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 Symbolic Dimensions of Organizational Life

Many of the questions raised by innovation have no easy answers; many of the problems are not easily solved. For many in the organization--even for some who are thrilled by the potential inherent in CMC--the implementation may seem to belong to another realm, with a language and an agenda of its own that seems quite foreign to their competence. Organizational theory suggests that when such conditions prevail, people make sense of their situation through symbols and stories (Bolman and Deal, 1991). The implementation of a CMC network colors the symbolic dimension of organizational life in a school in two ways that are susceptible to leadership and policy.

First, like any feature of school life, the CMC network implementation will reflect organizational values. These values will be embedded implicitly in what the network enables people to do, and they will be reflected in what people actually do with the network. Values will be embedded in the set of issues explicitly addressed by policy, and in the set of issues that policy ignores or meets with silence. It is within the power of school leadership at all levels to compel explicit, ongoing consideration of organizational values. It is leadership's responsibility to monitor the values embedded in our technical choices and reflected in our practice. School governance process provides a vehicle for this exercise.

Explicit governance--that is, the open and deliberate development of information management policy--can help members of a schooling community to harness the power and realize the promise of a CMC-enhanced communications infrastructure in four ways. First, the exercise of articulating values and interests and resolving differences about the substance of information policy forces members of the school community to anticipate the challenges which could arise. The ensuing debate can foster a shared vision for both the near- and long-term, and so promote clarity. Third, the process compels community members to envision potential responses they might make to effects which run counter to the shared vision. Finally, the articulated policy serves as a compass, assisting the organization in navigating subsequent change.

The second mechanism by which the implementation of a CMC network can color the meaning of work in our schools is related to the first: We can begin to think about this impact by asking ourselves, "Which story will dominate our implementation?" Will it be the story about what the technology is? That is, will we think of the network as a collection of machines and cabling, distinctive chiefly for its technical features, and as the arcane domain chiefly of a technical priesthood? Or will it be the story about what the technology enables? Will it be a story of discovery and sense-making and dialog?

Will technical expertise dominate the political process by which we make choices involving the implementation, or will appropriate integration of technology into the teaching/learning and administrative support missions be asserted as the central value? --

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