An organizational chart can be a helpful tool to give a new employee a sense of the reporting structures in place in a particular department or alignment. However, an organizational chart provides only a slim understanding of the actual structure of that workplace or institution. Institutions and workplaces are much more complex than an organizational chart can show because they are made of people. And people, being dynamic and adaptable in nature, create systems and structures for organizations that are dynamic and adaptable in nature. Institutions and organizations are essentially living systems, which absorb resources, react to threats, capitalize on strengths, and produce. I have learned about organizational structure in several ways in the CSSA program, through my work in Career Services and in AHE 553, Organization & Administration of College Student Services, but also during my previous employment in various organizations: a non-profit arts organization, a real estate agency, an English department, and various restaurants and theatre companies. Reflecting back, I can see how these many organizations both worked well and did not work well using a framework of the complex, adaptive, living system.
Much can be learned from scholars working in business as we attempt to organize our institutions to react quickly and adapt readily to the constantly changing circumstances of our modern world. Margaret Wheatley (2006) encourages us to think of organizations as webs of interconnected individuals and networks that are in relationship with one another. She encourages leaders to nurture these relationships in order to inspire healthy organizations. However, many of our higher education institutions were developed using an industrial model, a factory assembly line with educated students as the final product. This model devalues people and their relationships with others; it also discourages learning, growth, and self-motivation. For instance, if the leaders in my department, my alignment, or my institution do not value professional development for all employees, than I have very little incentive to want to learn and grow and improve my performance. If I am a member of an assembly line, I am only responsible for my task, which provides little motivation to work collaboratively across departments or take responsibility for the holistic student experience. However, when relationships are valued and the model of the institution is a web of interconnected people who are all responsible for educating students, or when leaders recognize that everyone deserves professional development opportunities and provides resources for them to grow, than employees will be encouraged to work collaboratively, take initiative, and develop new programming to fill emerging student needs.
I know how this concept of the living system succeeds in action from my time as an actor working at a small repertory theatre company in Colorado, Creede Repertory Theatre. Here is an institution where most of the employees are getting paid very little to work more than 60 hours a week. Those outside of this institution might not understand why everyone involved works so hard, with so much enthusiasm, for so little reward. However, this company is an organization that has learned how to motivate people to care about each other and the work we do together so much that I believe many would work for free if need be, as long as their basic human needs were met. How have they accomplished this? They do this by inspiring the company with the knowledge that we are changing peoples’ lives when they come see a show at our theatre, by valuing failure in art and understanding that in order to create amazing artistic experiences, we must sometimes fail, and by building in social experiences that connect people in those valuable webs of relationship. As this arts organization has grown larger, it has not forgotten the values that make it successful in these ways. I take quite a lot from my time working with this company into my work in higher education. Sometimes, higher education strives to do what Creede Repertory Theatre is doing but falls short. I am positive that this happens because leadership is not willing to inspire, to focus on why we do the work we do, instead of what we do or how we do it. Creede Repertory Theatre never forgets to return to why what we do is important with each season, each company, and each new crop of employees. Everyone understands that together we make amazing things, but individually, we can accomplish very little. In higher education, it is imperative that everyone understand how important they are to the process of educating students, whether they work directly with them or support others who do.