2.4 – The Impact of Organizational Culture

Cultural Conflict

While multiple cultures co-exist in most universities, the collegial culture still tends to provide the lens through which university faculty see their world. It is a culture that values independence and autonomy and eschews direction and accountability. As Bergquist & Pawlak (2008) observe,

“for many faculty members, one of the most attractive features of the collegial culture is this tolerance for and even encouragement of autonomous activity. Whereas the other three academic cultures…reinforce collaboration and corporate activity, the collegial culture nurtures the ‘lone wolf’, the ‘eccentric’, and the socially oblivious ‘absent-minded professor’ in a manner that is unique to American higher education.” (p. 32).

Thus we have two groups of people with differing realities and a disconnect between two fundamentally different cultures: the faculty members who inhabit the collegial world and the e-learning support staff who usually live in the managerial world. This sets up the conditions for conflict and potential resistance to the implementation of e-learning in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.

Some degree of conflict and resistance, then, is probably inevitable as higher education institutions try to use more managerial approaches. However, this does not mean that successful implementation of e-learning is unachievable.

Linking E-Learning Support Units with Academic Departments

To mitigate the potential for cultural conflict, t is essential to forge strong relationships between e-learning support units and academic departments and faculties. These relationships must extend beyond individual faculty members to the senior, decision-making levels. Faculties have to feel that they have ownership and control over e-learning. This means making the key academic decisions and setting priorities. Deans and Associate Deans must be aware of the e-learning activity in their faculties, understand how it contributes to their missions, and how they benefit financially and academically by participating in e-learning projects. If e-learning is seen as something that happens somewhere else, that faculties do not control, it is more likely to be ignored or resisted. There are a number of ways of achieving this and they will vary depending on the particular university context. Advisory committees that have faculty representation and that meet regularly to discuss e-learning issues, set priorities, and allocate resources are an excellent way to ensure that faculties are involved. However more is needed. E-learning has to become part of the fabric of the faculty, not an optional extra that only a few enthusiasts engage in. Development and teaching of e-learning courses need to be part of the regular faculty load. Achieving this will require working with Deans and Associate Deans to educate them about what e-learning is and how it can contribute to the academic plans of the faculties.

Adapting to the Collegial Culture

If an e-learning support unit already exists, it must resist the temptation to assume the way they do things is the only way. Highly centralized, professionalized support units that tend to treat e-learning development as an industrial process will be resisted by many faculty members because this approach is not consistent with their world view. According to Bergquist & Pawlak (2008), faculty members who adhere to collegial cultural norms are dismissive of the systematic planning processes and rationalistic world view of managerial approaches.

Even though the classroom is essentially a public arena, faculty members tend to view teaching as a private interchange between them and their students. There is a strong resistance to the observation of their teaching or the idea that teaching can be improved through sharing experiences and developmental activities. Millet’s (1962) observations from over 40 years ago still ring true,

“the scholar wants to be left alone in the conduct of the academic enterprise. He does not welcome innovation in instructional procedures, in instructional arrangements, or in the organization and operation of a college or university…The scholar is conservative in his attitude toward and appreciation of the academic process.” (p. 104).

Bates & Sangrà (2011) present the issue in simpler terms. The dominant collegial culture of universities places high value on research and views teaching as secondary and something that doesn’t really require training. As a result, faculty are not motivated to focus their energy on teaching or on rocking the boat by trying to change the dominant transmission mode of teaching. Thus, trying to implement e-learning on a wide scale runs up against significant barriers.

Research universities aren’t the only institutions that face these barriers. One would think that colleges and other higher education institutions that place a greater emphasis on teaching would be more amendable to educational innovation. The organizational culture explanation may not be relevant here but if it isn’t, how do we explain the resistance in colleges? Unfortunately Bates & Sangrà don’t offer us much. Their solution for the situation in universities is to provide systematic training in teaching and teaching with technology to faculty. This is certainly also relevant to colleges but will this be enough?

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Read Bates, A.W. & Sangrà, A. (2011). Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching & Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 182-190. (The beginning of Chapter 8 to the subhead Training in Technology and Teaching.)

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In this  chapter I use the situation at UBC in the early 2000’s to illustrate how organizational cultural issues can affect the implementation of e-learning and distance education in a research university.


Millett, J.D. (1962). The Academic Community: An Essay on Organization. New York: McGraw-Hill.