Lessons from place

The following is the last part of the Place section of chatper 2 of my thesis. It’s not that good, but enough has been done to get it out and await feedback.

Lessons from place

The Place component of the Ps Framework aims to understand the context within which e-learning within universities operates. Organisational and societal characteristics play a role in defining the context in which tertiary education operates and frames the parameters of potential individual and organisational responses (White 2006). Previous sections within the Place component (Section 2.1) have examined the characteristics of broader society (Section 2.1.1), the higher education sector (Section 2.1.2) and the nature of individual institutions of higher education (Section 2.1.3). This section identifies, and describes in more detail below, four main lessons from this examination of Place and how it applies to e-learning within universities. Those four lessons are:

  1. Change for universities is traditional, inherent and necessary in its Place.
  2. Inconsistency is a feature of universities and their place.
  3. Universities and their place are complex adaptive systems.
  4. There is a mismatch between the place of universities and its current processes.

Change is traditional, inherent and necessary

It is not difficult to find authors commenting on the centrality of change to the modern university. The environment in which universities operate is one of intense change (McNaught 2003). Higher education continues to undergo massive change (Newton 2003). Higher education is beset by grotesque turbulence (Webb 1994). A distinctive feature of the modern world is not change per se but its character, intensity and felt impact (Barnett 2004). Within this environment the rate of change required of universities will almost certainly be more rapid than in earlier centuries refer?. Academic institutions must remain flexible enough to response to emerging social demands, technological change and economic realignments (Scott 2006). Insitutions that cannot continually change to keep up with the needs of the transforming economy will become irrelevant (Klor de Alva 2000).

It is equally easy to find evidence of universities being somewhat less than accepting of change. There is a clear strand of research that addresses higher education’s capacity for resistance, if not downright subversion, of external pressures and requirements (Brennan and Teichler 2008). Universities are one of a very few institutions that have maintained their existence since the 1500s (Kerr 1994). The pre-dominant model of a university remains the traditional combination of teaching and research suggested by Humboldt in the 19th century (Tsichritzis 1999). There is also the suggestion that teaching is one of the few human activities that does not demonstrate improvement from one generation to the next (Bok 1992).

As mentioned previously, there are alternate perspectives of the university as having a proven ability to evolve in a changing environment (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000) and fill any purpose society sets for them (Kogan 2000). The view that universities are static institutions resisting change is perhaps an artifact of analysts looking for change from the top down, rather than the bottom up (Birnbaum 2000). Change in professional bureaucracies – like Universities – does not occur from the top-down via management, administrators and major reforms, instead it sweeps in through the slow process of changing the professionals that form the operating core (Mintzberg 1979). This type of change is not highly visible as it is not introduced through master plans, ministerial bulletins or on a global scale (Clark 1983).

The uncritical acceptance of claims of crisis, stagnation and the existence of turblence of a different order of magnitiude than previously seen makes institutions more receptive to management innovation, especially those that claim to be able to predict or control the environment (Birnbaum 2000). An emphasis on ‘new practices for a new age’ contributes to a misunderstanding of the past and an ignorance of what is really important in organizations (Eccles, Nohria et al. 2003). Rather than suggest change is permanent, Berg et al (2003) suggest that it is the basic condition of life. Change is traditional, inherent and necessary to universities, it is nothing new, all who work with in them must continue to deal with the ‘complex interaction between the planned and the serendipitous’ (Webb 1994).

Inconsistent requirements, tensions and paradox

The types of changes or pressures arising from place with which universities must deal are, as mentioned previously, creating inconsistent needs and outcomes. Findlow (2008) notes the significant tension that arises between place-based pressure for accountability, that creates a need for measurement and risk-reduction, and similar pressure for innovation, the nature of which often defeats measurement and requires risk taking. Webb (1994) discusses the tension arising from demands for greater coporateness and executive management with funding policies that encourage university departments to see financial rewards and expansion as ‘theirs’. Webb (1994) also highlights the tension between increasing demands to serve local communities and rewards associated with research and teaching excellence. Marginson (2007) comments on how university ranking systems, which tend to norm institutions as a single global market of essentially similar comprehensive research universities in order for comparison to be sensible, tend to work against national and institutional desires for diversity, specialist missions and strategies of innovation within higher education.

Attempts to make sense of a world that is increasingly ambiguous and ever-changing frequently leads to a simplification of reality into polarised either/or distinctions that conceal complex interrelationships (Lewis 2000). Rather than compromise between the distinctions, vibrant organizations change by simultaneously holding the two inconsistent states – a paradox – to create, not a bland halfway point, but instead an edge of chaos (Eisenhardt 2000). Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt (2005) argue that “the rationale underlying decision processes in universities is inherently paradoxical and hence change management in universities is the management of paradoxes under turbulent circumstances”.

It is complex

Higher education’s characteristic continuing change, combined with diverse nature of its students and the range of courses offered compound the complexity inherent in higher education (Jones and O’Shea 2004). The higher the social complexity, defined as the number and diversity of participants, the more difficult a design project becomes (Conklin 2005). The multifaceted disposition of the university as an organization stretched among diverse sub sub-systems of the society, causes paradoxical effects that make change in universities complex (Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt 2005) There is a need to see universities as complex and occasionally contradictory entities whose developmental trajectories are shaped by multiple historical, political and cultural characteristics (Tuunainen 2005). The higher education sector is a complex domain with many different kinds of institutions fulfilling very different roles (Berg, Csikszenthmihalyi et al. 2003).

Complexity describes a feature of systems where the interactions between elements are unclear, uncertain and unpredictable (Barnett 2004). This is more than the interconnections between elements are so complex as to be indeterminable; it suggests that the connections are so interwoven that any attempt to engage with on e strand will have repercussive and unforeseeable impacts on many, if not all, of the other strands (Barnett 2004). Under such a view organizations can be seen as systems whose goals, the necessary resources, and the interrelationships between components must all be continuously redefined (Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt 2005). In a complex context there are no right answers to discover ahead of time due to unpredictability and flux (Snowden and Boone 2007).


It appears that the current emphasis on increasing corporatisation and executive management within universities is creating a mismatch between organisational practices and the society, sector and institutions within which higher education takes place. Such a circumstance can result in ‘organisational schizophrenia’ manifesting itself as a mismatch between organisational goals and achievable practice on the ground (Lisewski 2004). A situation where success depends on adopting strategies that overcome a fundamental mismatch between context and objectives (Findlow 2008). Attempts to reduce the complexities inherent in corporatising the processes of universities creates a gap in organisational knowledge that can lead to oversights and artificial simplifications (Churchman 2006). More fundamentally, the on-going emphasis on overly rationalised accounts or organisational life (Adams 1994) and the fundamental assumption of a certain level of predictability and order (Snowden and Boone 2007) contributes to this mismatch. Achieving outcomes in a time of increasing uncertainty requires a deep understanding of place, the ability to embrace complexity and paradox and a willingness to flexibly change styles (Snowden and Boone 2007).


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One thought on “Lessons from place

  1. Pingback: Phd Update #12 – some progress, but late « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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