Thursday, May 26, 2011

Transforming Organizations

In a previous post I wrote about Teresa Rees’s description of three approaches to gender equality: tinkering, tailoring and transforming. Transforming is the process of modifying structures and processes to embrace diversity. Embedding change frequently requires us to address the unspoken assumptions and beliefs that underlay previous behaviour. This process is sometimes called ‘culture change’. There are layers of culture (see, for example, Cathy Trower’s presentation at the Third Annual Georgia Tech NSF ADVANCE Conference 2004:
-        Structures and processes, with the additional complication that what actually happens may differ from what is laid down in an organisation’s policies and procedures.
-        Rhetoric – what people say.
-        Underlying assumptions and beliefs.

The first step in transforming an organisation is to reflect on what sort of organisation you have. An initiative that may have been very successful in one organisation may be a complete flop in another. In Understanding Organizations Charles Handy identifies four cultures: power, role, task and people oriented. This is not a unique way of classifying organizations but it has the merit of being simple and easy to relate to personal experience. Each culture has its strengths and weaknesses. Whether a culture is appropriate or not depends on the environment the organisation is in.

The power culture depends on a small group or a single person who controls a central source of power.  Organizations with this culture can react quickly but may move in the wrong direction. They are often vulnerable to the loss of a key individual. These organisations tend to have few rules and procedures. According to Handy an organisation of this type ‘depends on trust and empathy for its effectiveness and on telepathy and personal conversation for communication.’

The role culture is more commonly referred to as a bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has negative connotations. As Handy notes: “No one, it seems, approves of bureaucracy except, interestingly, lots of people in organisations who like to know where they stand, what they have to do, who is in charge and what the rules are.” Role cultures are characterized by procedures, e.g. job descriptions and procedures for communications, and rules. Such organizations do well in stable environments but are slow to react to change. They tend to value roles and processes over the individuals who perform them but do offer security and predictability.

The task culture is focussed on completing a particular job or task. The strategy is to bring together teams of people with appropriate expertise and resources to accomplish a specific task. Individuals have control over their work and are judged by results. Overall control largely lies in allocating projects and resources as day-to day decisions have to be made by the individuals concerned. Organisations of this type tend to be flexible.

In the person culture the individual is central, as Handy puts it: “If there is a structure or an organization it exists only to serve and assist the individuals within it.” Handy’s metaphor for its structure is “a galaxy of individual stars”. Although few organizations retain such a culture since organizational goals are eventually imposed on individuals, there are individual people with this orientation, usually people with highly specialised expertise. Handy notes that such people “often feel little allegiance to the organization but regard it rather as a place to do their thing with some accruing benefit to the main employer.” Managing such individuals is not easy as many of the sources of power are ineffective.

The point of looking at a classification such as this is not to shoehorn any particular organisation into one particular category but to provide a basis for understanding what ways of influencing people are likely to be effective. To people in a role culture the fact that someone perceived to be in authority has made up a rule that something should be done is seen as sufficient reason for doing it. To someone who is oriented towards a person culture the fact that someone generally perceived to be in authority has made up a rule that something should be done may be seen as irrelevant. What are the preferred means of communication? There is little point in sending out a memo if people prefer personal communication.

Tensions can arise within organizations such as universities when different groups have different cultures. University bureaucracies (e.g. finance, human resources) inevitably tend to be bureaucratic while many academics incline to the person or ‘galaxy of individual stars’ culture. Individual research groups may have a power culture with the PI who brings in the money exercising the power. Each of these cultures has their own, usually unspoken, underlying beliefs. Efforts to bring about change in the way a university handles diversity fail if they do not take these differing beliefs into account.

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