4 Models for Campus Learning Organizations

Which metaphor best fits your team?

January 15, 2020

You are an educator. You work in higher ed. Likely, you are involved in learning innovation in some form or another. But you do not sit in an academic department. Instead, your home is a learning organization.

One of the most common challenges folks doing the work of learning innovation face is describing to others what they do. Many years ago when we started the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, we informally adopted BASF’s slogan of the time (“we don’t make things, we make things better”). This helps think about the relationship of our work to the whole, but it doesn’t necessarily give the people working in the organization a way of thinking about the space and place they occupy.

More recently, we asked our colleagues at CNDLS to think about the analogies that best fit with the structure, work and relationships of our organization. We came up with four (plus a hybrid of different ones):

  • An academic department
  • A start-up
  • A service organization
  • A family

Each of these possible analogues for a learning organization has its strengths and weaknesses. None are meant to constrain the culture, operations or impact of a learning organization. Instead, the idea of this exercise was to use these comparisons as jumping-off points for helping to define and describe the purpose and meaning that many of us get out of this work.

Let’s examine each model in a bit of depth.

An Academic Department

The model of an academic department will be appealing to many nonfaculty educators, as the work of departments and learning organizations significantly overlap. Faculty and nonfaculty educators collaborate on course design and advancing student learning. Members of campus learning organizations often share a common educational path as their faculty colleagues, and they value academic norms of autonomy and independence.

The cultures of academic departments and learning organizations tend to diverge, however, on collaborative and service norms. Professors have a unique relationship to their college or university, particularly given the shared governance models at many institutions. Academic departments often have a decidedly democratic process that may be more difficult to implement widely in a learning organization.

A Start-up

Start-ups are exciting places to work. When you join a start-up, you are on the ground floor of creating something new. Start-ups tend to value productivity, speed and the ability of each employee to contribute. There is little in the way of bureaucracy, hierarchy or inertia, though outsize personalities often create their own singular momentum in start-ups.

Creating a learning organization culture along the lines of a start-up will likely energize team members. There are a few downsides, however, of a learning organization modeling its culture on that of a start-up. Most start-ups fail. Nobody expects to work at a start-up for very long. After some period of time, every start-up needs to transform into something resembling a normal organization, be acquired or die. Successful start-ups are able to pivot, where the responsibilities of campus learning organizations may evolve some but will rarely completely change. Start-ups involve heavy doses of risk, while few go into higher education because they want a riskier career. And perhaps most importantly, learning organizations should never be about one person.

A Service Organization

Campus service organizations exist to serve campus stakeholders. They often have a legacy (for good or bad) of values and practices that help them carry out their mission. When it comes to campus learning organizations, these values may include a commitment to providing community and resources to educators and students -- and to do so regardless of status or position. Adjunct and contingent faculty may have access to the resources of a campus learning organization in equal measure to tenured full professors. Services, initiatives and programming may be targeted at underserved and vulnerable students. Educators working in service-oriented learning organizations bring an expansive and inclusive orientation to their work.

Service organizations also tend to see the people they work with as clients or customers of their services, the work they create as a service or at times a product. This can have the unfortunate effect of creating some distance between the work of the people in the service organization and the faculty and students they serve. Rather than partnering to solve the challenges of the institution, a service-only perspective, while prioritizing helping others, may lead to a more passive and less collaborative model of engagement. There may be a reluctance to impose the values and goals of the service organization on the stakeholders that it serves. Instead, the emphasis is on aligning the programs and initiatives and services of the learning organization with the needs of the campus community -- in this case of learning organizations, educators and students. What is perhaps less apparent is a willingness, or an organizational structure, to push the institution and its members outside existing comfort zones. An effective service unit attempts to align the mission of the institution with the needs of its partners and clients. Less emphasis, however, is placed on developing and advocating for a vision of how the institution must change -- and then creating initiatives to match that internally developed vision.

A Family

The metaphor of a family puts the emphasis on the trust and support that team members exhibit for one another. There is an explicit ethos of caring for the whole person that defines this type of organization. In the case of a campus learning organization, this ethos of care extends to how team members relate to faculty, students and staff. Rather than direct programming, resources, services or initiatives at meeting identified targets (enrollment, revenues) or bolstering specific skills, the campus learning organization will prioritize the overall well-being of its partners and stakeholders. Goals around wellness, social justice, inclusivity and diversity will be deeply integrated into the services and programming of the campus learning organization. Stress will be put on creating a place of psychological safety and mutual support for both the members of the learning organization and the people that the organization serves.

While few would objective to creating a supportive work environment, and of directing services to support the whole person of partners and clients, there are some challenges with using family as a metaphor. To paraphrase Tolstoy, while all happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Managing the uniqueness of the family identity can be an organizational and managerial challenge. Additionally, the effectiveness of the learning organization may not always correlate with prioritizing wellness and psychological safety. If the learning organization is invested in catalyzing positive institutional changes and innovation, then those projects and initiatives are likely to make at least some people uncomfortable.

Other Models?

There are, of course, other models that a learning organization might seek to mirror. Campuses have revenue-generating service units and non-service-oriented administrative units. For many learning organizations, the values and structures of academic libraries might seem like a model to emulate. Some learning organizations fashion themselves along the lines of venture capitalist firms, seeking to partner with campus innovators to create new advances in teaching and learning. Still others see their roles as more akin to a think tank or consultancy.

When we have used this conceit to discuss how our learning organizations see themselves, the direction that team members almost gravitate toward is that of a hybrid. The best learning organizations pull from all of these examples and more, creating their own distinct cultures and norms and modes of operating.

What is less important is where the people in the learning organization end up in defining their work. Rather, it is the process of using examples and models to articulate the values of the group -- and how those values should play out in services and programs -- that the true benefit of this exercise is realized.

Campus learning organizations are their own things. They also may exist in different places on the campus organization chart, as part of one unit (campus IT) or another (the library). Or they may be independent, reporting to the provost or a particular campus dean or vice president. What connects all campus learning organizations is a mission to advance learning. Unpacking how that mission can best be accomplished is a useful exercise for team members to engage.

What does your learning organization resemble?


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top