One Day

by Matthew Stollak on Wednesday, January 18, 2012

 Ray, J.L., Baker, L.T., & Plowman, D.A.  2011.  Organizational Mindfulness in Business Schools.  Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10(2).  pp. 188-203.

Last week, we examined the concept of surprise and organizational bricolage.  In many instances, organizations can fall victim to surprise because they are unprepared.  One way to prepare for surprise is to be "mindful," by paying close attention to their surroundings and maintaining the ability to act on unexpected signals.   In "Organizational Mindfulness in Business Schools," Ray, Baker & Plowman examine the concept of organizational mindfulness in U.S. business schools and provide evidence of its five dimensions.

The concept of organizational mindfulness was coined by Weick and Sutcliffe in their 2001 book "Managing the Unexpected."  They identify five interrelated processes that make up this concept.  The first, preoccupation with failure, "involves the organization's sensitivity to the possibility of failures, attention to small failures, willingness to encourage the reporting of mistakes, and the open discussion of problems."  For business schools, this might mean searching for multiple explanations why a cohort was particularly critical - is it a symptom of something else?  Focused on a particular discipline?  Are there similar feelings university-wide?

A second dimension of mindfulness identified by Weick and Sutcliffe is reluctance to simplify.  Basically, one wants to seek out divergent views to process information that will lead to novel solutions and new knowledge generation.  Blaming decreased alumni donations solely on a bad economy would be avoided.

The third dimension is sensitivity to operations.  Like just-in-time systems and RFID tags, organizations use real time information that will allow them to make adjustments on the fly.  Colleges may continually assess the curriculum it is offering to ensure it meets current marketplace needs.

The fourth dimension is commitment to resilience.  It involves "the ability to correct errors quickly, accurately, and before they have a chance to worsen and cause more serious harm."If a school failed to earn accreditation, for example, it would look to address particular shortcomings.

The final dimension is deference to expertise.  It involve, "the tendency to utilize individuals with particular knowledge regardless of status, tenure, rank, and so forth, recognizing that authority does not equate to expertise."  In hiring new faculty, it might be wise to consult with a recent hire to judge the current compensation package being offered.

Despite its presence in organizational literature for 10 years, empirical validation of organizational mindfulness has been lacking, with several studies falling short either because the concept itself is flawed, or the tools to assess it have not been significantly robust.

To assess the concept, the authors sought responses from individuals in four roles: Deans, Associate Deans, Assistant Deans and Department Chairs.  Through an e-mail survey sent several times, they received 225 completed surveys representing 154 colleges.  Using Weick and Sutcliffe's initial 47-item questionnaire, the authors adjusted it to 43 questions to ensure it was appropriate for a college setting.  Respondents were asked to use a 5-point Likert scale (1=extremely accurate to 5=extremely accurate) to assess how each item in the questionnaire described their school.  To assess preoccupation with failure, for example, statements such as "We often update our college procedures after experiencing a problem" and "People in this college feel free to talk to superiors about problems."

Analysis and Results
Through confirmatory factor analysis, the authors found a strong fit for the five factor model.  In addition, the authors used analysis of variance (ANOVA) to see if there was a significant difference in perceived mindfulness based on role.  The analysis found that Deans were more likely to perceive their school as mindful than those in other administrative roles.

Implications for HR
1.  Given support for the model, it suggests that HR leaders should look for ways to impact the culture of the organization by looking for ways to encourage novel thinking and not simply mimic how other organizations do business.  There often is pressure to adopt the best practices of an industry; this suggest that what might be the best practices might, instead, be the right practices for now, and not the future.
2.  Given that the study found that Deans tended to view the organization as rosier than those in lesser position, HR can play a critical role to ensure that the C-suite not become to detached from those dealing with the day-to-day operations of the organization.

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