I have tried three times now to write this particular thing, each a failed attempt at resolving the tension between the academic and the authentic. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I cannot in good faith make the argument I am about to make and do it via the medium of a traditional academic essay. And so I won’t, instead making the medium part of my argument, and acknowledging at the outset the discomfort this non-traditional form will bring, perhaps not to my immediate audience but to those invested in the constructs of the academy. In doing this, I particularly want to acknowledge the work of Four Arrows, whose work on authentic dissertations (2008) has encouraged me to pursue authenticity in form, and Amy Edmondson, whose work on psychological safety (1999, 2002, 2003) has led me to prioritise emotional connection and the use of pathos.

I’ll begin, then, with a story, told not through words but images.

  • A family of ducks on a lawn
  • A garden gnome in the library, positioned to look like it is reading a book
  • A kangaroo hiding in a garden outside a campus buidling
  • Looking up at a young child on a balcony, overlooking a dinosaur skeleton
  • A mountain bike trail through a forest
  • A multicoloured mould/damp spot on library carpet
  • The phrase ‘geology bitches!’ graffitied on a desk
  • A small child looking at their hand on a document camera
  • A magpie on a bench
  • An espresso machine in a tearoom

This is the university I know and love. It’s quite beautiful and I hope the images above capture a more meaningful and authentic type of lived beauty than the polished and photoshopped autumnal images of Booloominbah favoured in marketing. I have worked here for 10 years and lived here for 37, and we are inextricable parts of each other’s identity.

There’s a story that isn’t told in these images, though – a story of absence, a lack of intention. As universities do, we have evolved as an intellectual institution, and forgotten that we are fundamentally humans. We have an ambitious and sophisticated strategic vision for learning, teaching and research, but there is a critical absence – we have never had an intentional and strategic vision for organisational culture. We have forgotten to look after each other.

This is a situation that Ozenc and Hagan (2017) refer to as ‘culture by default’. And this missing piece – a deliberately crafted organisational culture – is an issue variously described across the literature as ranging from problematic (Schein, 2004; Trice & Beyer, 1993; Argyris & Schon, 1997; Hatch & Schultz, 1997), to a harbinger of certain doom (Cameron & Quinn, 2006; Higgins & Mcallaster, 2004), to a literal garbage can (Bass & Avolio, 1993).

Why does it matter? Why would we want to call this out, name it as a problem, do something about it? We can take one of two perspectives. On one hand we have the business case, which perhaps Higgins and Mcallaster put most bluntly: ‘Once you change strategy, you must align organizational culture with strategy, or face almost certain strategic failure.’ (2004, p.76). The UNE2025 strategic vision may well fail entirely without culture change. More generally too is the stifling of change capability, what Kegan and Lahey (2009) refer to as ‘change immunity’, that limits our ability as an organisation to remain competitive in the sector.

On the other hand, though, is the human experience of staff – what UNE feels like as a place to work. When we are compelled to change, large amounts of anxiety surface (Schein, 2004; Smith & Stewart, 2011; Edmondson, 2003) that impact wellbeing, reduce learning and generally result in a workplace that doesn’t always feel like a good place to be. 

Also worth attention here is the nature of sector narratives that compel us to change. Particularly relevant is the ‘Future of Work’ narrative, where predictions of future workforce requirements – and thus the nature of education required of us by students – are framed in light of artificial intelligence, automation and robotics (Cawood, 2018; Rogers and Smirl, 2018; Stockton, Filipova and Monahan, 2018). The key future-proofing recommendation is for us to focus on honing our ‘uniquely human skills’ (Cengage, 2019) – yet if we as an organisation can’t do this through deliberate cultural work, we have little chance of being able to teach these skills to our students.

If intentional cultural design is so key to an organisation, then, why hasn’t it been done already? In short, because it’s hard. Organisational culture is what Rittel and Webber (1973) refer to as a ‘wicked problem’. Much of what we think of as ‘culture’ is behaviours driven by hidden layers of beliefs, values and assumptions (Schein, 2004) which are extremely difficult to change. We are, by nature, immune to change (Kegan and Lahey, 2009). 

