2.3 – Organizational Culture

All organizations have some basic, shared assumptions, values, and norms. This is what is called an organizational culture which is essentially the personality of an organizaiton. Organizational culture is expressed in how its members behave, how the organization promotes itself and what it values and rewards. So why does this matter to how we plan and manage e-learning? Well, as Bates & Sangrà (2011) argue, organizational cultures develop to protect the core mission of an organization which means any changes that are perceived to undermine the core mission and values are often resisted because they are seen as threatening.

Bergquist and Pawlak (2008) have written extensively on the organizational culture and higher education. In their book, Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy, they argue life in conventional universities is governed by six distinct but related organizational cultures that are often operating simultaneously. They argue that these cultures profoundly affect how faculty, staff, students and administrators view and carry out their roles and how the institutions are organized. They call the six cultures collegial, managerial, developmental, negotiated, virtual and tangible.

The Collegial Culture

In the collegial culture the autonomous faculty member reigns supreme. She or he is driven by the pursuit of knowledge. The notions of measurable outcomes and accountability are resisted and academic freedom is the guiding principle. Governance processes are faculty-driven and controlled and institutional change takes place slowly. “For all its strengths—specifically, its encouragement of deliberation and open communication—the collegial culture suffers from a lack of organization and coherence” (Bergquist & Pawlak, 2008, p. 73).

The Managerial Culture

The managerial culture is defined primarily in structural terms. Work is organized and directed toward specific goals. Evaluation and accountability are highly valued as are fiscal responsibility and effective supervisory skills. The managerial culture has its origins in the world of business and anybody who has worked in a corporate environment will recognize its characteristics. However it has also had a profound impact on college and university campuses. Governments have increasingly demanded greater accountability from public universities and colleges (at the same time as they reduced funding) which forced these institutions to engage in the kind of planning and organization that is commonplace in business but largely foreign to the collegial culture.

The Developmental Culture

The developmental culture values the cognitive, affective and behavioral growth of students, faculty and staff. It finds meaning in the development of programs and activities that focus on personal and professional growth. “It holds untested assumptions about the inherent desire of all men and women to attain their own personal maturation, while helping others in the institution become more mature” (Bergquist & Pawlak, 2008, p. 73)

The Negotiating Culture

This is a culture that sees university life as consisting of diverse interest groups who must negotiate with each other in order to receive their fair share of the resources and benefits of the institutions. It “values confrontation and fair bargaining among constituencies (primarily management and faculty or staff) with vested interests that are inherently in opposition;…and that conceives of the institution’s enterprise as either the undesirable promulgation of existing (and often repressive) social attitudes and structures or the establishment of new and more liberating social attitudes and structures” (Bergquist & Pawlak, 2008, p. 111).

The Virtual Culture

The virtual culture is in many ways the most radical of the six cultures as it represents a significant change in the role of higher education in a globalized world. It is a direct result of the “digital revolution”, the increasing use and importance of digital technologies in our daily lives. The virtual culture positions higher education in a global context in a postmodern world that “values open, shared, responsive, educational systems; that holds assumptions about its ability to make sense of the fragmentation and ambiguity that exists…and that conceives of the institution’s enterprise as linking its educational resources to global and technological resources, thus broadening the global learning network” (Bergquist & Pawlak, 2008, p. 147).

The Tangible Culture

The tangible culture is a return to the roots of higher education. In reacting to the rise of the virtual culture, the tangible culture “values the predictability of a value-based, face-to-face education in an owned physical location; that holds assumptions about the ability of old systems and technologies being able to instill the institution’s values; and that conceives of the institution’s enterprise as the honoring and reintegration of learning from a local perspective.” (Berquist & Pawlak, 2008, p. 185)

If you are interested in learning more about these six cultures, you should get a copy of the Bergquist & Pawlak book. For our purposes, however, the collegial and the managerial cultures are the most relevant. Academic life in most western universities is firmly embedded in the collegial culture. However, many of the practices and structures associated with e-learning are informed by a managerial culture. For this reason we want to examine these two organizational cultures, how they interact and the challenges this creates for the effective implementation of e-learning.


  1. Does the description of the organizational cultures of higher education provided by Berquist & Pawlak makes sense to you? Do you see any evidence of these cultures within your own institutions?
  2. We have suggested that the collegial culture is the dominant culture of North American higher education. Do you agree with this?
  3. Do you think organizational culture really matters as we consider the planning and management of e-learning?
  4. Do you think that large research universities are capable of changing enough to make e-learning a significant and sustainable part of their teaching? What are your reasons?


Bergquist, W.H. & Pawlak, K. (2008). Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.