Cultural Analysis: Strategic Enrollment Management & University Academic Advising

The Division of Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) “in the works” website is symbolic of its current culture. SEM is still in the group building stages where the focus is on group conformity and search for harmony (Schein, 2010, pg. 205). I realized that SEM departments work too independently. Daniel Levi (2014) argues that “To be successful, team members must feel responsible for both their own work and the work of other team members” (pg. 65).  From my research, I gathered that UAA feels they are only responsible for advising, Undergraduate Admissions feels they are only responsible for welcoming new students, and Financial Aid feels they are only responsible for assisting with aid distribution, etc. SEM is trying to reverse the mentality through biannual team retreats as a forum for open communication and dialogue with one another. In order to achieve a collective identity, SEM employees need to realize our interdependence to one another. Currently, SEM is working toward communicating departmental contributions with unit successes, but is still largely market driven by external factors like retention data in order to receive federal and state funding. (Schein, 2010, pg. 147).

In contrast to SEM, UAA’s culture is a “being-in-becoming” orientation. Advisors focus on not only the growth and development of students, but of themselves. Through constructive feedback meetings and regular communication, our leaders focus on what the individual advisor can become rather than what they can accomplish (Schein, 2010, pg. 147). In my office, I’ve observed that the individual advisor has the opportunity to set the stage for staff development in weekly staff meetings. UAA focuses on self-development from both a student and employee perspective.

Overall, I discovered some inconsistencies between espoused SEM values and what is actually happening within UAA.  I determined that UAA is in the process of rebuilding its own subculture under SEM leadership, while maintaining some of their core beliefs in self-development and open communication.  While UAA develops its culture, SEM is trying to develop a collective identity among all its departments. My SEM colleagues are looking for a more collaborative, friendly, and family-like culture where open, transparent dialogue among departments is encouraged on a regular basis (Schein, 2010, pg. 168). The current cultural challenge for SEM leadership is balancing its commitment to the market, its employees and VCU students.

Leadership and Culture

For the past two weeks, I’ve been conducting interviews with various colleagues for my cultural analysis paper – most of which are my indirect or direct supervisors. In my interview with the new Associate Vice Provost  (AVP) for Academic Advising, we had a long discussion about how we do things in higher education based on the leadership at the time. For instance, VCU’s previous Provost, AVP for Learning and Student Success, and VP  for Academic and Faculty Affairs were focused on an online advising tool that was going to help us track students better and come up with early intervention campaigns never before tried during the Spring 2014. However, they all left shortly after the tool was purchased and the only person left to implement the online platform was an Associate Dean who didn’t have a say in the decision making to begin with.  The new leadership that came in had no attachment to this product, other than it came with a large price tag, so we should fulfill our contract.

The new Provost and AVP for Advising are getting rid of the online advising tool when the contract ends this year. They are adopting another tool that will help streamline advising, career center, and learning support services at VCU. It sounds like a great product, but needless to say, the shifts come and go with the leadership. I feel as though big agenda items for one leader becomes part of the departmental culture. In other words, org culture can be cyclical in nature. The way we do things or as Schein likes to call them the underlying assumptions that determine our behavior are based on the leadership’s initiatives. If the leadership changes, so can the culture. Schein states that one of the ways cultures form is “new beliefs, values, and assumptions brought in by new members and new leaders” (Schein, 2010, pg. 219). I know I wrote about this in my article review, but I am even more convinced that the culture comes from the top as a result of this class. I feel as though the leader “embeds” the vision of the organization (Schein, 2010, pg. 235).  They are the ones that create momentum around a particular task that becomes a part of the advising culture.  Once that leader is replaced, the group (or department in my case) looks to the new leader for critical reflection and new ways of doing things.

I know I’ve blogged about my new boss a lot in this class, but her style of leadership has been fascinating to watch. She is already changing the culture in our department based on observable things like dress code to new underlying assumptions like accountability and follow through. I can see the class materials being revisited as I continue working in this unit.

Different Advising Cultures @ VCU

In last week’s class, we started a new unit on organizational culture. I’ve been looking forward to discussing culture because I find myself a part of two subcultures in my current role. The main “macroculture” if you will being VCU – the institution. I won’t get into a discussion on VCU culture in this blog because I mainly attach myself to departmental culture. I work in a general advising department that has to collaborate with the School of Business, Undergraduate Studies department on a regular basis on items such as appeals, curriculum changes, orientation, etc. My office culture, though, couldn’t be more different from the School of Business advising culture in terms of the artifacts or “climate”. However, our espoused beliefs and underlying assumptions when it comes to a student-centered advising model are very much the same.

Both advising offices operate on the espoused belief that we should provide streamlined initiatives for the students to successfully transition to their major; therefore, we try and meet monthly with them and have as much face to face interaction as possible to discuss potential issues. One cultural similarity or basic assumption is that we all try to be as proactive as possible in order to mitigate any student issues. Our units both assume that the individual advisor is responsible for bringing up agenda items that are relevant to the team. There is a Director of Advising at the School of Business who oversees the meetings, but she does not assume a position of power and control. Again, the advisors are the ones who lead the meetings and bring up agenda items to discuss. It is also assumed that business advisors should always be on the look out for innovative, creative strategies for student success and retention. The monthly meetings are a forum to discuss best practices.

