Changing Services: Clients, Quality, and Collaboration
Michael G. Prais, Ph.D., Northern Illinois University, 1993

1. Recognizing Culture and Anticipating Change

NIU is a comprehensive, regional university of 25,000 students and 3,000 faculty and staff sixty miles west of Chicago. Academic Computing Services (ACS) provides central user services to the community as part of a three department Computing and Telecommunications Systems. Not too long ago most computing at NIU was done using Superwylbur, JCL, MVS, and JES on an Amdahl mainframe. Individual computing was done primarily by researchers developing numerical and statistical analysis programs. ACS provided support to a small number of programmers working on a single system. Now there are 2900 personal computers on campus growing at 15% annually and the use of the mainframe by individuals is dropping. There are at least 30 department file servers and fiber optic backbone connecting all major buildings to campus hosts and servers and the Internet. ACS now provides support for the distribution and operation of software to wide variety of people on campus. The focus of ACS support is now operation across several computing environments.

We have gone through change and we will continue to change. The world as we know it changes and we change. The physical world changes, but the cultural world gives us most of our problems. The changes that NIU have gone through have been cultural changes. To recognize change, we must recognize aspects of culture. We must examine the external culture of the world around us-- our universities and our commercial communities, and we must examine the internal culture of our organizations-- our user service groups and our computer centers.

Dyer suggests that culture consists of four layers: assumptions, values, perspectives, and artifacts, which are shared by those in our organizations.

Assumptions are the general beliefs at the heart of an organization and are often implicit and protected. Assumptions describe the our views about our relationships with other people (benevolent, malevolent, supportive, opportunistic, benign), our relationships with our local environment (hierarchical, collateral/reciprocal, individual), our relationships with our remote environment (dominating, subjugating, harmonizing), our source of valid information for making decisions and choosing directions (revealed by authority, revealed through conflict, revealed through testing) and, finally, our temporal perspective (past/being/passive, present/doing/active, future/becoming/developing). Our temporal perspective strongly influences our view of the above relationships. All of these assumptions hinge on contributions and exchanges in society. Change must eventually take place in the assumptions of an organization, but change must originally take place in the assumptions of the individuals.

Values are reflections of assumptions. They are the goals, the ideals, the sins, the standards, and the priorities of an organization. They determine how we act and react in the organization and in the environment that is seen through our assumptions. Values can be identified by locating the control structures of an organization and of the environment. Drucker in Management suggests that those objects and events that are selected for control are the objects and the events that value and significance are attached to. Control structures steer us toward our goals and always from our fears. Controls are passive (positive) when change in something has been in the direction of a goal, but controls are active (negative) when change in something has been away from the goal (diminishing similarity with the ideal).

Perspectives are found in the mechanics of the activities of an organization. They describe how the control structures operate. They are situation-specific rules of conduct and procedures for making decisions and solving problems. It is through perspectives that we learn about values. Perspectives tell us where and what to look at in something to see value. They tell us what is real throughout time. Perspectives can be identified by posing problems or questions to an organization and examining the answers.

Artifacts are the easiest components of culture to observe. They define the relations, the contributions, the decisions, and the activities of an organization. They are found in descriptions the organization: its policies, its structures, its policies, its requirements, its procedures its products, its services, its producers, its contributors, its consumers, its leaders. Form follows function and organizations are set up to ease operation. Artifacts are where you will see change and where you will be able to affect change.

Change that affects one's own organization is difficult, and the best that can be done is to expect and to prepare for change. To anticipate change we must inventory these cultural components. Anticipation requires empiricism. Observe, record, and compare over time the artifacts, perspectives, and values of your environment. Senge suggests that the abrupt, short-term changes are not as important as the slow, subtle, long-term changes. The inertia of our organizations tend to smooth out the abrupt changes, while the organizations tend to follow the slow, steady changes.

Affecting changing one's environment is also difficult, and the best that can be done is to communicate and build relationships to support the environment that you expect to change so that resistance and conflict does not cripple the larger organization. To affect change on your campus you must also inventory these same cultural components both on campus and in your user services organization. Your organization will have to change in order to change the university. Focus on artifacts by inserting strong symbols of the alternative culture and focus on perspectives by demonstrating new methods to solve problems and to reach goals. You will need management support to change the focus of the control structures so that values can be changed. Leadership can change values, but only time will change assumptions.

2. Changing Service to Value the Client

Originally published in Proceedings of the ACM User Services Conference XXI, 1993.
Copyright Association for Computer Machinery 1993
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