What Can we Do?

I am sitting at the service center waiting for my car to be serviced. I am pondering the events of the week while preparing for the start of the Spring semester. As a college professor I have two goals. I want to provide my students with an education that will prepare them for the challenges they will face after graduation, and I want to encourage them to change the world. For those of you who don’t know, I teach managerial and entrepreneurial classes. I have being teaching these classes for 18 years, and have been a practitioner for 47 years. I believe in the power of the free market, and I believe that business can create positive social change. With that as a foundation, I’d like to share with you my thoughts about a specific event that occurred this week.

Yesterday, the institution where I teach had an all day meeting discussing what we call CT4. CT stands for Core Themes, and the 4th theme states that “we are Investing in the formation and success of students from diverse backgrounds.” As I watched the events unfold yesterday and thought about how the business department can implement core theme 4, my conviction about teaching business in a liberal arts environment was reinforced. There is no better place to teach the principles of business than an environment that believes it has a responsibility to help students from diverse backgrounds to flourish. However, my musings have led me to think about the practicum; how do we do this?

The striking event of the day, at least to me, was the student panel that discussed their experiences at our institution as individuals of color. It was informative and convinced me that my role as an educator is to prepare my students with skills needed to navigate the systems they will encounter, and give them additional skills needed to change the system. Let me explain this from a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) perspective.

It his book “Fragile Dominion” Simon Levin discusses systems from a biological, environmental, and organizational perspective. Levin states, “Undergirding the dynamic earth – its atmosphere, its physical and chemical fabric, and its biological essence – is a prototypical complex adaptive system (CAS), one that we call the biosphere. It has, over ecological and evolutionary time, spawned increasing biological diversity, but simultaneously it has evolved patterns of arrangement and interaction of its pieces” (1999, p. 2). Later in this book Levin would demonstrate how organizations are also Complex Adaptive Systems that function in a similar fashion. Others, such as Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Peter Senge, have also demonstrated the similarities of biological and organizational systems and subsequent complexity.

The application of CAS to organizations has led to a huge consulting industry dealing with change management. Daniel Syvantec in his wonderful article discussing chaos theory and the failure of cultural change efforts, further illustrated how organizational culture is so difficult to change. It seems there is a homeostatic tendency within systems that attempts to maintain an entropic state of inert uniformity. Thus culture within organizations are resistant to change.

If systems are resistant to change, and we as an institution are attempting to prepare students from diverse backgrounds to be successful, it seems to me we need to help them understand the systems they will encounter from a scientific perspective, not from an emotional, everything is horrible perspective, and then educate them on ways to methodically change these systems from within.

I want to apply this to our nation’s current business system. It is made up of various types of businesses. There are corporations, midsize businesses, small businesses, educational businesses (sorry, but there is a business side to education), not-for-profit businesses, Churches, and many other models that could fall into one of those categories. Our business system occurs at local, state, national, and global levels, and has many different facets. These businesses provide things that fall under the headings of product or services.

Financial advisers provide a service, manufacturers provide products, and college Faculty provide a service to their students preparing them for some future role within society. One that will pay them some sort of a salary. Regardless of how some feel about this, it is the system. Remember, I am focusing just on the business system. There is typically a look and feel, artifacts, that are associated with said system.

The system is observed via its artifacts and values. This means the business system has its own vernacular, dress, and practices. If one is to thrive in that environment, and be listened too by those that control that system, they will need to adapt. Thus, how do I, and our business faculty, prepare our students to not just flourish in this system, but change this system?

As a result, I think, as business faculty, we need to focus on researching the characteristics of the system and educate our students on how to navigate the system successfully. I remember when I first starting working for Boeing, I would go to work in torn jeans. Eventually though I transformed my dress and perspective as I saw the company as an opportunity to have a meaningful career. The reason I needed to change my dress was the need to fit the culture.

However, through my actions I attempted to change the culture. As a manager I had a set of beliefs that I thought was important. Beliefs that went counter to the established managerial culture of Boeing. I was just one person who behaved a certain way to change the culture. I chose a path and had a successful career that made a difference.

However, we must remember that we are dealing with a system that rewards dominate participants while neglecting those who are different than the dominant practitioners within the system. Therefore, how do we prepare our students to influence and change the system? Short of revolution, we need to prepare students to change the system from within. Let me demonstrate how this could be accomplished by using a particular change model born out of systems theory.

John Kotter has created a change model that seems to work well in this modern age of complexity. Kurt Lewin’s change model (unfreeze, change, refreeze), developed in the 1930’s, is too simplistic for our complex modern age. Therefore, I think Kotter’s model is more practical.

Kotter’s model starts with the recognition that something needs to change. For anything to successfully change, there must be some sense of urgency. If a culture does not believe it needs to change, it will not. Therefore, there needs to be a sincere dialog which establishes the need of the system to change.

Second, for any large scale change to occur there needs to be a guiding coalition. An example of this has been initiated by Portland business leaders. A group of leaders in Portland determined that business leaders in Portland are too male and too white. To institute change these leaders, the guiding coalition, have agreed to create internships for men and women of color to prepare them to lead businesses in Portland. This leads to the third step.

The third step seems out of place to me. It involves creating a strategic vision and initiatives for implementation. I think this should occur simultaneously with step two. To use our example above, the strategic vision would involve creating a diverse group of business leaders within the city of Portland that accurately reflects the demographics of the city. An example of an initiative would be the internship program for men and women of color.
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The fourth step involves the spreading of the idea to greater numbers. Kotter describes this as creating a volunteer army. Using our example above, we would create a compelling argument for the power of a diverse leadership and convince leaders outside of the coalition of the need for more diversity in business leadership. The value of new and diverse ideas is quite strong, and has been proven effective time and time again.

I do think that part of building the volunteer army involves the next step, removing barriers. The coalition needs to build a case for the change event, and remove any roadblocks to the implementation of the initiatives associated with the change. Thus, as a business department our job then is to prepare our students to thrive in the business environment, become a part of the volunteer army, and change the business culture.

This will require short-term wins, step six, resulting in an acceleration of the change, step seven, and ending with anchoring the change to ensure longevity, step eight. In other words, there needs to be an anchoring of the change within the culture of the organization, or in our example above within the Portland Business community. The change needs to stay changed. Remember there is an innate characteristic within a system to return to its state of comfort. If the change is not anchored in a new system, the new characteristics will not last.

I think our plan as a business department should be preparing students to thrive in the current system. In other words, understand the rules, dress, and vernacular of the system. But it should also involve showing our students how to recognize the inconsistencies and injustices of the system, and understand how to create a strategy to address, attack, and change the unjust elements of the system. Then we would have an army that could make a huge difference in our society.

And that is my thought for the day!

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One thought on “What Can we Do?

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