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La Educación
Número: (118) II
Año: 1994

Studying Organizational Culture

The study of organizational culture has taken hold in the United States and Europe over the last two decades. Studies of the culture of businesses, governmental agencies, and, in particular, educational organizations have abounded (Deal and Kennedy 1982; Schein 1985; Chaffee and Tierney 1988). Three principles have undergirded these investigations. The work (a) has been interpretive, (b) has employed a social constructionist framework, and (c) has used qualitative methods. Interpretive social science works from the assumption that the researcher uses himself/herself to make sense of the object under study. Hence, the social world is seen as constructed both by the organization’s participants and, in a sense, reconstructed by the researcher. The most appropriate manner to study culture is thus through interviews, observations, and the full host of qualitative techniques that enable the researcher to come to terms with the “reality” of the organizational participants. As with any qualitative work, the point is not to generalize across all sites and situations but rather to gain an understanding of the complexity of a particular situation. At the same time, those of us involved in the study of organizational culture have struggled to develop a general schema which we might use to interpret colleges and universities (Tierney 1988). That is, the attempt is to develop an organizing framework with which to analyze a university whether the institution is in France, Chile, or Peru. The manner in which the participants interpret and enact the framework will differ from institution to institution depending on the unique culture in which it exists.

Obviously, each principle has exacted a degree of reformulation and disagreement. Some individuals, for example, stress the interpretive role of the researcher more than others; some researchers subscribe to postmodernist notions of a fractured and cacophonous organizational world; others believe that a unitary interpretation of organizational life is possible. I have simplified the principles for clarity while recognizing that each point merits more discussion than is possible here.

Similarly, although debate and disagreement still exist with regard to an exact definition of organizational culture, I focus on five key themes that are helpful in the interpretation of the culture of a postsecondary organization. Again, because of the paucity of research pertaining to Latin America in this area, these themes have derived from analyses of colleges and universities in the United States and Europe. Accordingly, another objective of this paper is to see whether they fit Latin American institutions. I suggest that each cultural theme occurs in postsecondary settings. Yet the way a theme gets defined, and its importance, differs from setting to setting.

Mission and Ideology

Over half a century ago José Ortega y Gassett commented:
An institution is a machine in that its whole structure and functioning must be devised in view of the service it is expected to perform. The root of university reform is a complete formulation of its purpose. Any alteration or adjustment of this house of ours unless it starts by reviewing the problem of its mission—clearly, decisively, truthfully—will be love labour’s lost. (1944, 28)
Ortega y Gassett’s comment is helpful for it highlights the importance of organizational definition. The mission of the university defines and gives meaning to organizational actions and participants. As the overarching ideological apparatus of an organization’s culture, the mission also underscores the social relations at work in an institution. Mission statements are historical in that they evolve from specific documents and goals; they are current in that they get redefined by the needs of the internal and external constituencies; and they are future-oriented in that they help define where the institution wants to go. The University of Guatemala at San Carlos, for example, has historical roots as the first university in Central America. It is defined by the current context of Guatemalan society, and it changes with an eye to not simply what they are, but what they want to become. In this light the mission is a temporal artifact embedded in societal understanding of the role and nature of the university.

I have purposefully linked the idea of ideology with mission so that we realize that a mission is more than simply a formulaic goal of an institution. Geertz has noted how ideologies are symbolic systems that enable incomprehensible situations to become meaningful (1973, 220). Ideology, then, involves understanding the taken-for-granted assumptions of the organization’s participants about the mission and the culture.

Knowledge and Power

Two key precepts concerning knowledge from a cultural viewpoint are that (1) it is socially constructed and that (2) it is linked to formations of power. Rather than the positivist conception of knowledge as something that exists independent of the knower and which can be discovered, a cultural view of knowledge is one where the participants, embedded in social and historical events, create knowledge. And since knowledge is created, it is neither objective nor value-neutral. Instead, it is a power-laden object that helps control discourse and organizational activity.

A cultural view of knowledge forces the researcher to come to terms with contextual definitions. Questions such as how the participants define knowledge, how definitions of knowledge have changed over time, and how knowledge is transmitted, take on importance. Such questions, we discover, vary from institution to institution based on factors, such as institutional mission and ideology, institutional country, and the specific idea being studied. These questions, although important in any organizational setting, gain particular importance in postsecondary institutions where supposedly one of the key roles of the professorate is to set the terms for knowledge production and dissemination. And too, questions of knowledge production are of equal importance with regard to Latin America. If a cultural view of knowledge assumes that knowledge is produced in contextual surroundings, then how might Latin American institutions foment culturally specific forms of thought?

