Tony Gurr

Culture, Climate and REAL Quality…

In Educational Leadership, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness on 20/04/2011 at 2:02 pm

A few weeks ago, I talked about educational institutions getting to grips with the new vision of “next practice” in organisational culture that has been emerging over the past few years. In fact, this post has become the most popular we have put up on allthingslearningI wonder why?

The point with such models is that they are radically different to the type of “culture” many of us “grew up” in – and perhaps radically different to the “climate” of organisations that we still work in.

If we ask teachers and educators to review elements of the model, how many of them will seriously “disagree” with the idea that we should have more “trust”, more “transparency” and more “inclusiveness” in our organisation? How many educational managers or supervisors will say that their organisations do NOT want to be values-driven, do NOT want to use a systems perspective, do NOT desire to promote ethical practices?

I would bet none of them!


The challenge is that many teachers and staff within organisations frequently complain that their organisations do not “walk-their-talk” – indeed that many managers and supervisors are reluctant to “take a real look in the mirror”, face reality as it is and then do something about it.

Many schools, colleges and universities have opted to avoid gathering data on their “current climate” (see, the earlier post on GALLUP’s “Magic 12 Questions”).

Others, including some of the best and most prestigious universities in the world, have refused to use surveys that tap into student feedback on the quality of learning and levels of engagement (see, the post that discusses NSSE’s innovative student surveys).

These “centres of excellence” (as they often like to refer to themselves) just fail to recognise that the most important element of more innovative approaches to organisational culture is – LEARNing.

Organisations and institutions that stay with older “our-way-or-the-highway” notions simply miss the fact that LEARNing is the secret to success in this new paradigm of cultural capital and organisational climate. The LEARNing of people and the LEARNing of institutions themselves – and the starting point for this is open, honest reflection:

  • What “business” are we in and how do we want to “do” that business?
  • Where are we right now?
  • What do we want that we don’t have?
  • What do we want that we already have?
  • What don’t we have that we don’t want?
  • What do we have now that we don’t want?
  • What has to change to allow us to “be” what we want to be?
  • How do we know all this?

There are many other questions institutions and their senior leadership teams can ask (see, this post for some other critical questions) – BUT…you’d be surprised how few organisations ask themselves these questions (and still have a well-worded mission statement hanging on the wall or a detailed strategic plan gathering dust on a shelf somewhere).

Another tool (that I love – for its “simplicity”) was developed by Connor and Clawson (2004) and encourages institutions to reflect on whether they have a “Pro-Learning” or “Anti-Learning” Culture.

One way to use this tool is to ask both the senior leadership team of an institution and the teaching/staff body to rate the organisation (using a scale: 5 – Very True, 4 – True, 3 – Somewhat True, 2 – Not True, 1 – Not True At All) and then compare the two data sets.

The items they suggest can be very quickly adapted to an educational context:

Pro-learning culture
Anti-learning culture
People at all levels ask questions and share stories about successes, failures, and what they have learned. Managers share information on a need-to-know basis. People keep secrets and don’t describe how events really happened.
Everyone creates, keeps, and propagates stories of individuals who have improved their own processes. Everyone believes they know what to do, and they proceed on this assumption.
People take at least some time to reflect on what has happened and what may happen. Little time or attention is given to understanding lessons learned from projects.
People are treated as complex individuals. People are treated like objects or resources without attention to their individuality.
Managers encourage continuous experimentation. Employees proceed with work only when they feel certain of the outcome.
People are hired and promoted on the basis of their capacity for learning and adapting to new situations. People are hired and promoted on the basis of their technical expertise as demonstrated by credentials.
Performance reviews include and pay attention to what people have learned. Performance reviews focus almost exclusively on what people have done.
Senior managers participate in training programs designed for new or high-potential employees. Senior managers appear only to “kick off” management training programs.
Senior managers are willing to explore their underlying values, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations. Senior managers are defensive and unwilling to explore their underlying values, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations.
Conversations in management meetings constantly explore the values, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations underlying proposals and problems. Conversations tend to move quickly to blaming and scapegoating with little attention to the process that led to a problem or how to avoid it in the future.
Customer feedback is solicited, actively examined, and included in the next operational or planning cycle. Customer feedback is not solicited and is often ignored when it comes in over the transom.
Managers presume that energy comes in large part from learning and growing. Managers presume that energy comes from “corporate success,” meaning profits and senior management bonuses.
Managers think about their learning quotient, that is, their interest in and capacity for learning new things, and the learning quotient of their employees. Managers think that they know all they need to know and that their employees do not have the capacity to learn much.
Total for pro-learning culture   Total for anti-learning culture  

To be honest, it is not the data sets themselves that are important – but rather the nature of the discussion on “what the results mean”, “why they might differ” and “what can be done” between different people in the organisation.

Of course, there are very few “our-way-or-the-highway” institutions that would be “brave enough” to carry out such an exercise – and it is this, perhaps, that shows the true nature of the learning culture that exists in an organisation.

Perhaps, the main issue here is not about the quality of an organisation’s culture or climate – but rather how that organisation conceptualises “what exactly quality is.

As we have seen in earlier posts –

Quality is not just about simply having a “QA system” and stacks of documentation

Quality is a means, not an end:

  • Quality is about improvement
  • Quality is about a transformational mindset or culture
  • Quality is an on-going process of building and sustaining relationships

This is not just Tony having another “rant” – cutting-edge research (Harvey and Newton, 2007 and 2009) has deconstructed the dominant approaches to QA and reconstructed an alternative, research-informed approach that is based on a shift from “externally imposed procedures” to “internally generated creativity”.

Conventional wisdom in educational quality issues (finally) is now calling for approaches to quality evaluation grounded on “self-regulation”, an improvement-led approach and “transformation” (and this has accreditation bodies and their consultants very worried).

What is perhaps more important, however, is that this approach to “REAL Quality” is based on (1) institutions “getting real” with their own quality initiatives, and (2) increased attention to issues of culture and the convergence of 3 overlapping “cultures”:

  • The Organisational Culture we need for the 21st Century
  • The Culture of Learning organisations need to survive in the 21st Century
  • The Culture of Quality that needs to accompany all our initiatives in the 21st Century

But, more on these later…

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