Microcultures in the meso level of higher education organisations – the Commons, the Club, the Market and the Square
AbstractHigher education (HE) is and has been a growing concern for various stakeholders for a considerable time. Sometimes contradictory attempts to reform HE have increased the pressure on academic teachers and contributed to an experience of demand overload. This research conceptualises HE organisations so that dynamics related to change and stability become understandable. A socio-cultural perspective on organisations is applied, where interactions between academic teachers form the core of the analysis. It is assumed that through these interactions, academic teachers construct and maintain what they hold to be true in teaching and learning. The research is conducted in a research-intensive institution using ethnographically inspired methods, such as observations, interviews and narratives. Results maintain that more or less distinct collegial contexts form the organisational meso level, and that such microcultures in turn influence the individual academics. The influence is reciprocal; individuals as knowledgeable agents can influence the existing norms in the microculture, but due to the complexity in the day-to-day situations they mostly do not. Microcultures shape collegial interactions and thereby influence matters like belonging, identities, and status. It is argued that these microcultures, which are loosely coupled to each other, provide opportunities for professional sophistication as well as for defensive withdrawal from the organisational context surrounding them. The collegial interaction enables microcultures to be active as agents (partly independent organisational units) inside organisations. For example, academically strong microcultures themselves decide whether or not to be influenced by external pressures, whether these are policies formulated by senior management in the organisation to which they belong, or by other policymakers. Microcultures are linked to each other through weak ties, that is, interactions of lower intensity and frequency than the interactions inside the microcultures. It is hypothesised that these weak ties are decisive for organisational learning, coordination, and governance, especially in times of external pressure. The results presented in this thesis as well as in the literature suggest that weak ties are essential for understanding how well an organisation is functioning. Microcultures are signified by norms, traditions and recurrent practices that can vary considerably. This variation allows microcultures to adapt to the specifics of their respective contexts and thereby increase their functionality. It is shown that microcultures display similar design principles. The appearances, functions and applications of these design principles are keys for future exploration of microcultures in higher education organisations. Microcultures differ from each other along two dimensions that are linked to variations in the internal collegial interaction. First, the degree to which the colleagues who share the microculture consider each other to be significant. Second, the degree to which members experience a shared responsibility for an educational practice. The analysis resulted in four types of microcultures: the commons, the market, the club, and the square. These are presented as heuristics that are applicable to future empirical exploration of higher education organisations. Overall, it is essential to focus on the meso level of higher education organisations and the patterns of collegial interaction that result in various microcultures. This is, in turn, essential for understanding how higher education organisations function in times of increased pressure from various stakeholders.