Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Organizational culture: the elephant in the room

Yesterday's blog post, "Changing Organizational Culture," focused on the business example of Home Depot, which -- facing a plummeting stock price and a business model that didn't match its current business reality -- underwent a massive change in culture over a two-year period.

This change wasn't happenstance, or willy-nilly. Quite the opposite. Home Depot's leaders meticulously planned and implemented a multi-step program designed to support a sea-change in how the company's employees viewed data, personnel evaluation and development, and collaboration.

So what can a school like JIS learn from Home Depot's experience? After all, education and home improvement aren't exactly bosom-buddy topics. It all depends on how you evaluate JIS' current culture....

But the problem of culture is really difficult to discuss honestly, especially in a place like a school. It's like the elephant in the room....we all know it's there, but no one wants to say anything. If you don't believe me, check out Roland S. Barth's article in last month's issue of Educational Leadership (a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, aka ASCD).

In "Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse," Barth, a former teacher and principal and founding director of the Principals' Center at Harvard University, talks about the very delicate, sometimes secretive climate that exists in schools:

"Schools are full of what I call nondiscussables—important matters that, as a profession, we seldom openly discuss. These include the leadership of the principal, issues of race, the underperforming teacher, our personal visions for a good school, and, of course, the nature of the relationships among the adults within the school. Actually, we do talk about the nondiscussables—but only in the parking lot, during the car pool, and at the dinner table."

The thing about the "nondiscussables," according to Barth, is that they -- particularly the ones dealing with the adult human component of the school (think teachers, administrators, and parents) -- form the foundation for how well, or poorly, a school works. "In short," he says, "the relationships among the educators in a school define all relationships within that school's culture. Teachers and administrators demonstrate all too well a capacity to either enrich or diminish one another's lives and thereby enrich or diminish their schools."

Barth explains the four types of relationships that typically reside in a school:
  • "Parallel Play" relationships (imagine two toddlers playing in the same room...they're playing, but not with each other);
  • Adversarial relationships (obviously bad);
  • Congenial relationships (obviously good); and
  • Collegial relationships (the gold standard of relationships, where people share information, ideas, constructive advice, and support).
The trick for a school is to actively, thoughtfully and purposefully nurture collegial relationships. How to do it? Create a culture of congeniality and collegiality.

While Barth's thinking zeroes in primarily on administrators and teachers, I'd push his ideas farther: changing a school's organizational culture should also involve the school board (or council, in JIS' case) and parents. It's this quadumvirate of adults who together have the capability of creating real, lasting change.

And the winners in all this changing and evolving? JIS students, who will benefit from improved teaching practices, a wiser administration, and parents who are active in and supportive of the school.

So for tomorrow: How can JIS take the next steps toward organizational culture change?


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