September 1996

Root Page of Article: Computer-Mediated Communications Networks and the Organizational Life of Schools, by H. L. Fuller

The Impact of CMC on the Political Dimensions of Organizational Life

To adopt a political perspective on schools as organizations is to acknowledge the presence of abiding differences in values, priorities and beliefs among individuals and groups within the school community. These differences define constituencies which form coalitions to bargain for scarce resources--usually money, power and authority--and to negotiate organizational goals and policy. The implementation of a CMC network may affect the political dimension of organizational life in four ways: by introducing a new "scarce resource" (namely, access); by facilitating new or newly-enhanced relationships, alliances and coalitions; by introducing or exacerbating political divisions within the organization; and by altering the power dynamics operating among constituencies.

Access: Who Is Included?

In important ways, a CMC network, like any other communication system, is about relationships. In considering the impact of information technology on the life of the firm, Keen (1992) has observed that "IT offers the opportunity to build the relational organization [my emphasis]--an organization not defined by fixed structures, but by ease of relationships." The relationships in question are a reflection of choices made about system access. Political issues arise around access to the system, through the system and from the system to resources beyond school boundaries. When the choice is made to limit access, access becomes a scarce organizational resource.

Communities define themselves by access. Who may be admitted and who may be excluded comprise the foundation of community identity. Historically in American public education, these questions have also been points of ferocious contention when decisions about inclusion/exclusion have appeared to be arbitrary-- e.g., based on factors like race. Moreover, the story of special education in America demonstrates that when technology is employed to mitigate participation barriers, the scope of what we consider to be arbitrary exclusion broadens.

People always seem to want to be included themselves, but they don't always necessarily want to include others. It seems easy to justify exclusion of some individuals from some parts and processes of organizational life when questions of individual privacy and institutional security are at stake. It's hard to imagine a school system extending read-write access to transcript records, for example, to parents or to students.

It is less easy to justify exclusion from those parts of the system which are explicitly set up to facilitate dialog, debate and deliberation--and yet such exclusion may still be in the interests of one or more school-based constituencies, as anyone can attest who has ever counted votes prior to a meeting at which crucial policy issues are to be ventilated and decided.

Modem access to the school CMC system from outside can be a great convenience to teachers, students and administrators who rely on system resources as they prepare for school- related activities. But CMC networks can also make access to school-related dialog and deliberation possible and convenient for a newly broadened set of potential participants. Modem access means that parents, peers in other settings, and stakeholders in other local sectors like business or public service, can conceivably tap in as easily as anyone else. Stakeholders previously constrained from active participation by time and space or distance may mobilize when those constraints are rendered moot by technology.

Who is actually allowed to participate in what ways can be controlled, of course. Access may be governed with user accounts and password protection for different parts of the system. But the decision to exclude some individuals or groups by foreclosing access is more likely to seem arbitrary when the technical means are in place to include everybody who claims a right to access. One concrete political dilemma facing a school community involves the process by which choices involving access are made. Another involves the justification of those choices, in the presence of technology which makes universal access possible.

New Alliances

A related interest has to do with the formation or facilitation of relationships between members of the schooling community and others beyond organizational boundaries. As noted above, a CMC network holds the promise of mitigating the professional isolation characteristic of classroom teaching by facilitating dialog with peers via electronic mail, newsgroup and listserv subscriptions. New connections are also possible between those inside the school and members of other constituencies--parents, business people and community activists or other public servants, for example.

Partnerships which once seemed too cumbersome to pursue with vigor may now seem feasible when recast in terms of convenient electronic exchanges. School-to-work transitions, for example, could be supported by "pen-pal" relationships between particular students and particular employed adults. Collaborative efforts by teachers to develop curriculum and classroom materials may be supported by electronic exchange of documents.

Expectations about a school's ability to respond to community needs may increase when channels exist for the convenient expression of those needs. Student participation in collaborative publications on the WWW may bring system accountability into the local political spotlight by making evidence of student performance easier for the public to examine and to compare with work by students in other districts.

What are the political ramifications for the school organization of such new or newly- vitalized relationships, and the implicit expectations they may come to embody? Might teachers who become highly invested in peer exchanges, for example, experience a growing identification with their profession in general at the expense of identification with their schools in particular?

New or newly-vibrant relationships may catalyze new ambitions; as teachers share ideas about practice, what sort or degree of pressure might build with respect to the allocation of school resources--time, space, dollars--for instructional activity?

When parent-teacher dialog may be conveniently extended beyond quarterly face to face meetings in school, might the partnership between home and school be strengthened? When a business person's stake in public education acquires a particular human face in the form of a student e-mail pen-pal, might that citizen's incentive to participate more intensely in school affairs increase?