I came to a point last year where I had been increasingly frustrated and saddened by these circumstances, and so said ‘someone should do something about this’. The problem here, of course, is that as soon as one says such a thing, one becomes that person. And so, six months of reading, reconnaissance and coffee later, here we are.

I have taken a sharp left turn from my home disciplines of education, learning design and the scholarship of teaching and learning into the disciplines of organisational culture and organisational learning, along with adventures into narrative methods and storytelling (both sociological and organisational), the creative arts and psychology, and drawn together threads from all to create a proposal for the ‘doing something’ – the development of a Cultural Design Framework for UNE. 

If you are the type of person who prefers diagrams, here is a visual map of the research design discussed below:

A Cultural Design Framework (CDF) is an extension of a concept developed by Ozenc and Hagan (2017). It creates the space and means by which staff at all levels of the institution can engage in the intentional crafting and design of organisational culture. The framework uses a process of human-centred design thinking (Buchanan, 1992; Brown & Wyatt, 2010) to work in what Schein (2004) refers to as the ‘visible layer’ of organisational culture and apply design processes in three of the cultural domains identified by Trice and Beyer (1993). 

•  Ritual – ways of doing and being in the workplace (Ozenc & Hagan, 2017; Smith & Stewart, 2011; Islam & Zyphur, 2009)

•  Language – ways of speaking (Kegan & Lahey, 2001; Wood, 1982) 

•  Artefacts – tangible workplace symbols (Higgins & Mcallaster, 2004; Causey, 2017)

The design process is underpinned by the principle of psychological safety (Edmondson,1999), a necessary condition for the learning implied by cultural change to take place. Psychological safety can also be intentionally created, generally most effectively by a team leader (Edmondson, 2002). 

My plan for the design phase of the framework is to use Lipshitz, Friedman & Popper’s concept of ‘cultural islands’ (2006, p.47) – small co-located homogenous teams of participants in which I as researcher can take on a leadership role with the goal of establishing psychological safety for the design process. These small teams can undertake design work and then embed the designed cultural change within themselves. Eventually, through a process of communication and socialisation, these islands begin to ‘trade’ with each other, disseminating change at a grass roots level. 

The CDF is the central output of an overarching action research project, which  uses multidisciplinary lenses to explore the phenomenon of organisational culture at UNE and the intersection of organisational culture and organisational learning. This overarching action research project follows Maxwell’s extended action research model (2003). The ‘reconnaissance’ phase of this model employs an inquiry process – also focused in ‘islands’ – shaped by participatory narrative inquiry (Kurtz, 2014), narrative inquiry (Clandinin, 2007). and organisational storytelling (Brown et al, 2005), to develop a deep understanding of the staff experience of organisational culture at UNE. 

Finally, the research communication strategy draws on authentic (Four Arrows, 2008) and arts-based research practices (Leavy 2015) to establish emotional connections between people and with the organisation – a further means of increasing psychological safety (Lipshitz, Friedman and Popper, 2006) and thus enhancing the impact of the framework on organisational culture and learning. This hybrid communication strategy is much more widely inclusive than a solely traditional academic approach (Leavy, 2015), essential if staff in all areas of the university are to engage in their role as ‘culture carriers’ (Schein, 1993).

And now perhaps you have a better understanding of why I could not have written this as a purely academic essay and instead have created a hybrid of academic writing interwoven with narrative and media. If I am arguing that we must redesign our cultural artefacts – of which essays and other forms of academic writing are a notable one –  and that emotional connections and inclusivity are essential to this process, I must first examine my own practice and embed new ways of working from the outset.

I want to leave you now with a final image that tells a story of the more true nature of persuasion, and how the ‘selling’ of this project happens at a much more human level than this document. A dialogue of gestures and meaning, with the application of Smith and Stewart’s coffee (2011). Each conversation this project has becomes a suggestion of new ritual and language, now with this document as a suggestion of new artefact. Begin, as you mean to go on.

Jon and Sarah talking over a coffee. Jon is gesturing with his hands.


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