world has been overwhelmed in short order. Toilet paper gave us the first indication that the system would not cope under stress and yet no one seems to be able to explain why this happened. The economy of world class country after world class country has been decimated. The toll on the poor and vulnerable has been catastrophic. It has been painful to watch the daily statistics as the death toll climbs higher and higher and as world class country after world class country has buckled in the onslaught of the Corona virus. So, is world class a thin veneer? Emperors clothes? Is this something to aspire to or is something different needed?

‘World-class’ is a pervasive characteristic of developed countries. Systems, processes, services, leadership. Everything looks and smells world-class. World-class runs through the entire system. The justice system; food supply and food quality; law enforcement; sports; education; the rule of law. The quality of the offer is consistent and unrivaled. You get the same high quality in every encounter, in every geographic region of a country. People have trust in the systems and high expectations. When those expectations are not met they are able to resort to and complain to world-class systems; Ombudspersons; Regulatory bodies etc. and they get a resolution. In countries that are not considered world-class, quality is patchy or inconsistent and complaining is akin to whistling in the wind.

World-class has to be able to withstand short term shocks. World class has to be resilient. World class has to have built-in systems and processes that respond to adverse stimuli in a robust way. Any system that crumbles within weeks cannot be considered world-class. The bar for world-class is obviously too low or is there another level to aspire to? ‘Crisis class’ perhaps? ‘Fit for purpose class’ maybe? Those phrases do not sound sexy so I don’t think they will catch on. I will need to come up with something that is catchy. Something understated like ‘iclass’ perhaps?

To end this piece, my suggestion is that world class has to come to mean something different especially as we look at building better public service systems. We have to redesign and redefine world class. Here are some starter ideas/criteria to build on:

Responsiveness of the system in a crisis. Developing what could be called a ‘crisis ready culture’;
Support mechanisms for vulnerable individuals, families and children are in place;
Technology is integrated into business as usual and business in crisis mode;
Fluid business models and delivery systems (links to the first point) are in place;
The system should ‘fail safe’ i.e. automatic trigger mechanisms are activated. Mechanisms known as SOPS. These would flow out of scenario planning.
Scenario planning is a core part of business as usual and a core element of leadership development and leadership practice. Scenario planning is about thinking the unthinkable and planning for it but hoping you never need the plan.

The above ideas, if implemented, would go some way to reducing the scrambling around that has taken place during Covid. What do you think? And what about toilet paper? What about it?