How will CMC network-based exchanges affect the persistence, purpose or conduct of more conventional forms of exchange--meetings, conferences, face to face conversations? Where will CMC "fit" in the spectrum of options for civic discourse about schooling?

CMC as a Mobilization Tool

CMC networks can do more than connect people. They can also be used to orchestrate the activities of alliances and coalitions. Internet-based communities like the Technology-Policy Roundtable of the North East (TPRNE) have found that electronic communication is a powerful mobilization tool. As Congress debates new telecommunications legislation, for example, TPRNE keeps subscribers current on the nuances of the debate with frequent e-mailings from the Capitol, and effectively uses the same channels to mobilize constituent pressure from its membership at strategic points in the process.

Granted, TPRNE is an organization of cognoscenti who are more comfortable with the medium and more skilled in its use than are many members of the general public, c. 1996. But why should we not expect similar dynamics to develop over time across a more diverse array of citizen action groups, as the public in general adapts to this new way of communicating? Schools are "ground zero" for a wide array of community interests; diffusion of CMC should be monitored as a salient feature of the school's political environment.

Structure, Goals and the Politics of Innovation in Schools

For better or worse, school organizations at all levels are notorious as structural hybrids. Sturdy central administrative hierarchies are complemented by rings and webs of peripheral entities -- departments, programs and individual classrooms. Schools have been described as "loosely coupled systems" in which structure is not explicitly aligned with function, because goals of the school organization as a whole are often unclear (Baldridge, et al., 1978; Lieberman & Miller, 1992).

Private sector firms are usually different. Pressures on the firm, arising from the deployment of a CMC network, arise also in the context of an overall mission which is comparatively well-defined in terms of production and profit.

Eric Schmidt, chief technology officer at Sun Microsystems, feels that "the proper arrangement at a company is a very large number of very small businesses" (Anonymous, 1996). He cites clarity of focus, even at some distance from the central headquarters, as a critical factor in the success of subordinate units in large firms:

"The best things were done by very small engineering teams because a small engineering team is forced to make tradeoffs to do only one thing."

He offers as evidence the development of such computer industry mainstays as the Unix and DOS operating systems and the Macintosh computer system, as well as recent breakthroughs like the Java WWW programming language. All were created by teams numbering anywhere from 2 to 12 people who had narrow, clearly defined product objectives which stood in clear relation to the profit objectives of the firm as a whole.

The absence of similar, broadly-shared organizational objectives in schools shapes the trajectory of technology diffusion through intra-organizational politics. Deployment of any technology, including a CMC network, can complicate the political life of a school by introducing or exacerbating political divisions within the organization. A comparison of technological diffusion in the firm with diffusion in the educational institution illustrates the mechanism at work.

McKenney (1995) proposes a "cascading" model of information technology deployment in the firm which presupposes a mission-centered objective--usually, profit--broadly shared across the organization. In McKenney's model, the deployment itself is triggered when someone in the firm identifies a business problem they think a computer-based system can solve.

Diffusion throughout the firm and its operations is paced by organizational learning. As the firm develops what McKenney calls "organizational competence" with its innovation, it extends the technology to address newly identified problems and only eventually arrives at a strategic orientation to the deployment.

That is, only late in the game does the profit-centered firm start to think ahead of the diffusion curve, attempting to anticipate impacts on its competitive position as other firms follow its technical initiative. Only in the latter stages of deployment does the firm try to defend its position preemptively by devising new products and services which depend upon technology.

By inventing problems for the technology to solve, the firm raises the stakes of implementation for its competitors. Competitors who follow their lead must address increased consumer expectations. In McKenney's model, inventing problems for the technology to solve is a late-stage behavior.

The scenario enacted in educational organizations seems almost reversed: in the absence of broadly shared, mission centered objectives, the point of any particular initiative may elude large numbers of people in the school organization. "Technology," enthusiastically embraced by partisans who may indeed have well-defined objectives of their own, can appear to others as a "solution in search of a problem" (Cohen & March) even as terminals and other information technology paraphernalia begin to pop up in the school environment.

Stuff is installed before members of the school community have acknowledged a clear, shared need for it. The stuff has cachet, but the stuff is expensive in more ways than one. Political pressures mount on technology partisans to devise applications for the stuff that have clear relevance and benefits to the organization.

Partisans are thinking strategically about the technology as part of the initial effort to get the innovation to take root. Moreover, their strategic targets are not external competitors, as in the case of the firm. Their targets are resistant factions within the organization itself.

Sides in this debate may assume the configuration of pre-existing factions, or the innovation may introduce a new set of splits. Either way, there is an inescapable irony: that a tool which holds such promise for fostering productive relationships should instead emerge as the focus of intra-organizational squabbling. --

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