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Member News: C.C. Eship / NACCE Journal Fall/Winter 2010

It’s About The Culture

Wednesday, November 3, 2010   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Matthew Montoya
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By Edwin R. Massey, Ph.D., President
Christina T. Hart, Ph.D., Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness
Indian River State College, Ft. Pierce, Florida

Volumes have been written about the structure and function of community colleges. Most colleges are student-centered organizations that strive to address the workforce needs of local communities. Organizationally, community colleges have traditionally operated as bureaucracies relying on leadership hierarchy in their functioning (Birnbaum, 1988; Levin, 1998). The traditional community college model has resulted in the creation of hundreds of outstanding community colleges across the country.

For more than 40 years Indian River State College realized above average performance as measured by conventional indicators. Aligned with the traditional American community college model, the college experienced significant success forming partnerships, addressing existing workforce needs, and providing academic programs that transfer to upper-division institutions. This model functioned well for many years, but with the onslaught of rapid-fire changes in technology, globalization, external competition, enrollment growth pressures, budget cuts, student demand for access, and changing demographics, over time it became evident that a new way of doing business was warranted.

Community colleges are entrepreneurial by nature and perfectly positioned to be the "go to” centers for creative and innovative ideas. When a void is detected within the community that is not going to be filled by traditional forms of education, they respond. Light and nimble they embrace and welcome requests driven by a sense of opportunity rather than seeing the barriers in every situation. This enters into many things – opportunities in curriculum, high technology skills, employee enrichment and development, altering the mission if necessary, embracing opportunities to be more proactive not only to meet the current needs, but to build the community for the future. Our communities now see us not only as responders but as centers of creative thinking and innovation.

Indian River realized that although we were a "good” college we had to determine if we were good in a way that would stand the test of time. Was being "good” leading us down the path of complacency? How long can we expect "good” to last when we’re constantly bombarded by the Internet and all forms of technology? It became obvious that the traditional model, although it served us well, had to be adjusted or changed or we were going to miss opportunities in the future. In hindsight it became clear – that it is not possible for our college to remain relevant without periodic transformation.

Moment of Decision

Following a President’s Cabinet Retreat in December of 2000, the decision was made to invest the time and energy necessary to revitalize our college to become a creative, innovative, driving force within our community vs. a declining casualty of the status quo. The changing world brought the realization that the college could no longer resist change but needed to create a culture that would embrace change to remain competitive. Going to the next level would involve altering and re-inventing the institutional culture. Long term and difficult, this would require a college-wide commitment.

Realizing Results

Based on a Great Colleges to Work For (GCTWF) survey of 42,000 employees of 277 colleges nationwide by The Chronicle of Higher Education, IRSC placed on the "Honor Roll” as one of the best colleges to work for in July 2010. With scores in the top ten, among four-year colleges with over 10,000 students, IRSC received the highest score of all the colleges of its size in all 15 categories. The IRSC survey average was 86 percent, and the benchmark percent positive for same-sized colleges was 78 percent. The IRSC survey return rate was 74 percent. The other top ten institutions in the same category included University of Notre Dame, University of Michigan, University of Mississippi, University of Southern California, Georgia Institute of Technology and others.

Lessons Learned

The culture of a college is what matters most. If left alone the value of an organization’s culture is always depreciating. Change is inevitable but it’s much better to change from a position of strength when you’re able to choose to change vs. changing from a position of weakness when forced to change. Change that is not anchored in cultural change will prove to be just another "project” and will fail to provide sustainable, long-lasting change. Cultural change requires a long-term commitment to altering internal working relationships, attitudes, and approaches to leverage organizational potential. Many change processes are met with strong resistance because what’s viewed as changing is not only everyday actions associated with organizational climate, but also strongly entrenched anchors of security found in the culture (Sopow, 2007). Perhaps the best indicator of cultural change is the level of resistance – when the existing culture gets riled up and fights back that’s a good sign (Pritchett, 2002).

For cultural changes to be embraced college-wide the effort must begin at the top. Administrators and mid-managers will only become engaged in the process and drive the effort deep into the institution if the president is leading the charge. The role of the leader is to help the administrators and mid-managers understand that their actions are the template of the culture. When they understand this reality and how their actions expand to the masses, then a healthy culture can be realized. The president and upper administration are the change agents – they are the coaches and the communicators – to help employees understand that they are in charge of the culture rather than a victim of the culture. We’ve always had people in the college that could produce more but they didn’t because of the administration. Upper administration and mid-managers were the most difficult to "get on board.” They seemed to anticipate that the loss of authority would be greater than the gains received.

Instinct and intuition are powerful tools that cannot be ignored. Entrepreneurial presidents are always looking for creative ways of doing things – listening to that "still small voice” inside – always seeking and knowing that there is more individual and organizational potential when leaders understand that a major part of their job is to manage the culture. Colleges are surrounded with opportunities to do things differently – through facility creation and renovation, such as creating learning-style responsive facilities, using technology and so on.

After looking at several organizations that had "roadmaps” in the development of a culture, we arrived at the decision that if our people design it and build it they will own it – and the culture will truly be theirs. We developed our own activities by analyzing results and listening carefully to employee feedback along the way. "Leadership is critical to creating a climate on campus where faculty and staff feel sufficiently secure to have ‘courageous conversations’ that allow them to question their ingrained practices and experiment with new approaches” (Jenkins, 2008).

