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Loosely coupled systems - The Symbolic Perspective of School Organization

Loosely coupled systems - The Symbolic Perspective of School Organization

Loosely coupled systems

The idea that organizations are systems that 'stick together' in some rational way, so that changes in one part of the system have consequences for the other parts, has been a fundamental one in system theory. As an alternative, the theory has been put forward that organizations are not as 'tightly knit' as they might seem at first glance; rather, they should be regarded more or less as 'loosely connected'.

Organizations, according to this train of thought, consist of entities, processes, activities, and individuals that are relatively loosely connected (Weick 1980). In other words, what actually takes place in an entity (or is initiated by a single person), is not consistent (according to any predictable theory) with other parts of the organization.

Loosely connected systems go through times when the resources are more plentiful than the requests, times when different initiatives will lead to the same goal. They will also experience a relative lack of co-ordination, very few rules, conscious independence, planned situations where there is no accord, the casual monitoring of activities, and discretionary delegating (Weick 1976).

A common reaction to such a state of affairs is that this must be a sick organization in need of reform. But that is far from certain. It could be that the relative freedom that certain departments in an organization enjoy might help other units adapt to the requirements of their environment while the rest of the organization remains stable. It can also protect the entire organization from collapse. But it can also, of course, impede necessary changes in the organization as a whole, impede vital communication between sections, and protect individuals from criticism by their colleagues.

The important thing to note is that all organizations vary in terms of how closely knit they are. When we realize that this is an important variable, it will help us understand certain features of schools as organizations. And schools have certain features in common with loosely connected organizations. How often does a head teacher take her counselling responsibility seriously and listen to teachers teach? Is what happens, for example, in Norwegian language classes being co-ordinated with what is going on in the social study subjects? Are there are common norms for behaviour? Do committee reports have any practical consequences for what goes on in the classroom? Are experiments spread to other schools?

Most schools are characterized by a number of units (classrooms) that are isolated from each other, by teachers without guidance, by initiatives that have no practical consequences, and by guidelines that are not followed. The question is whether all this is good or bad.

The symbolic perspective gives us a number of new impulses in the understanding of organizations. It raises questions about the meaning behind actions and processes, and helps us draw on a broader range of human behaviour. It also helps us achieve a greater openness, helps us discuss 'what is actually going on', increases our creativity, and helps us be and make use of ourselves to a greater extent than is the case when we are forced to live with the 'party line' about what is happening to us.

The symbolic perspective encourages us to take a fresh look at what we have previously regarded as 'just a bunch of ceremonies' and investigate processes we thought were ineffectual or infelicitous. In my work with developing countries, I have begun to appreciate the significance of the symbolic perspective. I have gradually come to realize that ceremonies are crucial to the identity of the participants, to the legitimizing of their activities, and to the development of a project culture that can be viewed from the perspective of the nation's cultural values. For all these reasons, ceremonies give security and meaning to the participants.

Criticism of the symbolic perspective

The symbolic perspective is the 'youngest' of the four perspectives. Few empirical studies have made use of it as a frame of reference. Clearly we must reckon with the production of studies that differ in nature from the traditional quantifiable studies. Qualitative methods based on a phenomenological perspective will probably prove to be the most fruitful.

The symbolic perspective is, to a lesser extent than the other perspectives, one theory. It unites a number of ideas - relatively loosely connected - and more time is needed before it can be regarded as a fully-fledged perspective. And that is assuming that this is even possible - let alone desirable, in view of what this perspective stands for.

The symbolic perspective contains a dilemma: a symbol can involve a clouding of realities; it can confuse the issue by deliberately being cynical and disingenuous. The myth that a teacher whose formal qualifications are in order is automatically a qualified teacher can, in some cases, result in protecting incompetent teachers and hinder urgent reforms in teacher education.

Another way of using symbols is to look upon them as expressions of true meaning. The symbolic perspective tells us that what we regard as hard facts is, in reality, what people have chosen to create. This gives us hope for the future: we ourselves are able to create a world which, both academically, politically and morally, is in harmony with our innermost values.

Loosely coupled systems - The Symbolic Perspective of School Organization
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