Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Changing a Department's Organization Practically Overnight. (Case Study)

Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Changing a Department's Organization Practically Overnight. (Case Study)

Article excerpt


The competition for resources at a state-supported university campus is often severe and the scarcity of extra funds required for the reorganization of a department can prevent meaningful change. Weick (1999) argues that there are two basic kinds of change--episodic and continuous. Most organizations respond to pressures from outside in an episodic manner. They respond to each pressure or to an accumulation of events by tinkering with the basic organizational structure. Organizational structure for the purposes of this paper includes the kind of structure that might be reflected in an organizational chart, how decision-making authority is used, the type of tasks assigned to staff members, and the level of accountability.

Wholesale change in a work environment is daunting to most people. Concerns about job loss, loss of prestige, new responsibilities, less control, less freedom of action, and so on, are prevalent. Because many administrators have these same concerns, it takes a certain amount of courage for them to recognize and acknowledge the need for an overall change, let alone to initiate and manage one with its inherent confusion and stress noted Feldman (1999).

Tinkering, or making minor changes in policy and procedure, is often used because it is less threatening and does not require a particularly high level of tolerance for ambiguity by the staff. However, while such tinkering may result in short-term improvement, the department or organization may revert to prior practices and it may take repeated efforts to formalize the changes. How well an organization responds to the rapidly shifting environment of funding requirements, government regulations, and university requirements determines how successful it will be in the long run. The ability to respond to change is a crucial element in the effectiveness of an organization.

Many academic research departments developed as closed systems. In the past, departments may have had minimal need to respond and interact with outside entities because regulations and policies were clear and did not change often. Occasionally, the university might require some paperwork, but the university, too, was primarily a closed system, responding to regular interactive demands of the sponsoring agency (state).

Today, the world of academia is different. Departments now experience increased interactions with the university and the research and political communities at large, especially in federal compliance issues. It has become, by the impetus of forces on the outside, an open organization. However, to its detriment, it may still try to function as a closed one, tinkering with change. The results are increased staff stress and turnover, potential loss of funds, decreased student enrollments and other negative effects on the unit's overall health. It is not prepared to respond effectively and efficiently to change and changing demands. When tinkering does not provide sustained improvement in morale, task handling and reduction of stress, it is time to consider making a wholesale change in the organizational structure.

The Case

The Department of Geography at the University of Maryland received approximately $4.5M in research funding in 1996, the average level of income for several years. In 1997, the research income grew to $12M and by 1998 it was $22M! This increased activity resulted in stress on the administrative staff that was manifested in low morale and an overall sense of crisis. In the space of a few years, a somewhat slumbering department discovered that it was now moving ahead rapidly--not only ahead of other departments in the field but ahead of what the college and university expected and were ready to support.

At this time, all decisions at the academic, administrative, and research level were made by the department chair. This approach is typical in departments and is a symptom of a closed system. …

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