The Organizational Culture at Desautels

This was an article that I wrote for a class a few years ago. It applies the concept of organizational culture to the school and faculty and that I am currently attending. Just a warning, it was originally intended as an academic paper, so that style of writing I used is way different than the style I normally use here on this blog.

Organizational culture is the set of all the shared values, beliefs, norms, and assumptions within an organization. It provides individuals with a shared frame of reference that applies to the capacity with which they expect to interact. While it often has both a physical and a non-physical aspect, the latter is its sine qua non. In other words, even when it manifests itself through observable artifacts, it must have some sort of meaning to be considered culture.

Indeed, organizational culture a very fluid, subjective concept. It influences people’s cognitions, emotions, and behaviour, but it itself is socially defined. It underscores the reciprocal influence between individuals and the institutions and situations where they interact.

Only the assumptions that help an organization to deal with its internal and external threats tend to persist. As the organization ages, the successful assumptions become increasingly taken for granted as natural and obvious. This has negative and positive effects. On one hand, it allows the individuals to transfer their mental energy from processing the assumptions to fulfilling the organization’s goals. On the other hand, it can lead to stagnation and make the organization vulnerable if the threats to its survival change.

There are several underlying dimensions of organizational culture. Each of them highlights specific examples of how culture manifests itself. For instance, the dimension of the nature of human activity prescribes expectations on the behaviour of individuals, especially those within the organization. Whichever behaviours are in line with the values of the organization are promoted and/or rewarded, and those that are not are discouraged and/or punished.

No two people are alike, but some people are more different to each other than others. Thus, you will find that some groups of people are more diverse than others. Furthermore, a group of people may be more diverse in some aspects, and less diverse with others. The degree to which each aspect of diversity is promoted or discouraged is known as the homogeneity vs. diversity dimension.

Another dimension of culture is the nature of human relationships. This describes how a culture rewards the way people treat other people in the organization, and whose interests each of them is looking out for. It also describes the culture’s views with respect to competition between individuals.

In order to understand the culture of the Desautels BCom experience, it is important to understand its social context. The Faculty of Management is mostly run like any other North American undergraduate school: students attend classes, study the material, and try to get good grades. Thus, much of its culture imbedded in this educational system, and by the time students have entered it, they have well socialized into it during their time in grade school.

However, there are some things which set it apart. (From my personal experience, I can only compare it with the McGill Faculty of Arts.) Compared to Arts, Desautels emphasizes an interesting combination of group work and competitiveness. The competitive aspect is manifest through the 65-75% class average rule. This shows a concern to integrate students into the competitive management culture, where one’s financial gain often comes at the expense of a competitor. This also shows a high value on fairness, in the sense that it rewards professors for challenging their students at a standard level. The cooperative aspect is made manifest through the emphasis on group projects, which is in stark contrast with the individual assignments typically given in Arts. This is possibly done to mediate the highly competitive organizational culture, and possibly to reiterate the assumption of preparation for the management culture. The dimension of the nature of human relationships shows how the culture at Desautels is a unique blend of management and undergraduate education culture.

Desautels has a high percentage of international students and faculty. The school’s website, agenda, and promotional material all emphasize the international nature of the school. Alternatively, only those with the highest grades are admitted into the program, while extracurricular activities are not taken into account. Thus, the Desautels application procedure operates on geographic diversity, but not intellectual or lifestyle diversity. Diversity with respect to field of studies is encouraged, as can be seen with the flexibility of the program and the wide range of majors and concentrations to choose from. All undergraduates are expected to take courses outside of the faculty, which indicates a value in being a well-rounded person.

McGill expects its students to be proactive in many respects. Much of the students’ focus is expected to be on achieving high grades and getting involved in the school community. These two things are verbally emphasized during Orientation week, the mandatory Career Prep 101 and other workshops, and during class.