Nevertheless, I find it so odd that the artifacts or what Schein calls the “visible and observable behaviors” are so different. For example, the School of Business employees have a stricter dress code. The advisors must wear dressy, business professional attire compared to our department’s casual dress attire. Some people in our office use to wear jeans every day, and the School of Business doesn’t even allow jeans on Fridays. The formal atmosphere in the school immediately resonates with you when you walk into the building. In addition to the dress code differences, I notice that the advisors are not as “close” with one another. The typical bantor in our office or “hallway chat” doesn’t exist in their office. The advisors present a much more individualistic culture than our advising office. Our advisors are very close with one another. Most of us have worked with each other for a long time, so we feel very comfortable chatting about everything under the sun. When both our units come together though we click! I think it’s because of the shared beliefs and values when it comes our advising model.

Schein says “The power of culture comes about through the fact that the assumptions are shared and therefore mutually reinforced” (Schein pg. 31). I’m fascinated how complex and layered culture is at the same institution. I’m looking forward to breaking down the layers even more in my paper.

The Advising Learning Cycle: Applying Dixon’s Org Learning Cycle to VCU Academic Advising

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After class a few weeks ago, I thought about how Dixon’s organizational learning cycle can be incorporated into my advising job. Dixon argues that many times an opportunity for collective learning is lost in large organizations because each dept. is responsible for different/separate things (Dixon, 1999, pg. 64). As advisors, we can be kept in our own silos, removed from other advising units across campus. VCU is a very decentralized university, which can be good and bad. The con is that we aren’t cross trained on what other departments are doing; therefore, we simply refer prospective and current students to a million different places (major exageration, but you get my point) during orientation, individual appointments, or group advising situations. An example came up this week in fact. I was advising a student who wanted to change her major to Psycology. I looked up the change of major steps on the dept. website, but I emailed my colleague in the Psyc. dept. first to confirm that was the right thing to do. Unbeknownst to me, the website was in the process of being updated and she wanted the student to follow a different procedure. I could go on and on about examples of curriculum updates, policy changes, etc. that are updated without advisor knowledge. My frustration can be that org. learning in my professional context can be very reactive instead of proactive.

If I were to have what Dixon calls “multi-skills” or multi-functioning skills, professional advising could integrate local/departmental knowledge to the larger organizational context (Dixon, 1999, pg. 64). I would like to have the opportunity to shadow/cross train with other departmental units so I’m more knowledgeable and helpful to my advisees/stakeholders. VCU advising could have the potential to cultivate a collective interpretation on various advising initiatives. In other words, I think VCU has the potential to develop a collective, advising identity without taking away unique individual/departmental attributes. The larger framework for advising could mirror what Kolb says when he states that “organization members must act on a collective interpretation” (Dixon, 1999, pg. 66). It’s this collective learning versus individual learning that is at the heart of the organizational learning cycle. I remember in the groups and teams course, I wrote that the pinnacle of group development is when the individual can put their own personal needs and agendas aside and focus on the collective identity and goals of the group. I think this is what Kolb and Dixon are trying to say when it comes to org learning. I think this what should happen at VCU. I agree with Cook and Yanow’s argument that “organizational learning as we use the term, refers to the capacity of an organization to learn how to do what it does, where what it learns is possessed not by individual members of the organization, but by the aggregate itself. That is, when a group acquires the know-how associated with its ability to carry out its collective activities” (pg. 378). Circling back to my original post about my new boss – I am hopeful that with a knowledge management system in place, VCU advisors can capture important tacit and explicit knowledge, which can eventually lead to a collective framework for learning.

The Importance of Knowledge Management Systems

In our first class, I liked our discussion on defining organizational learning. The key theme was that organizational learning is different from individual learning because knowledge is shared. In order for an organization to continually learn and grow, there needs to be an effective knowledge management system in place. Too often when an employee leaves an organization, crucial knowledge is lost. I remember speaking with my now new boss about her effective management style, and she responded that if someone were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, how could we ensure that someone else could pick up and assume the responsibilities in order to keep the organization going? Even though we would never wish that upon our employees, she had a good point about how to run an effective organization. My department, like so many others, needs an effective knowledge management system, which is largely based on “common knowledge” or what we learn from doing an organizational task (Not necessarily knowledge gained from reading a report or doing data entry).(Dixon, 2000, pg. 11).

One student mentioned in class that her colleague created a document before he left his job in order to assist his department in pre health advising at VCU. Advising is done by subject area in his department, and he was the only employee in charge pre health students. In his job, he had created contacts and new material that would be lost when he left. He wasn’t required to create a Google doc, but he felt that his dept. would be going back to square one had he not created a helpful tool to transfer knowledge to his temporary and permanent replacement. I love how our student mentioned his tacit knowledge of the field that no one else could have known unless he were to share it. This is a prime example of what Dixon is urging organizations to adopt –  knowledge sharing system that focuses on reusing critical information to help organization’s function at peak efficiency.

I am hoping this class can help me in my job as well. While I was on maternity leave, I was promoted and given a new (larger) caseload of students. There had been a series of people before me who had advised that population of students, but no professional advising had ever been done. I feel I will need to create my own knowledge management system for this new role. I hope this class can give me the tools to create an advising structure and process where if I were to get hit by a bus tomorrow (lord help me!), someone could step into my shoes and continue my work.