4 External context
External context is separated here from culture, but in practice it can be difficult to separate the two. Changes in external context may (or may not), over a long period of time, impact on societal or local culture; but equally, in the short term, such changes might in fact be at odds with them. National governmental decisions are often taken in the light of the societal culture, but sometimes they are taken in an attempt to change the societal culture. In this latter case, the change might cause conflict, non-compliance or prolonged implementation.
The worldwide web now means that the rest of the world is readily accessible, communications are fast and direct, and knowledge is easily available. This has challenged many societal cultures that were previously closed to the wider world. There are concerns that much of this communication and knowledge is promoting one particular culture. The global village implies a set of common practices and understandings that span national boundaries and may indicate that there are common international solutions to national problems. Both of these examples illustrate parts of the external context for educational organisations around the world, over which they have no control – much as the international banking crisis signaled a change in the external context for governments globally.
In thinking about external factors that influence the exercise of leadership and the art of leading in our own organisations, it is important to consider the national context in which an organisation is situated. It may seem to be comparatively straightforward to assume that national governments make policy and that organisations implement that policy. And so the transfer of policy into practice is a simple top-down model of organisational change. However, when we begin to think about this in more detail, we can see that everything is far more complex.
Firstly, national policy is mediated through the locality as well as through the organisation. At each stage of the process, the policy is subject to interpretation and understanding. The policy will then have planned and unplanned outcomes; it may be differentially applied in different parts of the country, and so on. We also have to remember that organisations are not single institutions; they are linked as part of a professional system delivering a national service. In addition, organisations are increasingly linked in a variety of multi-agency, cross-sectoral partnerships. This has particular implications for leading, and the exercise of leadership, in the implementation of policy. For example, where leaders are skilled and knowledgeable in their own field, they may be leading partnerships of institutions where they have little skill and limited knowledge. The institutional goals, cultures and social norms may be significantly different in the partnership.
This activity will involve you in thinking about the external context for your own organisation. Think about a change that happened in your organisation’s external context over a year ago, another that has happened in the last year, and another that you have reason to believe will happen in the next year or so. Your examples could be at national or local level. Write them down in a list, and then consider the following questions for each of your examples.
- What was the impact, or is the likely impact, of the change in the external context on your organisation?
- Were you, or will you be, able to mediate the change?
- Did the culture, or might the culture, of the country or the locality mediate the change?
- Has the outcome, or likely outcome, of the change been positive or negative when measured against the purpose of your organisation or the outcomes for the learners?
Again, we have no idea what changes in external context you have decided to select or your responses to the questions. What is important to note is the rapidly changing nature of the external context and, increasingly, how these changes might be as a result of global trends or developments. Some of these changes might be predictable, and the organisation may be able to prepare to meet the challenge that results; but some might be unexpected. The last question is an important point to bear in mind. While change is usually unwelcome, its outcomes can be unexpectedly positive if the change is approached in an appropriate way.