5.1 Conceptualising organisational culture
Deal and Kennedy (1988) argue that culture is the most important factor accounting for success and failure of organisations. They identify four elements that shape a particular organisational culture: values; heroes and heroines (people who in some way embody and model those values); rites and rituals (which have symbolic qualities); and what they call the culture network (the informal communication system or hidden hierarchy of power in the organisation). Deal and Kennedy’s thinking here fits well with Schein, who provides the following general definition of organisational culture:
A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.
Bell and Kent, however, argue that we should ‘move away from the semantics of organisational culture and to explore more easily the concept of school culture through an analysis of the fragmented forces that help to shape the culture of an institution’ (2010, p. 8). They put forward an argument for engaging the wider community in the examination of institutional culture, because otherwise leaders may find it difficult to transform their institutions.
The importance of the concept of organisational culture as put forward by Deal and Kennedy (1988) allows us to argue that leaders have the capacity and opportunity to shape the ways that organisations work and the values they espouse. According to them, leaders may, to some extent, create and influence organisational culture and may also mediate subcultures within their organisations. At the same time, however, leaders also need to recognise and work with the historical aspects of culture highlighted by Schein (2004). A leader inherits an organisational culture that may have been created over many years. Equally the power to influence the culture of the organisation may not necessarily be vested in the positional leadership of the organisation. You may well know of organisations where particular individuals are able to exercise power and influence but who do not necessarily hold a leadership role in the organisation’s hierarchy (Bell and Kent, 2010). Analysing and understanding such complexities can make a difference to the leader’s role in creating and changing organisational culture. Where strategies are inconsistent with organisational culture, change and new initiatives are difficult to implement. On the other hand, where strategies are in line with it, change is very easy to implement.
You should now watch the video clip below, which is from India. Initially the societal culture is seen as dominant, but then the video points out ways in which school cultures are changing and are being changed. Watch the video and then return to the remainder of the activity below.
Transcript: Societal culture in India
The clip provides an example of how one school is changing its learning culture. It is possible for a leader to instigate such a change usually supported by resources. Think of one recent change made in your own institution that was attempting to alter a fundamental characteristic of the way the institution worked. How successful was it? How was it supported?
The school in the video was attempting to move away from rote learning towards a culture of more student-centred learning. It does not mention how the principal achieved this. It is possible that, in such an authoritarian culture, the teachers might just have been told; but it is also possible that there might have been training, additional computers, timetabling into a computer room, perhaps new software, meetings to discuss changes made and their success, meetings to discuss concerns and find solutions.