In most organizations, information is a symbol of competence and power. Fundamentally, information must provide the foundation for every decision. Administrators must understand, however, that very little information is totally reliable and valid, and much information is subject to strategic misrepresentation. Reality (truth) is generally somewhere in that gray area between what you see, what you thought you saw, and what others tell you that you saw.
To improve the flow/acquisition of information, the administrator must be willing: (1) to accept information from a variety of sources, (2) to assess the validity of the information, (3) to reserve judgment until the preponderance of evidence has been presented, and (4) to relate the information to the environment in which the decision is to be made. Probably the most difficult of these tasks for the administrator is to determine the validity of the information.
This process may be simplified by following the three rules (context, perspective, omission) for criticizing the validity of external information (Thomas & Nelson, 1996, pp. 260-261). The rule of context maintains that information must be understood in relationship to other information that would precede or follow. In other words, does the information formulate a logical explicative model.
The rule of perspective requires that the administrator know the source of the information, how the information was collected, and the relationship of the information to the source. The rule of omission maintains that most accounts of events are incomplete, for example, asking what information is missing. Understanding and implementing these rules of information will help the administrator assemble the most objective information on which to base a decision.
The administrator must carefully filter information because some constituents, peers, or subordinates use information to create choice dilemmas. Bogue (1985) warned us to beware of decision dichotomies. (p. 49) Colleagues, faculty, staff, and students often attempt to constrain administrators by presenting information as a choice dichotomy.
One researcher, who is a dean at a Level I University, related a story where a job applicant tried to place him in a choice dichotomy. Candidate Jones informed the dean that for him to take the job (e.g., meet the demands or else) he had to have a 3-hour teaching load, a private office with a view, $100,000 of start-up money for lab equipment, and a graduate assistant.
The dean was in a dilemma: should the dean accede to these demands or lose a potentially outstanding candidate. He did neither. The dean informed the candidate that he would gladly meet the demands. But if he did, the candidate would have to achieve the following goals by his third year: recruit five new graduate students, publish five articles in nationally refereed journals, and generate $1.5 million in extramural funding. “Or” . . . the dean continued, “we can negotiate further.” (Barker, 1989, p. 123) The candidate did not get the job. Beware of decision dichotomies.
Many inexperienced educators are wholly unaware of the complex structure of “doing business.” Many times, decisions pertaining to purchasing product A or B, supporting position 1 or 2, or awarding a contract to X or Y have little to do with the quality of the product or with the proposal, and has more to do with the referent environment. Educational administrators are often the most naive decision makers, when it comes to understanding the effects of the environment on decision outcomes.
This naivete in part comes from our academic training. Most educational administrators are trained as teachers and scholars. Throughout our academic training we were taught to search for the “truth”; objectivity, reliability, and validity are constant concerns in striving for the “truth.” This orientation to the “truth” often obscures the fact that “decisions are made by people and the goal of any decision maker is to maximize his/her own utility.” (Edwards, 1982, p. 317).
March and Olsen (1976) made several insightful comments concerning the effects of environment on the decision-making process. They concluded that “activities within a choice situation may be explicable only if we recognize the other major things that take place within the same arena at the same time;. . . . decisions are a stage for many dramas” (pp. 11-12).
We must thoroughly explore, appreciate, and understand the environment dramas that surround the decision-making process in order to more fully understand the meaning and implications of organizational decision. The environmental constraints that most substantially effect the decision-making process are (1) political, (2) financial, and (3) cultural.
Political – Educational organizations are by nature political. Decisions are mediated by their impact on both internal and external politics (within the organization and the community). Politics, as an institution, is foreign to most educators, although many educators consider themselves to be politically motivated and active within professional and secular organizations.
We can better understand the various dimensions of politics by considering the secondary definitions of the word politics as defined in Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary: politics is the art or science of governing by (1) guiding or influencing; (2) winning or gaining control; or (3) competition between competing interests, groups, or individuals for power and leadership.
Educational administrators must understand the competitive, and sometimes, gladiatorial nature of politics because it differs so from normal collegial expectations. There are several political premises that relate to the decision-making process: political decisions are adversarial; political action is always quid pro quo; political favor is fleeting – “What can you do for me tomorrow?”; and there is no truth in politics, only compromise. (Barker, 1989, p. 145)
Financial – Financial considerations are the quantitative aspect of the decision-making process. Although financial decisions can become complex, when competing requests require an administrator to prioritize expenditures, they are usually the simplest dilemmas to resolve due to the finite nature of resources. Administrators often are able to rationalize difficult decisions by citing the lack of appropriate resources to administer the academic unit.
Cultural – Probably the most underestimated and misunderstood environmental concern in educational decision making is the dimension of culture. Most educational administrators have some vague notion of what the term “culture” means. During the last 10 to 15 years, several researchers have spent a great deal of time determining and analyzing the cultures of business and education.
Deal and Kennedy (1982) are probably the best-known researchers. They have published several books, one of which is Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Because it is easy to maize generalizations about organizational cultures, educational administrators can learn a great deal from the extensive studies of corporate cultures.
There are two characteristics of educational organizations that differentiate them from corporate organizations: (1) the high, homogeneous level of formal education for faculty and (2) the concept of collegiality, which promotes a sense of independence and self-determination among faculty and staff.
