Tag Archives: organizational culture

The importance of being open

A closed system has an impermeable border that prevents the exchange of energy between the inside of the system and the outside. We try to create a closed system when we fill a cooler with ice and put the lid on tightly. What we are trying to do is create an environment inside the cooler in which nothing changes.

As we know of course, the cooler isn’t a perfectly closed system – heat exchange will occur and the ice will eventually melt. And in fact it is rare to find a truly closed system. There are systems that tend to be more closed than others.

Organizations can suffer from a tendency to being closed if they cut themselves off from new ideas.

With no ideas coming in from the outside, the useful energy in the organization dissipates, and the organization stagnates. Some in the organization feel comfortable with the resulting stability, others feel the organization is languishing and are frustrated at their inability to change things. This can happen, for example, if jobs are secure and employees stay in the organization for a long time, not making way for new people and fresh ideas. It can happen if those with power in the organization are comfortable and not open to change, or are afraid of rocking the boat. It can also happen if there is too little diversity in the organization. Without diverse viewpoints, the organization can become an echo chamber with no possibility for fresh ideas and innovation.

This is why it’s important for people who have responsibility for organizations to actively ensure that the organizational boundary is permeable.

In an open system, energy flows in and keeps the system moving and evolving. Schools and academic departments can help ensure an open boundary by actively seeking diversity in their hires, encouraging professional development for teachers and staff, and entering into networks with other organizations. Administrators must conduct environmental scans to find out what is happening in the world beyond their departments’ walls; faculty must actively seek new ideas from their own field and others to enhance teaching and learning.

The result of this approach is dynamism and change. Ideas flow not only into the system but out of it too, into other systems.

This is the sign of a healthy organization, and a healthy academic field, in which organizations (departments, schools) exchange ideas, but the field itself also has an open border whereby it can communicate its best ideas to the outside world and in turn gain fresh ideas from other fields, industries, and activities. To those who enjoy comfort and stability, this complexity may look like a nightmare. But in a changing world, an organization that is not itself changing is sure to be left behind.

We educators have a responsibility to see ourselves, our departments and schools, and our field as open systems, always open to new ideas and diverse viewpoints, always willing to exchange those ideas inside and outside our organizations, and act on the best ones.

Challenge and change in intensive English programs

From left: Bill Hellriegel, Carol Swett, Michelle Bell, Amy Fenning, Alan Broomhead

Challenges over the past few years have deeply impacted intensive English programs, forcing irreversible changes in their organizational cultures that result in anxiety and tension, but also innovation and adaptation. That was the theme of a panel session, “Organizational Culture in University and Proprietary IEPs: Challenges and Changes,” presented by Michelle Bell (University of Southern California), Amy Fenning (University of Tennessee at Martin), Bill Hellriegel (Southern Illinois University), Carol Swett (ELS Language Centers at Benedictine University, Illinois) and myself at the TESOL International Convention on March 28. Recognizing the cultural types of IEPs and how they are affected by changes is the first step in adapting and surviving in an increasingly competitive field.

IEP cultures can roughly be divided into collegial and managerial types, following Bergquist and Pawlak’s (2007) typology of academic cultures. A collegial culture, more likely to be found in a university-governed IEP, is faculty-focused, with faculty scholarship and teaching, academic autonomy and freedom, and faculty ownership of the curriculum as the organizing principle. A managerial culture is administration-driven, motivated by considerations of fiscal responsibility and effective supervision, and organized by systems, processes, and standards.

The massive shift to accreditation in IEPs has moved collegially-oriented programs in a managerial direction. Faculty are required to plan, teach, and assess in compliance with program-wide student learning outcomes; policies and procedures have to be written and followed; and program success is measured by data, which has to be systematically collected, analyzed, and evaluated. Proprietary IEPs are seeing a a shift in the other direction: faculty standards require minimum levels of certification, experience, and ongoing professional development, and these are affecting faculty hiring and employment practices in many proprietary programs.

The severe enrollment challenge of the past two years has also affected both types of program. University IEPs are becoming more revenue-driven and entrepreneurial, actively seeking new recruitment partnerships and designing new programs – such as short-term high school programs – to respond to changing demand. Faculty may have little say in these initiatives. Meanwhile, proprietary IEPs are increasingly developing conditional-admit and TOEFL-waiver agreements with partner universities, requiring them to make programs more academically-focused and hire masters-level teachers who are qualified to teach English for academic purposes.

These are ground-shifting developments, and program leaders who recognize the need to address profound cultural change in their organizations – and not just surface-level adjustments – will be in the strongest position to navigate these challenging times.

Bergquist, W.H. & Pawlak, K., Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy, Jossey-Bass 2007