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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Managerially Loose but Culturally Tight

I mentioned in my last post the phrase the Tom Sergiovanni used to describe how schools should be organized.  In his writings he articulates how schools because they are places of learning are different from businesses and bureaucracies.  Unfortunately, schools seemed to be drifting farther and farther away from their special status and are viewed more and more as organizations that need tighter controls and management.  It is understandable that some assume that the problem with schools is that they are too loosely run with little accountability and monitoring.  In many other organizations tightening up leads to greater efficiency, lower costs and greater profits.  If this works for business why shouldn't it work for schools.  Here is the sad irony:  as businesses struggle to stay ahead of the innovation curve and keep up with incredible technological change, the strongest companies are the ones that embrace "learning" as the central feature of how they operate.  Traditional business management is seen as impeding growth so companies are loosening up so to speak giving their employees greater freedom and autonomy combined with the impetus to communicate openly and honestly.  Companies know that to move in this direction, their whole approach to leadership and management need to change.  They need to change so that they can keep up with change.

Schools are changing to become like business used to be while businesses are changing to what schools should be - learning organizations.   Books like Drive by Daniel Pink, the works of the Heath brothers, Malcolm Gladwell and the research of Amy Edmondson provide the theory and empirical research that could be used to promote policies that would actually raise the level of learning for all members of the school community.  Unfortunately this research has not been heeded.  In fact most of the current policies driving school reform seem more designed to decrease the learning of all members of the school community.  (I once heard someone say that maybe policies makers want schools to fail so that the entire system could be scraped and a private approach could take hold.)  In all of my time as an educator I have never seen morale among teachers be so low and hear so many people talk about retirement.

There are viable alternatives that can also make work more meaningful and creative for all involved. It can start by believing in people first, believing that people change people not programs, rules or regulations. Moving away from tight management toward cultural coherence involves taking the time to get people to talk to each other.  Not every person in a school will or should have the same values or principles but there should be a professional dialogue where people can discover what they do have in common and where they might differ.  When people encounter problems,  if they avoid jumping to quick solutions and fixes,  and instead invest time in learning about their problems, they not only discover their own values and principles they begin to shape and influence each other's in a good way.  As a staff discovers this "process" for solving problems (this could also be called "learning") they begin to value and understand the process itself more and arrange the conditions for it to happen more consistently.  When this happens over time people's decisions and actions tend to converge toward principles and values and these then set the parameters for how people treat each other.  Schools or organizations can be surprised by how few rules, regulations or other forms of management would be needed when people can communicate in a trusting environment and where problems can be resolved by talking, working and learning together.  Just as individuals need certain conditions for being creative so do organizations.   The best advice I could give any school leader for being culturally tight is pretty simple:  lead the learning by being a learner yourself.  Every problem that you encounter is a great opportunity to lead the learning for your school, once you start this process it can just take over and once your school becomes a learning organization it sustains itself.

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