The term ivory tower is a euphemism for being out of touch with practical or “real-world” matters. With respect to leadership, the more leaders distance themselves from the experiences of their front-line workers, the more out of touch they can become with the granular-level implications of their decisions. For as much as technology is changing the world of higher education, institutions need to invest not only in new technologies, but also in the “flow of know-how” throughout the entire organization to maximize their capacity for innovation, creativity, and visionary leadership. Institutions of this sort are learning organizations: “systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation” (Schon 1973, p. 28).
Unfortunately, rank or position often dictates one’s ability to exert influence within the system. Just look at the language used to describe organizational hierarchy; it is not uncommon to hear phrases like “people at the top” and “people at the bottom” or terms like superior and subordinate. This language distinguishes those with power from those without it and contributes to the creation of an organizational culture in which rank or position determines who has something worthwhile to say, which greatly limits its capacity for continuous growth.
The traditional organizational structure, one in which ideas flow from the top of an ivory tower to the bottom of the educational trenches, is outdated yet seems so pervasive in higher education. Bureaucracy impedes communication between different departments and colleges, hinders collaborative problem-solving, and promotes working in “silos.” How ironic it is to maintain such an organizational structure considering that higher education in a digital world is becoming increasingly democratized; the diffusion of ideas, information, and knowledge across all boundaries, barriers, and borders has never been so achievable in history as it is today.
The “ivory tower mentality” exists wherever leadership, creativity, and know-how is believed to be possessed only by a select few with certain rank or position. A culture in which conflict is viewed as threatening and differences of opinion are feared produces a culture of groupthink. In such an environment, leaders do not emerge, but rather individuals who (rather disingenuously) merely propagate messages they do not believe in because they “come from the top” and pressure “those at the bottom” to fall in line.
Kofman and Senge (as cited in Norbom, 2009) argued that competition, fragmentation, and reactiveness impede an organization’s ability to learn. Competition creates an environment in which individuals are rewarded for looking good rather than being good and in which individual problem-solving is more important than collaboration and teamwork. Fragmentation results from specialization; dividing and separating people into “warring fieldoms.” Reactiveness occurs when so much energy is poured into problem-solving that little time and energy is dedicated to creation and innovation.
In contrast, “learning organizations are organizations in which people continually expand their capacity to create the results that they desire” (Senge, 2006). Teamwork and collaboration are highly valued as well as communication. In such an environment, everyone focuses on the big picture instead of just working in their individual silos. “Such qualities can exist only in an environment that supports openness, acceptance, creativity, and employee participation” (Norbom, 2009)
College and university leaders should aspire to break down barriers between campuses and employees to bring together pockets of excellence that exist within the organization irrespective of rank or position. Give voice to the entire organization and harness the creative power of your greatest resource: the human resource. From academic advisors to college deans, everyone is capable of contributing to the success of the institution and indeed must.
Norbom, H. M. (2009). Informal power, innovative cultures, and online communication use in horizontal organizations. Alliant International University, Los Angeles). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , n/a. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/305174573?accountid=35812
Schon, D. A. (1973) Beyond the stable state: Public and private learning in a changing society, Harmondsworth, London: Penguin.
Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.