To change the culture of an institution takes a long time, and consistent actions - you don’t succeed until you reach the masses. When you reach the masses you essentially generate a momentum of innovation that unleashes the right to be innovative and creative. If you loosen the reins the people will perform in exceptional ways and institutional progress and performance gets better and better – this reality demonstrates that it truly is counterintuitive to free people up to give their best. Employees "get to be” innovative and creative. The culture will become institutionalized through processes. Changes must be institutionalized and change must be embraced as a regular daily activity and not something to fear. Acceptance of change is layered within the college. The acceptance was easier at the lower level than at the upper level.

A rigid organizational structure can be a major impediment for change. The past traditional form of leadership led to a rigid structure that always won out over creativity. Instead, we adopted a flat, open, integrated, administrative structure that expects and encourages trans-disciplinary approaches; this has led to advances in health science, public safety, energy and technologies through the flexible structure that includes administrators, faculty and staff working together to challenge the status quo. By shifting these conversations to include the integration and blending of various disciplines, we released creative and innovative ideas that allowed us to produce the workforce for rapidly expanding emerging technologies.

The act of accepting feedback is critical in driving change. A structured professional process where anonymous feedback is offered and received in a constructive manner has been the most provocative source of enlightenment for all involved. Creating an open, honest, candid culture takes time. Mechanisms have to be employed where the leadership learns the truth and that can be very painful. Leaders cannot be sheltered from bad news and negative feedback. They must receive feedback with the understanding that the employees who have a vested interest in the college are providing feedback because they just want to make the institution better.

In today’s fast paced world it’s not enough to be reactive – you have to be proactive and expect to play a major role in the emerging workforce. Entrepreneurial institutions have to be proactive and exercise intelligent entrepreneurship. Research based, futuristic planning, must be wrapped around the goals of your state and community. Colleges must be present at the table to effect community change and help make it happen instead of coming in after the fact. To attract new and emerging businesses will require taking risks in some situations, buildings, programs and facilities. Sensing this reality and living in an area that was experiencing aggressive economic development these outside forces propelled us to prepare and to anticipate what could impact our institution in the years ahead. As your community changes you never really know what you’re going to be called on to do. Examples:

In 2005 the digital media industry did not exist within the community when Indian River State College built a 106,000 sq. ft., $30 million, state-of-the-art Kight Center for Emerging Technologies. Today, five years later, a film studio is under construction for Digital Domain Production Co. with additional film companies expected to follow. In 1996 the high technology, high simulation Health Science Center was created and 11 years later attracted a branch of the Florida State University Medical School, which was constructed adjacent to the Center. In 2006 the design was drafted to create a Leeds Certified Energy Institute years before energy industries moved into the area. Today the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is coming out of the ground, attracting new partners such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory and General Electric Co. with other new industries moving into the area.

You must invest in your people. At the same time we embarked on this cultural change we also created a new program called the Employee Development Program (EDP). Without EDP our cultural change efforts could not have moved forward. Offerings are based on employee requests and respond to the needs of each and every employee group.

The potential was always within the college – but had been masked. By evaluating our approaches, structure, planning, thinking and how we communicate, we were able to bring out what was already there…and that was a tremendous amount of hidden potential. The culture and the workplace must be designed to release all the institutional talents and hidden potential to free people to be creative in their thinking, acting and doing. Releasing the potential of the people is about leadership.

To exceed the expectations of the audience results in remarkable outcomes. To exceed student, community, and state expectations – expectations in grant procurement, curriculum development, college maintenance, administrative functioning, etc, – is all driven by embedding high expectations in all things. The culture creates a climate in which people want to do better and have higher expectations of themselves, holding others accountable to the same standard.

Changes in the workforce require more of an interdisciplinary approach with the curriculum, family and work schedules demanding more access to distance learning opportunities. The need exists to not only address existing workforce skill needs but to challenge students to explore emerging needs, due to the increasing proficiency requirements of existing and emerging workers. Previously we did not challenge students to explore emerging skills. The old model was functioning in a predictable environment, but with a new generation of students who exhibit a whole array of learning styles we had to become more proactive in driving our community, introducing our students to new topics that will be critical to learn for the future.

With cultural change an "abundance” mentality replaces the once held "scarcity” mentality, adding to the prevailing spirit of collaboration on campus. When you focus on success and the possible outcomes that result, abundance becomes a lifestyle. Abundance is about high expectations and pride and tends to be very apparent and pervasive throughout the college.

Third-party validation, awards, winning facilities and programs, student successes and unsolicited positive results such as being selected for the Great Colleges to Work for Honor Roll all provide evidence that cultural change is worth the pain and steadfast effort. The return on investment and tremendous outcomes following the long journey and hard work make it all worthwhile.

Bender, P. U., Hancocks, G. (2002). Gutfeeling. Achievement Group, Toronto.
Birnbaum, R. (1988). The cybernetics of academic organization and leadership.
San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass Publishers
Jenkins, D. (2008). Lessons: Lumina Foundation Report, winter edition. Lumina
Foundation for Education, p. 31.
Levin, J. S. (1998). Making sense of organizational change. In J. S. Levin (Ed.), Organizational change in the community college: A ripple or a sea change? (Summer 1998 ed., pp. 43-54). San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Pritchett, P. (2002). The Employee Handbook for Shaping Corporate Culture. Pritchett LLC.
Sopow, E. (2007). The impact of culture and climate on change. Strategic HR
Review; Volume 6 Issue 2, pp. 20-23.
Mary Field’s Health Science Center (Main campus - Ft. Pierce, Fl)

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