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Culture: the missing piece in the quality puzzle

29/06/2015
Andrew McCoshan
Valoda: EN

In the first of a series of blogs examining the role of culture in the development of quality systems, Andrew McCoshan looks at the literature on organisational culture to see what light it sheds.

It is widely accepted that “quality culture" needs to be, in the words of the EU-funded QALLL project, “at the heart of quality assurance policies" (QALLL Recommendations, Number 2).  At the same time, thinking about what culture means in this context continues to be “rather vague".  Whilst many quality assurance systems focus on structures and processes, cultural aspects tend to remain in the background. Not surprising then that QALLL called for continued “exploration of what quality culture means".

This blog takes some first exploratory steps and asks: what do we already know about the role of culture in general in organisations and what does it mean for the idea of a quality culture?

The extensive literature on culture suggests that it is definable yet difficult to operationalize. It is generally taken to mean “the taken-for-granted values, underlying assumptions, expectations, collective memories, and the definitions present in an organisation. It represents ‘how things are around here’. It reflects the prevailing ideology that people carry inside their heads. It conveys a sense of identity to employees, provides unwritten and often unspoken guidelines for how to get along in the organisation, and it helps stabilise the social system that they experience."

Culture develops organically. It exists everywhere and at all times. Within any organization there may be several (perhaps competing) cultures.  In the last 20-30 years, organisations have sought to turn culture to their advantage, developing and promulgating ‘corporate cultures’.  To be successful, such consciously created cultures need to be aligned with other key factors like the espoused beliefs and the strategies and products/services of an organisation. As Edgar Schein has put it, all parts of the organisational pyramid need to support one another:

Above all, to bring success to an organisation, culture needs to be “a common, consensual, integrated set of perceptions, memories, values, attitudes and definitions.”

Such recipes for success seem to be easy to say and difficult to do: the track record of corporate cultures is mixed to say the least.  Some writers have questioned whether organisations can really manage cultures at all. Since culture concerns attitudes and norms, attempts to shape it towards corporate goals have been called the regulation of the consciousness of employees.  Some resistance is almost inevitable.

These insights raise a number of questions about quality cultures.  First, since culture is about taken-for-granted values and attitudes, what should these be in relation to quality? Secondly, how do we go about developing and promoting these values so that they “stick" within organisations? And, finally, how do we avoid the varied track record experienced by corporate cultures in general?  These and other issues will be the subject of future blogs. In the meantime, what have been your experiences?

Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 20 years. For the last 10 years he has specialised in policy development studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently a freelance consultant, an Associate with the UK Higher Education Academy, an ECVET Expert for the UK, and a Member of the UK Education & Employers Taskforce Research Group.

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