On the other hand, students are not encouraged to be active with respect to the grading system of the class. Whether they will complete an assignment, a quiz, or an oral presentation has been predetermined by the professor, and it is never publicly debated or questioned in class. And in contrast to other faculties, students generally cannot “drop” their lowest mark, and they cannot decide when listen to a lecture, as there are no recordings available online. Students are expected to be more passive in this respect.

A new way to go about interdisciplinary learning

Currently, under the traditional education system, the vast majority of a students’ schooling takes place in classes divided by academic discipline:

English, Math, Geography, Science, etc.

And this pattern continues on from ~Grade 3, all the way to university. So, for instance, most management students take the following “core courses”:

Finance, Marketing, Operations, Human Resources, etc.

And then go on to study 1-3 academic disciplines. In one of my previous posts, I described how schools need to show students the meaningful connections between the different things they’re learning in school. Well, our students rarely ever get a chance to make connections between these subjects. It’s as if they’re living double lives, (or rather, 5-9 “lives” at a time)! Each subject is taught in separate classrooms, separate teachers, separate material, and often with different sets of classmates.

So far, there have been good efforts to promote interdisciplinary learning. These efforts are great, and should be promoted in our schools. For instance,

1) Some teachers so try to incorporate material from other disciplines. For instance, when a poli sci prof includes a bit of sociological network theory in 1 or 2 of their social movements lectures. (In particular, the teachers who do this, tend to be the ones who have some autonomy to determine the content they teach, rather than being restricted by government mandates, departmental rules, and the like.)

2) Many schools are trying to help students integrate their learning by introducing multidisciplinary courses, and “integrative/capstone project” courses.

Now don’t get me wrong, I believe these methods are great, and should be promoted. But I just don’t think they go far enough for at least 2 reasons:

1) Often times, a topic which spans over multiple disciplines is explored, but no perspective taking is ever quite achieved. What do I mean by that? Well, picture you and a friend sitting in a room, and one of you holds up a sculpture (by some famous artist) between the two of you. If each of you is asked to describe the sculpture, the two of you will most likely come up with similar but different answers, because each of you is viewing the object from a different perspective. Now, to use the example I brought up earlier, picture political science being one of you, and sociology being the other. Often what happens when a teacher introduces an interdisciplinary topic, they are still viewing it from their disciplines’ perspective. The interdisciplinary learning then becomes relatively superficial in nature.

2) At most, students take 1-2 interdisciplinary courses out of several years of schooling. It’s like learning to professionally sing using karaoke rather than a music coach. They don’t cut to the heart of the matter. To “go further” with interdisciplinary learning, we need to challenge our assumption that students’ learning always has to be organized  by discipline.

MBA Program Cores

Many leading-edge business schools are already starting to approach education from the perspective of issues, rather than disciplines. Take the Yale School of Management, for instance. Their MBA core is structured by “Organizational Perspectives.” Students take courses such as:

Competitor
Customer
Investor
Sourcing and Managing Funds
State and Society
Employee
Innovator
etc.

As Yale describes it,
“Today, managerial careers cross functions, organizations, and industries, as well as cultural and political boundaries. Yale SOM teaches management fundamentals in an integrated way — the way successful managers must function every day. [...] This focus on organizational role, instead of disciplinary topic, creates a richer, more relevant context for students to learn the concepts they need to succeed as leaders.”

These courses form a coherent narrative, which is, what our brains are actually looking for. This method of structuring is more realistic, because this is what people normally do. People don’t wake up in the morning and think, “what kind of geography am I going to do today?”, they think, “how am I going to solve this problem of mine?” and then draw from whatever disciplines/schools of thought that are necessary to solve the problem. Of course, some jobs are very specialized, but many others are ones where people have to build bridges between different kinds of information.

But who says that you need to wait 15 years to get to your Master’s level to get this kind of interdisciplinary schooling? And who says that you need to become a management student to do so? My recommendation here is to bring this kind of structuring to more schools, and to more subjects, and to have it trickle down to the undergrad, and high school levels. But remember, this is not to replace traditional disciplines, but to complement them. Students should feel free to pick some courses that are organized around traditional disciplines, and some others that are not.