Although culture is commonly defined as common or characteristic patterns of human behavior, Bower (1966) more informally describes organizational culture as “the way we do things around here.” (p. 121) Within educational institutions, we tend to do things much differently than within corporate organizations. Two faculty “rights” create a chasm between academe and business: academic freedom and tenure. Although there is no uniform agreement as to what those rights are, faculty often use these terms to defend/explain a variety of behaviors ranging from professional philosophies to instructional strategies.
Educational cultures or values are shaped in a unique and isolated environment. Faculty covet privacy, and the freedom to be different. These values often create a dramatic dichotomy between egoism and utilitarianism, between the need to be “free” and the need to “belong.” Egoism may be defined as an ethical doctrine in which individual self-interest motivates all conscious action.
Utilitarianism may be defined as a doctrine in which conscious action is judged by the utility of the outcome for the common good. Herein lies the dilemma between the value systems of educational and corporate organizations. Although successful corporate leaders promulgate a shared vision among their employees, they have far greater flexibility in prescribing certain behaviors and outcomes related to the common good.
However, most educators also possess certain grouping or “herding” tendencies and manifest a deep-seated need for acceptance, camaraderie, and a culture of inclusion. Educators yearn for the values, stories, rites, and rituals that delimit the cultural environment of an organization. In this respect educators are quite schizophrenic; they want the freedoms to push the academic boundaries, to explore the fringe that so often produces the dynamic synergy for paradigm change.
Yet, they are often like children who have the need to explore their environment, while longing for the structure and safety provided by home and family (tenure and collegiality). These tendencies inherently conflict with the decision-making process and may in extreme cases undermine the integrity of the units leadership, governance, and mission.
Educational administrators must attend to a variety of constituents. The constituent list usually includes central administration, faculty and staff, students, alumni, and the community (e.g., parents and spouses). Constituent decisions are often the most difficult and time-consuming for the educational administrator because of the egocentric nature of the dilemmas. Basically, decisions made concerning individuals, or made by individuals within an organizational context, are never particularly rational. In a popular video on paradigm change, Barker (1989) stated that “people do what makes sense to them.” (p. 118)
There are many exogenous factors that shape the decision-making process with constituents. The first and greatest issue is self-preservation (egoism). Faculty, staff, and students in an educational environment react in a fairly predictable egocentric manner.
When questions of tenure or promotion, pass or fail, graduate faculty status, and/or merit pay arise, students and faculty seldom independently arrive at the decision that they should fail a course, not be tenured or promoted, or not receive merit pay. Objectivity in terms of job security and advancement is more than should be expected. Pondy (1982), however, suggested that through external tools and internal counseling, we may be capable of increasing our understanding and possibly improve the decision-making process. (p. 309)
Depending upon the administrator’s philosophy of institutional policy, constituent decisions are extremely simple or extremely complex. Some administrators interpret and implement institutional policy with zero tolerance. This philosophical orientation simplifies the administrator’s life. After a policy is established, no further decision dilemmas can arise. Other administrators view administrative policies as general rules and regulations used to “guide” present and future decisions.
The following examples demonstrate the extremes of constituent dilemmas. In Example A, Student Smith submits his completed course of study (in triplicate) to the graduation office on September 23 in preparation for a December graduation. After reading the check sheet the secretary informs Mr. Smith that he cannot graduate in December because he has missed the September 21 deadline to submit requests for graduation. This is a classic operational dilemma that illustrates the disunity between the “harm” to the institution vs. the “good” of the student.
The organization dichotomy between quality assurance and reasonable constituent custody is a constant dilemma. Educational administrators must constantly contend with the “Pandora’s Box” of constituent decision making. Unfortunately, many leaders lack the decision-making skills or personal initiative to differentiate between the “least harm . . . greatest good,” and default to keeping the box closed. This failure to differentiate often causes extreme hardships for policy-bound constituents. (Barker, 1989, p. 156)
Educational administrators are faced with a myriad of decision dilemmas ranging from routine decisions, such as purchasing supplies, to innovative decisions, such as program renewal or capital giving campaigns. Decision dilemmas are often complex and carry significant implications for the decision maker, the constituent, and the organization.
In resolving most dilemmas the educational leader must first decide who should make the decision. Administrators often are drawn into decision triads, where faculty/staff/students want the administrator to serve as judge for peer dilemmas. If the decision is indeed best made by the administrator, he or she should accumulate pertinent information in a timely manner; prioritize information based upon the rules of perspective, context, and omission; overlay a template of environmental constraints (politics, finance, and culture); and lastly, should apply the principle of “least harm. . . . greatest good.” (Barker, 1989, p. 172)
By using this approach to decision making, the educational administrator will improve the quality of her or his decisions, while developing trust and predictability among the followership. In a time of complex organizational dilemmas, a trusting and supportive followership significantly improves the decision-making and implementation process.
APA Style Guide. Available from:
Barker, J. (1989). Business of paradigms, in discovering the future series. Burnsville, MD: Charthouse International Learning Corporation.
Bogue, E.G. (1985). Enemies of leadership. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Press.
Bower, M. (1966). The will to manage. New York: McGraw Hill.
Deal, T. E., & Kennedy, A. A. (1982). Corporate cultures: The rites and rituals of corporate life. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing.
March, J. G., & Olsen, J. P. (Eds.) (1976). Ambiguity and choice in organizations. Bergen, Norway: Universitetsforlaget.
Pondy, L. (1982). On real decisions. In Ungson, G. R., & Braunstein, D. N. (Eds.). Decision making: An interdisciplinary inquiry. Boston: Kent Publishing.
Thomas, J., & Nelson, J. (1996). Research methods in physical activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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