SCHOOLS: NOT FACTORIES, BUT FARMS-Review of an essay by Karl E. Weick

Karl E. Weick – Educational Organisations as Loosely Coupled Systems

(Bildungsorganisationen als lose gekoppelte Systeme)

by Daniele Vanni

The text is an academic essay, whose main purpose is to provide guidelines and helpful information about how research on the topic ought to be conducted. It is therefore most likely to have a readers’ pool consisting mainly of university students, researchers, teachers and professors.

The essay begins with a metaphor (a quote by J.G. March, presented to the reader at the very beginning of the text, after a brief introductive paragraph), which asks the reader to imagine an unusual soccer match on a round field, with several doors and no strict rules, played “as if it makes sense” (page 2). This quote pursues the double aim of bringing about criticism on the prevailing misconception of Educational Organisations functioning as so-called “Tightly coupled systems”-i.e. systems where links between different elements are tight and dense- and offering a new perspective on these kind of organisations, which are to be seen as way less rationalized as they were believed to be so far.
This is substantially also the purpose of the text itself, for which the Author brings up the many technical aspects-and problems- of this matter and the definition of several concepts related to the one of “loose coupling”, which, according to the Author, are necessary to fully understand this peculiar field of studies and research.
But before Weick moves on to the core analysis and to the very academic language that is found throughout the whole text, another metaphoric example (also a quote, this time by J.M.Stephens is displayed, according to which Educational Organisations are to be viewed as “Farms”, and not as “Factories”). That is to say, such organisations do not function like an ensemble of chains and gears where every single element is vital for the functioning of the whole System, but rather as a kind of systems where some processes can be developed independently from one another (a sown seed keeps growing even if the farmer sleeps).

From this point on, the Author begins to explain the concept of “loose coupling”, verbatim:
“By loose coupling, the author intends to convey the image that coupled events are responsive, but that each event also preserves its own identity and some evidence of its physical or logical separateness. […] Their attachment may be circumscribed, infrequent, weak in its mutual affects, unimportant, and/or slow to respond. Each of those connotations would be conveyed if the qualifier loosely were attached to the word coupled. Loose coupling also carries connotations of impermanence, dissolvability, and tacitness all of which are potentially crucial properties of the glue that holds organisations together” (page 4).

This definition is followed by two important statementes: first, that the degree of coupling between two systems depends directly on the amount of variables shared by the two systems; second, that loose coupled elements can be depicted as “building blocks that can be grafted onto an organisation or severed with relatively little disturbance to either the blocks or the organisation”(page 4).
Proceeding with the enumeration of what can be considered “coupling elements”, depending on the analyzed mechanism: territory, person, technology, role, task (in analysing the technical core of the organisation), positions, offices, responsibilities, opportunity, rewards and sanctions (if the authority of office is considered). More generally speaking, important elements that may be subject to loose coupling processes are intentions and actions, as well as means and ends.

Moving on to the strength and the potential functions of the coupling phenomenon, the author points out the difference between “loose coupling” (which merely describes “things” weakly tied together) and “loosely coupled systems”, whose importance for research studies is higher, for they involve the durance of a set of elements across time. The text thus provides a list list of 15 elements which are mostly referred to when speaking about loosely coupled systems, as well as a list of 7 potential functions (and dysfunctions) of loose coupling. In the following paragraph, methodological questions are faced by giving examples of methodological traps and suggesting the need for contextually sensitive methods. In addition, an illustrative example for a research agenda follows, where the different possibilities of loose coupling processes occurring between the two supervising activities of “certification” and “inspection” are shown. Two important questions are brought about by the author’s statement that education is a “diffuse task”: first, whether the organisational structure is compelled to be diffuse just like the task it’s pursuing or not; second, why do most of Educational Organisation present the same forms despite the task being diffuse. According to Weick, one possible answer to the latter could be that “the task of Educational Organisations does not constrain the form of the organisation but rather this constraint is imposed by the ritual of certification and/or the agreements that are made in and by the environment. Then, the possibility of technology being unclear in such organisations is considered, and if this alleged uncertainty is not proven to generate loose coupling, then researchers must look for its origins elsewhere.
Furthermore, the ambiguity of loosely coupled structures calls for the construction of a social reality by the members of said structures in which they can live. The following paragraph, facing the question of loose coupling being wither an independent or a dependent variable, suggests that the latter should deserve more attention, for it offers a more concrete problem-solving perspective.
Organisations are then in general described as large, loosely coupled units originating from clusters of events that are tightly coupled within and loosely coupled between. These are neither tightly connected nor explicitly bounded, but stable, but Educational Organisations can be both resilient and frail, although it remains to be seen under which conditions respectively.
Before the last paragraph, the author quotes Salancik’s suggested list of conditions under which dispositions (Intentions and Actions) within a single individual could be loosely coupled, as follows:
1) If intentions are not clear and unambiguous; 2)If the consequences of action are not known, (3) If the means by which an intention is transformed into an action are not known or in conflict, (4) If intentions are not known to a person at the time of selecting an action

In conclusion, Weick enumerates these 7 priorities which, in his opinion constitute a reasonable approach to the examination of loosely coupled systems.

1. Develop Conceptual Tools Capable of Preserving Loosely Coupled Systems
2. Explicate What Elements Are Available in Educational Organizations for Coupling
3. Develop Contextual Methodology
4. Promote the Collection of Thorough, Concrete Descrip-tions of the Coupling Patterns in Actual Educational Or-ganizations
5. Specify the Nature of Core Technology in Educational Organizations
6. Probe Empirically the Ratio of Functions to Dysfunc-tions Associated with Loose Coupling 7. Discover How Inhabitants Make Sense Out of Loosely Coupled Worlds

From my own point of view, as a student whose experience with academic research has been quite limited, the text is indeed interesting, as it provides many guidelines for researching purpose and key concepts to gain a basic, but solid knowledge of what the loose coupling phenomena and loosely coupled systems are and how they’re most likely to work and look like. Nonetheless, although many illustrative examples are displayed, the connotation of Educational Organisations as loosely coupled systems remains pretty vaguely proven: all the examples provided by the text are abstract and not supported by empirical data, which in turn are nowhere to be found all throughout the text. For this reason, in my opinion, this text should be used as a complementary tool in order to look for the right sources upon which the research activity are to be based as well as the right direction in which to orientate the research activity itself.


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