Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Organizational Culture in Higher Education

In the business community, the focus on organizational culture really took off in the 1980, with the publication of books like Peters and Waterman In Search of Excellence. But since that time, there has been little agreement on how to view culture, and a number of theories have evolved. What is incontrovertible is that culture does play a role in aiding and resisting change. Change is, of course, inevitable in education.

Institutions are influenced not only by outside forces (ie, the economy) but by inside forces as well. This internal dynamic “has its roots in the history of the organization and derives its force from the values, processes, and goals held by those most intimately involved in the organization’s workings.” (1) Decisions and actions are a reflection of the organization’s culture. For those that have been in the culture for some time, the cultural values are part of the air they breath, not often considered consciously but almost always followed nonetheless. It is only when we break the codes of our culture that we find ourselves aware that they are there. But culture is a driver in educational organizations, and as our challenges become more difficult that there is a need to look at culture as a means to help address these challenges.

Tierney notes that organizational culture encourages members to:
- Consider conflict in the broad canvas of organizational life
- Recognize contradictions that create organizational tension
- Implement decisions with an awareness of their role on the culture
- Understand the symbolic dimensions of decisions and actions
- Consider why different groups have different perceptions about performance

Thus, Tierney offers a framework for looking at culture. In this framework, he considers:

- Environment: how does the organizational define its environment and what is its attitude toward that environment?

- Mission: how do we define the mission, articulate it, and use it for decision making? How much agreement is there?

- Socialization: How do new faculty (or staff or administrators) becomes socialized? How do we find out what we need to know to survive and thrive in our new environment?

- Information: What is information, who has it, and how do I get it?

- Strategy: How are decisions made? Who makes them? What happens if I make a bad decision?

- Leadership: What does the organization wants from its leaders? Who are they? Are there informal leaders as well as formal ones?

Our culture is conveyed in the relationships we have with our colleagues, and how we view what we see happening. No organization can be immune to the effects of culture, and understanding it is critical to aiding in innovation and change.


1. Tierney WG. The impact of culture on organizational decision making: theory and practice in higher education. Sterling, VA; Stylus Publishing 2008:24

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