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Fostering Shared Goals and Common Understanding

December 30, 1899


​The forces in an institution that separate units and departments are more powerful than those that unite them. Higher education institutions are often referred to as loosely coupled organizations; that is, the connections between and among the units are slight. Specialization and institutional size compound the problem, and the sense of shared institutional purpose can be weak.

A common agenda tends to lessen conflict. However, if people do not own an agenda, they will find ways to avoid implementing it. Activities such as workshops, retreats, and seminars can engage people in building or supporting a communal agenda. For example, if enhancing participation by students of color is an important institutional objective, faculty and staff must understand the issue and feel an obligation to contribute to the success of all students. Thus, a workshop on intercultural communication might teach some specific information skills and at the same time promote personal involvement in changing institutional and individual behaviors.

Building teams

Institutional management is highly dependent on team efforts. Some teams are permanent entities, such as the cabinet or the president's or provost's staff. Other teams are formed to complete a particular task, such as the steering committee for an institutional self-study. All participants benefit from opportunities to concentrate on their purpose and develop personal ties. Workshops, retreats, or short off-campus sessions that focus on the particular task or issue at hand are helpful. If individuals are to function as an ongoing team, they will benefit from explicitly defining how the team functions and the roles and contributions of each member.

Developing linkages across the institution

Institutional units may have remarkably little contact with one another. For example, the physicists may have closer working relationships with their counterparts at other institutions, or in other countries, than with the faculty of the English department at their own institution. Academic, student affairs, business, and administrative departments also tend to operate independently of one another. Professional development activities break down these barriers by helping reinforce a common purpose and provide a common language. For example, a time-management program for faculty and administrators from all units can have the felicitous side effect of introducing people from various parts of the institution to each other and of easing their future interactions. Such linkages are most often a by-product of activities with other central purposes. For example, including individuals from various areas of the institution on a search committee provides them with exposure to the position and functional area at hand, to the workings of that unit, and to their colleagues from other areas of campus.

Improving communication

People will always grumble about the quality and quantity of communication within an institution. Improving communication requires multiple and sustained efforts. The informal atmosphere of retreats and workshops eases communication and creates personal bonds that last long after the event. The process of defining a shared agenda or a plan to implement it often creates a common vocabulary, a lingo that becomes a recognized shorthand, or jokes that become part of the group's shared history.


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