Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline explained that academia as the classic example for how difficult it is for organization to manage the process by which change is introduced and sold in to the organization. (Senge, 1990) Senge is best known for stressing the importance of cross department communication and alignment of goals across department lines (Senge, 1990). Higher education tends to function as a disparate group of independent departments and individual contractors. Change becomes a difficult process because there is limited line management outside of the Provost, Dean and department chairs. But without an awareness of the competitive factors and changes in market for college graduates, institutions are walking in darkness at noon day. That is why Senge, George Keller (1983), and others believe strategic planning and alignment is so critical
Senge sees academic departments as the classic silo within the larger university setting. By design at the vast majority of colleges , disciplines are fiercely independent and fight to establish a culture of superiority in order to compete for limited resourses with other departments and gain the approval of the outside world.
Unfortunately that silo mentality is usually damaging to the organization as a whole. Competing against other departments for resources happens everywhere. But how do they compete? Departments compete for scarce resources, notoriety, students, and presidential attention by advancing their personal goals and agenda and not for the overal good of the university according to Senge.
Most universities had over 100 of these departments/divisions operating semi-autonomously with their own set of rules and distinctive culture. It was the classic fiefdom of chairs who have ruled their department for 10+ years with little or no input from busy Deans or Provosts. Does it have to work that way?
The way faculty are evaluated gives us a clue. Peer review, research and teaching expectations, incentive compensation, and culture are by definition defined by the chair and key members of the department as opposed to the Dean. Usually the key members of a department are senior faculty who are tenured. Faculty promotions, tenure and raises are primarily determined by the department chair and these senior faculty in a peer review process.
According to Senge, the faculty who work in these silos have “blinders on” and cannot meet the needs of the institution when their goals are not aligned with the college’s. These faculty members will not sacrifice or even empathize for the goals of the entire institution if it conflicts with their professional goals or conflicts with the discipline specific work related to achieving tenure or recognition (Senge, 1990). This means most department members are walking in darkness at noon day” in terms of the overall objectives and goals of the institution. When these institutions get “out of alignment” in terms of their department goals versus the entire institution, any change acceptance process is hindered too.
Often the institutional department or administrator responsible for implementing change, say the Dean or Provost must exhibitan authoritative style to get things done in this environment. When problems arise, the dysfunctional behavior of chairs will rule the day because faculty won’t understand or agree with the need for change. These cultural fights for institution wide initiatives such as changes in general education requirements, or greater inter-disciplinary integration become a battlefield for the heart of the institution.
Why does this happen? Answer: The institution’s goal of student success runs out of alignment with department goals or expectations for graduates. Senge believes this is not necessary and advocates leaders who can bring departments into line with the overall good of the university.