Organizational Culture and Higher Education

Edgar H. Schein’s Organizational Culture and Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010), now its fourth edition, is one of the most important works in explaining organizational culture as well as defining the field. The title is today much more than a course in an MBA; it rates a wikipedia site and can be its own degree program at Quinnipiac University. With books being published seemingly every day on leadership and how to lead, it is useful to return to some of the more seminal texts. Books like Schein’s help to ground practice, contextualize theories, and connect business and leadership practices with established disciplinary findings. Though most certainly not an esoteric academic tome, Organizational Culture and Leadership moves among realms and would be worth the time of a successful CEO as well as an ambitious undergraduate.

Schein’s definition of organizational culture is both a precept and a foundation for the ensuing study: A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. He systematically describes how one comes to discern organizational culture through artifacts, values and assumptions. The book is thoughtfully organized, as much a treastise as an exposition. Schein draws extensively on his experiences as a consultant, most notably working with DEC and Ciba-Geigy. Comprehending an organization’s culture, the development of that culture, and its impact on behavior and thinking, is essential to understanding the organization.

Accompanying Schein’s arguments are his own values and assumptions, opinions that he shares explicitly. Although he writes an often functions as a consultant or third-party observer, he is focused on much more than organizations. He cares a great deal about people who interact in these systems. Moreover, he is concerned about the whole person. As such, he is as much an engaged anthropologist as a management consultant.

Further, he puts great stock in the vision of a learning organization, one that is open to and embraces change. Such an organization is multicutural, by definition, and consistently seeks to expand its membership to encompass new and different perspectives. It actively seeks to learn, to manage its environment, and to think systematically.

Of greatest interest here are the ways that Schein’s work sheds light on what happens – and what does not happen – in an institution of higher education. Colleges and universities are not learning organizations; they change very slowly, if at all. Academic culture, writ large, as well as the organizational cultures of individual institutions, are incredibly powerful forces. The often exist and flourish, too, in the absence of compelling mission or strategic direction. Schein’s observations – about different conceptions of time and space, about the powers of artifact and values, about intra-group dynamics – give powerful tools to gain insight into the myriad of ways that different institutions of higher education operate.

It is also important to note that an institution of higher education is actually several organizational cultures interacting with each other. Student, faculty and staff often experience three different cultures that come into contact with each other at different times and in different spaces. Effective leadership must be able to understand and reach across these different cutlures and help them to communicate with each other more effectively.

Rarely do I read books that make me want to go back to school, and rarer still is the volume that would make me hanker for an MBA. Schein’s Organiational Culture and Leadership is that rare book.

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