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Organizational Communication and Culture – The interdependencies

January 27, 2014
Jennifer Walinga

I am currently teaching a brilliant group of educational administrators and leaders in the MA Educational Leadership and Management program. Recently, in an online plenary discussion forum in which we were discussing the challenge of complexity in facilitating organizational development or change, a student asked: 

As I have had the pleasure of working in small, medium and large organizations, I have also found that as the organization grows there is a direct relationship to complexity and the lack of goal/cultural alignment. Incongruence grows and the organization flounders. Any thoughts on how, as a leader at RRU, you might endeavor to manage this growing incongruity as the University grows?

My reply: Oh such a good question! I find that growth has actually been a catalyst for clarity at RRU. As we grow and require more complex systems that bridge all of the schools (rather than just operating happily in our silos), we are challenged to review our processes and find systems that can link across the organization. I think it is an iterative process that ebbs and flows. We silo, we become incongruent, conflicts arise, we systematize, we grow, we become siloed (for efficiency sake), we become incongruent, conflict arises... etc.

I think the real challenge is in how we systematize. The typical human response is to reach for control mechanisms, more approval layers, more bureaucracy to try to control or gain 'power over' the complexity. Instead, we must remember to embrace the complexity as reality, accept a certain ambiguity and lack of power over, and instead seek power 'to' see the interconnections, interdependencies, commonalities, shared values and principles and then design systems that capitalize on these, while also respecting the diversity of needs, goals, and characters of the separate units within the larger organization. 

Lately I witnessed our Experiential Education office do just this. I have to add that the leader of this office is a BA Professional Communication grad so she has been educated in the principles above. She noticed the incongruencies between schools in how we were treating and delivering experiential education, and rather than try to add or impose rules, regulations, approvals, or policies, she met with the schools, created an overarching audit of what 'is', identified the commonalities and differences, drilled these down to core values and / or goals across all the schools, and then reviewed everything with the stakeholders for input into the language and core concepts that were needed to form an RRU wide approach to Experiential Education. Wow. Very impressive and successful. 

I then watched and participated with the academic leadership team to invite, listen, understand, and work with the materials the EE office presented. We identified a couple of areas requiring further discussion and clarity around the difference between major projects like yours that incorporate action research and experiential learning, and the leadership consulting challenge types of assignments that are part of the curriculum across many schools. We then struck a small, intentional, and efficient working group to sort this out. We finished by deciding how these results would be communicated, shared and implemented. Bingo!

This kind of process (which, as you will likely notice, is 'appreciative inquiry' in action) very much hinges on the people you have on the bus and the kind of background and thinking they bring. But again, the fact that we have the right people on this leadership bus reflects cultural alignment between our core values and the principles guiding our hiring. 

There are definitely many incongruities left to be tackled. I am just highlighting one success story. We stumble and flail often. Because we are all human beings, we resort to bureaucratic tendencies often, we struggle for clarity often, and our leaders are not always cognizant or intentional about cultural alignment. But, we are working in a positive direction and I am confident that we will continue to spiral upwards in innovative directions and in an enlightened manner, rather than downwards in a self destructive and ego centric vortex of control and entropy.