If culture is what a group of people construct as a result of their shared experiences and the confluence of their values, beliefs, norms, rules and traditions then the study of educational organisations will be largely about the study of their culture. Unique and peculiar to each setting culture is the living embodiment of how an organisation’s component parts interact and are shaped by those interactions. Embedded in the very weave of the organisation, culture is the most difficult aspect of an organisation to change and the hardest form of change to sustain 'That’s because transforming a culture requires influencing people’s deepest beliefs and most habitual behaviours’ (Rogers, Meehan & Tanne 2006 p5). Rogers et al indicate that as little as 10% of all organisations that set out to develop a high performing culture achieve their goal.
Culture and change are tightly intertwined. Organisational change occurs always within its culture and often to its culture. Where the goal is to bring about change by shifting the culture of the organisation additional degrees of complexity and resistance should be expected as the ‘content’ or the ‘what’ of the change and the ‘context’ or cultural setting of the change are the same. Changing culture could described as analogous to trying to sail an ocean while building the boat.
Educational organisations with their focus on the provision of human services and the inherent relationships between teacher and student and between teachers, creates a complex emotional playground. In schools, emotion and culture are linked and change of culture frequently invokes an emotional response. “A person’s sense of identity is partly determined by his or her values, which can mesh or clash with organizational values” (Smollan & Sayers 2009 p439) When cultural change is sought in a school and it is not viewed as fitting with one’s values or it calls those values into question emotional responses such as fear, anger or sadness are common. This is seen in changes such as those resulting from calls for increased teacher accountability that result in teacher professionalism and autonomy being questioned. In instances where the individual’s identity is in close alignment with the organisation’s culture it should be expected that cultural change will be resisted as the shift requires a change in personal identity. This connection between identity and culture and the subsequent emotional dependencies demands the most considered management and awareness of the human factors involved in the change.
Cultural change when aligned with an organisation’s vision or core purpose has a better chance of survival than when such a vision is lacking or unclear. Successful change requires a clearly communicated and compelling vision if it is to be accepted. In schools this requires clear connections between deeply held beliefs about pedagogy, curriculum, assessment and pastoral care along with concepts of teacher professionalism and beliefs about the purposes of education. Where changes are seen to threaten these beliefs or inhibit individuals in their pursuit of related outcomes change may be resisted. Many teachers will need to be shown that the intended change indeed benefits their teachers and will allow them to better meet their needs. Perhaps the most pressing concern for teachers is the time that a new idea will take to implement. Showing teachers where the time for a change will come from, ensuring that the change will not add to their workload and will be adequately supported are all important steps.
Resistance to change can be seen as a property of some cultures and this is described by Starr (2011) in an analysis of the politics of change. Cultural resistance can result from the specific qualities of a change but can also become a property of the culture itself as a result of factors such as 'change fatigue’ or broken trust relationships. In schools both factors can exist and change in these circumstances is difficult. Cultural resistance is strengthened when the change is initiated outside of the culture. Where the change is initiated within the school, with teacher and leadership working together and with a clear purpose linked to the local context change is a more manageable process with less fear and misunderstanding.
Given the importance of culture, its connection to teacher identity and the core values and beliefs of the profession, cultural change in schools is most likely to be accepted when handled in a participatory manner which aligns with the school’s vision and values. 'The most critical function of corporate culture is to generate commitment and enthusiasm among followers by making them feel they are part of a ‘family’ and participants in a worthwhile venture’ (Smollan & Sayers 2009 p438) For schools this requires teachers to be participants in the process of change and innovation and to be be active members of a professional community of practice. 'A professional community therefore is one where teachers participate in decision making, have a shared sense of purpose, engage in collaborative work and accept joint responsibility for the outcomes of their work.(Harris, 2003 p379)
By Nigel Coutts
Burnes, B. (2011) Introduction: Why Does Change Fail, and What Can We Do About It?, Journal of Change Management, 11:4, 445-450
Harris, A. (2003). Behind the classroom door: The challenge of organisational and pedagogical change. Journal of Educational Change, 4, pp. 369 - 382.
Rogers, P., Meehan, P. and Tanner, S. (2006) Building a winning culture (Boston, MA: Bain & Company).
Smollan, R & Sayers, J. (2009) Organizational Culture, Change and Emotions: A Qualitative Study, Journal of Change Management, 9:4, 435-457
Starr, K. (2011). Principals and the politics of resistance to change. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 39: 646