Academic journal article Community College Review

Organizational Climate in Its Semiotic Aspect: A Postmodern Community College Undergoes Renewal

Academic journal article Community College Review

Organizational Climate in Its Semiotic Aspect: A Postmodern Community College Undergoes Renewal

Article excerpt

A study at a community college undergoing renewal provided an opportunity to explore how members of various institutional subsystems differ in the ways they make meaning of organizational climate conditions. The researcher identifies and describes competing discourses relating to the signs and symbols of power, collaboration, technology, and shared vision.


The postmodern community college is a site of expanding missions, chaotic environmental turbulence, and increasing heterogeneity both within the publics served and among organizational members (Bergquist, 1998). These and other postmodern challenges call for transformational leadership that facilitates productive responses to change so that increased institutional effectiveness ensues. In the past, when faced with demands for improved organizational performance, leaders of community colleges and other higher education institutions often turned to quantitative assessments of organizational climate. This line of institutional research has provided executive leaders with critical guidance on institutional challenges that require leadership attention. In this way, climate assessments have guided higher education leaders in setting priorities for change (Baker & Hoover, 1997). While this practice is useful in developing an understanding of the overall climate of an institution, it may fail to render an appropriate snapshot of how assorted individuals make sense of their work environments, particularly within a context of organizational fragmentation and mounting heterogeneity. In other words, the postmodern community college retains a diversity of faculty and staff--all of whom may perceive the organizational climate quite differently--and climate surveys may neglect the voices of those with contrasting experiences within the organization. In sum, postmodern theory necessitates an extension of our knowledge of organizational climate in higher education institutions.

The chief purpose of the present study was to chart various institutional discourses relating to the climate at a rural community college undergoing organizational renewal. The researcher hypothesized that members of various subsystems within the institution would differ in the ways they make meaning of the signs and symbols of organizational climate. The findings have significance for both theory and practice. First, a valid understanding of climate within a postmodern reality may require a shift in how researchers assess and define organizational climate. Second, higher education leaders who seek to understand postmodern organization must acknowledge diversity where it exists, particularly when it engenders divergent ways of making sense of leadership behaviors and symbolic actions.

Theoretical Framework

Organizational Climate and the Postmodern Community College

Organizational climate has been defined as a "set of characteristics that describe an organization and that (a) distinguish it from other organizations, (b) are relatively enduring over time, and (c) influence the behavior of people in the organization" (Forehand & Gilmer, 1964, p. 362). Organizational climate may also represent "the organization as people see it in a holistic, subjective sense" (Powell & Butterfield, 1978, p. 151). Stated plainly, an employee answering the question "What is it like to work here?" will offer a description of organizational climate (Baker, 1992). Finally, influencing organizational climate is believed to be a function of leadership (Likert, 1967). For example, researchers have revealed strong associations between organizational climate and leaders' ability to arouse motivation by appealing to human needs for achievement, affiliation, and power (Litwin & Stringer, 1968; Stringer, 2002).

Because organizational climate is a highly abstract concept, its use in guiding leadership behavior can be problematic for practitioners. The highly complex and dynamic concepts used to represent organizational climate may not translate easily into information useful for guiding executive decision making. …

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