People and place: Musings on organizational culture

Last year, a few of my colleagues and I were awarded a small grant to develop an information literacy learning community for faculty, librarians, and staff in regional colleges and universities. In this first year of our grant, we’ve been facilitating discussion groups with stakeholders to better understand information literacy practices and needs at each of the six institutions. We’re trying to identify shared needs and themes across institutions so we can effectively shape the learning community. We’ve met with 80+ stakeholders. These discussion groups have been valuable and revealing. We’ve learned a good deal about each institution’s varied approaches to and perspectives on (not to mention challenges with) information literacy. We’ve been talking with stakeholders about institutional values and change, too. We want to find hooks to help connect the learning community to each campus and anticipate what might impede its implementation and success. Of course, we can glean this from the conversation generally–its nature and tone–but we have also been explicitly asking questions like: What’s valued on your campus? What drives change? What are obstacles to change?

In some ways, these have been the most interesting parts of the conversations, providing a glimpse into how each campus works, what each campus most esteems, and how people communicate and participate in the life and work of each campus. These institutions are grouped primarily because of geographic proximity. The variations in institution type and mission, then, can explain some differences: the emphasis on undergraduate teaching in the small liberal arts college versus the emphasis on research in the university, for example. Financial status and its accompanying freedoms or restrictions–money may flow more freely at a well-endowed institution, for example, whereas resources may be more limited at a tuition-driven institution–can also influence people’s behaviors and outlooks. Still, the differences between the schools seem deeper and more nuanced than mission and money alone can explain. These conversations have really thrown the nature and impact of organizational culture into sharp relief.

What struck me most in our discussion groups were the differences in collegiality, interconnectedness, and agency: how participants spoke to and about each other, how interested participants seemed in the opportunity to learn from and share with each other in a future learning community, and how much power over and engagement in their campus environment they felt they had. Of course, individual personalities play a significant role in such interactions and outlooks. And, again, institutional mission and funding contribute, too. But there are still other forces that shape relationships, attitudes, and behavior. Jason Martin, for example, suggests that “rites and rituals,” or “the way we do things around here,” are powerful influences on and manifestations of an organization’s culture.

So as I reflect on the differences I’ve observed in the institutional snapshots afforded to me through these discussion groups, what I wonder about most is how does organizational culture change (for better or worse)? And then, how do we change organizational culture?

Swirl” by Zack Jones is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

A selection of examples from the corporate/business sector (like this one and this one) suggests that effective and sustained change requires a multi-faceted, and mostly top-down, approach including: leadership and management, control systems and reward systems, and more. Indeed, a skilled manager and/or a visionary leader (not necessarily one and the same, of course) are powerful motivators and change agents in both business and higher education generally, and libraries more specifically. Yet leadership in libraries–in my experience, at least–is often distributed. To ignore the role of individuals as not only players, but agents of change, seems both erroneous and perilous.

So what does organizational change look like in libraries? In their article about the University of Saskatchewan Library, Carol Shepstone and Lyn Currie stress the important role each library staff member plays in perpetuating an existing culture, identifying a preferred culture, and effectively changing culture. They identify staff new to the organization especially as important in influencing change.

I’ve witnessed and participated in large-scale organizational change directed by a titled leader and some of it has been to great effect. But it seems to me that organizational change can and does happen in smaller, more incremental ways, too. I think of the daily aspirations my colleagues and I pursue and the affirmations we try to offer each other. I think of how a single person’s tone or attitude or behavior can change the temperature of a room or the potential of an organization.

How do you think change happens? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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