Communication and Symbols

The manner in which work gets done, the signals employed to display particular meanings, and the communicative framework for the organization all highlight aspects of culture. Ortega y Gassett, for example, characterized the institution as a “machine”; presumably the interactions of individuals who work on a machine will be different from those who characterize their work as a “symphony.” An institution that exhorts individuals to work as a “team” may well be different from an organization that has an individualistic culture in both words and deeds.

The assumption, of course, is that an organization’s language and symbols help define and are defined by the organization’s culture. Indeed, as with each theme discussed here, the organization’s culture shapes and is shaped by how the actors utilize the theme. As we shall see, a rector who places signs around the campus attesting to the progress of his administration is trying to communicate to the university community a variety of symbolic messages. Since communication presupposes shared symbols, the rector employs the symbolic language of his or her organizational subordinates. In Latin America, for example, governance is the product of political negotiation and the participants use the communicative symbols of the political arena. Thus, we would not see a college president in the United States call upon the same communicative strategies a rector uses in Latin America because of the unique culture in which he or she operates.

Environment and Constituency

All organizations exist within a specific context and serve specific constituencies. A cultural view of these themes emphasizes the interpretive and dynamic nature of an organization’s environment and constituency. Private and public universities in the United States learned in the economic downturn of the 1970s that they needed to redefine their “markets” and attract students whom they had not considered as part of their constituencies before, such as part-time students, or students who could only take classes on the weekend. Similarly, Latin American public universities, to varying degrees, have had to reconsider how they defined and worked with their environment as they faced increased competition from private universities.

The institutional environment often provides rationales for change. The government faces economic difficulty and fewer resources are available for the public university. Students—the central constituency—demand courses that are shorter in length or more career oriented, and an institution needs to shift its internal focus or risk losing its clientele. If the economy takes a downturn, unemployment rises and students flock to the university in search of retraining. Although each of these facts—unemployment, rapid inflation, and the like—may occur in several countries, the actors within the organization may react and interpret the events in quite different manners depending on the organization’s culture.

Leadership and Strategy

Decision making is unique to the culture in which it resides. The structure of the organization, the style of the particular leader—indeed, who is deemed a leader and who is not—and the avenues employed to create plans and to reach decisions all highlight the culture of the organization. Again, the organization’s culture both structures and is structured by particular facets of the theme. A new leader arrives whose style differs dramatically from one’s predecessor and the decision-making process suddenly becomes more fluid and less formal. The governing body of higher education for a country is overhauled and new structures are put in place with regard to who is involved in setting policy and planning.

All of these themes highlight specific cultural attributes that will be found in any institution; however, how the actors come to define these themes may differ significantly. One obvious difference is found when we compare institutional cultures across regions and countries. The mission and ideology of public universities in Central America varies significantly from public universities in the United States. Indeed, how knowledge gets defined and how research is attempted differs at the public universities in the neighboring countries of Panama and Costa Rica. Even within a country as small as Costa Rica, we find significant differences with the actors’ interpretation of what is good leadership and what is an adequate structure for decision making between two public universities.

The Qualitative Method

To illustrate the meaning of each theme, I provide examples drawn from a case study of the University of Panama. The data are drawn from a series of on-site visits and interviews undertaken during the academic year 1992-93. I interviewed 32 individuals connected with the institution; as is standard and required in qualitative research, they are presented by their roles rather than by their proper names to ensure anonymity. Individuals ranged from faculty in a variety of disciplines to deans and administrators in the Rector’s office.

In all of the interviews I worked from a standard research protocol. Interviews in general lasted for one hour. As with any research, the researcher’s own biases and frameworks enter into the study. Indeed, the object of the study itself in part frames what we are to find. A feminist who conducts research will have different entry points for analysis than would an economist who subscribes to neoliberal notions of society. In particular to this study, one needs to be aware of the comparative and cross-cultural borders that are crossed when a North American researcher such as myself becomes involved in a project in Latin America. The point here is not so much to invalidate any study because of the position of the author—as if only like minded researchers ought to study a specific project—but to engage the text in a manner that forces the reader to reflect on his or her own experience and consider how one’s perceptions of a given situation differ, or are similar with, the project presented in the text. The following examples underscore the culture of the University of Panama and provide insight into decision making and strategy.