Organizational Modifiability

In universities, we are acutely aware of the need for students to learn. Universities also need to learn.  Whereas educators have become very attuned to rankings of universities on the basis of where universities are perceived to be, they have been less attuned to the question of whether universities are learning organizations—whether they are modifiable and can change.  Change is happening very rapidly in the field of higher education, whether the issue is MOOCs, criteria for accreditation, measurement of learning outcomes, or models for charging tuition or for allocating financial aid. Learning institutions require three prerequisites for change.

1. Ability to Change

In order to learn, an institution has to be able to change.  Not all organizations are.  There can be several reasons why universities are unable to change, except perhaps cosmetically.  One is lack of resources: They just lack the money or other resources they need to be able to change in meaningful ways. A second reason can be an administration, from the board of trustees downward, that enforces a culture of stagnation.  Trustees may remember what the institution was like when they attended it and want it to remain the same. Or administrators may feel that their jobs will be threatened if the institution changes in any serious way.  Or the professoriate may be extremely conservative and view itself as protecting the culture of the institution, no matter how stagnant it has become.  An institution cannot learn if its management or other stakeholders cannot or will not let it.


2. Self-Efficacy: Belief in the Ability to Change

An organization may be able to change but not believe that it can. And if it does not believe it can change, it almost certainly won’t.  Just as we meet people who lack essential belief in their own ability to change (“I just can’t lose weight”; “I’ll never stop smoking”; “It’s not worth trying to get a job because no one will ever want to hire me”), so are there institutions that lack the self-efficacy for learning and change.  If stakeholders in a university lack self-efficacy for change, little else matters, even if the institution in fact could change if people believed it could.


3. Courage to Change

 An institution may want to change but not have the courage to do so.  Why does institutional learning and its resulting change require courage?  Because when you change, inevitably, you give up some of the old to make way for the new.  And there inevitably are many individuals and groups that have a strong vested interest in what already exists.  What professor, for example, wants to see her department abolished?  What administrator wants to see his job eliminated?  Sometimes, people are game for change, as long as it does not affect them, with the result that nothing really changes because people do not have the courage to move from where they are to where they need to go.



A “Mineralogical” Framework for Institutional Learning and Change

Consider a cultural framework for institutional learning and change as it applies to universities. The framework assesses three factors:

1.     How much desire is there for actual change in this institutional culture as a whole?

2.     How much desire is there for the appearance of change in the culture of the institution?

3.     What is the perceived quality or potential quality of the institution?

If, to simplify things, we respond to each of these questions with a value that is either “low” or “high,” then we end up with 23, or eight different kinds of institutional cultures with respect to learning and resulting change.  The argument here is that the eight kinds of institutional cultures differ rather dramatically in how much learning and change they permit.  Of course, a university need not be a pure case; it may be a mixture of kinds of institutional cultures (with respect to learning and change). 

Each of eight types of universities is depicted metaphorically in terms of a different kind of mineral. 

The Rusted-Iron Institution: Low in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.

The Granite Institution: Low in desire for actual change, low in desire for appearance of change, but high in perceived quality. Its mood is one of smugness.


The Amber Institution (with Internal Insects): Low in desire for actual change, high in desire for the appearance of change, and low in perceived quality.

The Opal Institution: Low in desire for actual change, but high in desire for appearance of change and high in self-perceived quality.

The Cubic Zirconium Institution: High in desire for actual change, but low in both desire for the appearance of change and in perceived quality.

The Slightly Imperfect (SI) Diamond Institution: High in desire for actual change, low in desire for the appearance of change, and high in perceived quality. 

The Lead Institution: High in desire for actual change, high in desire for appearance of change, but low in perceived quality.

The Diamond in the Rough Organization: High in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.



Mediating Variables

Change in a university can come from a board of trustees, a president, a faculty senate, or any number of sources of leadership.  How difficult will change be?  Change is very hard to achieve in universities, even if the prerequisites described above are met and if the institution is a diamond in the rough.   Among the reasons for this difficulty are five mediating variables that affect the extent to which change is likely to happen.

1. Legitimacy of the Change Agent.  Change will be difficult if the agent of change is not perceived as legitimate, for example, a president appointed outside what stakeholders of the university consider to be due process, or a faculty senate that is unrepresentative of the faculty as a whole.

2. Credibility of the Change Agent.  Change can be hampered if a change agent is perceived as lacking credibility, for example, a president who appears to be solely a political appointment, or a provost who is in charge of academics at an institution but him or herself lacks serious academic credentials.

3. Ownership of Change.  Change will be impeded if stakeholders in a university do not feel ownership of the change, for example, if change is forced on them by a board or president without serious consultation of stakeholder groups.

4. Rate of Change.  Change may be stymied if the rate of change is too fast or too slow.  The problem with change that is too fast is that people cannot adequately absorb it and are likely to feel like a train has left the station without them on it.  But change that is too slow leaves stakeholders with the feeling that nothing much is happening other than talk—that there really is no train leaving the station but rather one that is just stuck in place.

5. Cultural Compatibility of Change.  Perhaps most important is the compatibility of change with the culture of the institution.  What is particularly vexing about this issue is that sometimes it is the culture itself that needs change, but cultures are remarkably resistant to change and typically endure beyond any one set of people who are embedded in them.  That is, you can hire new leaders or even new faculty members with diverse viewpoints, but the culture often lives on despite, or sometimes because of the new hires.

I am working with others, and welcome further collaborators, to measure these characteristics of universities and other institutions and to devise ways to change organizations to enhance their modifiability.



Key References

Sternberg, R. J. (2000). Making school reform work: A “mineralogical” theory of school modifiability. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Sternberg, R. J. (2002). Effecting organizational change: A “mineralogical theory” of organizational modifiability. Consulting Psychology Journal, 54, 147–156.