Chris Jansen: Re-thinking organisation post-earthquakes


Chris Jansen from the University of Canterbury opened the Christchurch CORE Breakfast seminar season speaking to the subject: Re-thinking organisation post-earthquakes. Emma Potter's report on Chris's seminar follows...

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

The earthquakes in Canterbury over the past year have lead to numerous changes in the region; not only in the education sector, but also in the way communities operate. Organisations have had to deal with damaged buildings, loss of staff and students, loss of valuables resources and site sharing. This has meant many institutions (especially schools) have had to quickly adapt to the breakdown of their traditional structure, which has providing individuals with the opportunity to self-organise and independently initiate solutions to various problems.

While there has been much devastation caused by the Canterbury earthquakes, Chris indicated that there have also been many exciting things that have developed as a result. University of Canterbury senior lecturer Chris Jansen spoke at this week’s CORE Education Breakfast Seminar about the spontaneous response of various non-governmental groups to the earthquakes. By providing examples of self-organised groups that organically emerged out of necessity, Chris discussed the ways in which they can influence the pre-existing structure of institutions as the city looks to rebuild and return to some sense of normality.

The Student Volunteer and Farmy Army were provided as notable examples, as their spontaneous responses following the September and February earthquakes respectively were not planned but were rather a force of circumstance. Both these organisations, along with other initiatives that have begun since the earthquakes, are unique in that no clear power structures existed (no one was in charge), but rather they were dependent on the self-organisation and motivation of their members.

Chris encouraged attendees to consider how schools in particular can learn from these relatively new ways of coordination, by adopting strengths from individuals’ varying ways of organising themselves.

Site-sharing in schools, for example, meant that many schools had to discard traditional ways of coordinating, instead relying on individuals to solve issues. While the wider community is now looking to return to a new type of (somewhat distorted) ‘reality’, lessons can be learnt from the operation of organisations post-earthquake, and applied to future operations. The role of the leader in this case is important.

How can the leader foster self-organisation?

  1. Mentor staff – recognise them as individuals and support their specific needs
  2. Note their achievements, which will ultimately boost their self-belief.
  3. Foster interaction – create environments which build positive relationships
    • “A healthy organisation is one in which all participants have a voice” (Peck, 1998).
  4. Distribute power and decentralise control – delegate roles and share the leadership.
  5. Share the responsibility and accountability.
  6. Explore and articulate shared values – reconnect all staff with personal moral purpose, ensure staff are on the same page.

How can self-organisation be applied to schools (in particular)?

Schools in the Christchurch region quickly adapted to the necessary changes after the earthquake. To a degree self-organisation became necessary as a lot of traditional power was decentralised and “rules” were relaxed. This has been a natural development from which many schools have benefited— Chris used images of a machine (or cog) and a living organism (a synchronised formation of birds) to compare the changing nature of organisation.

The machine has been the traditional model through which organisations are managed, however, we are now seeing the introduction of more organism-like structures in organisations. Both have their own advantages. Whereas the machine is efficient, reliable and strong, the living organism is messy and spontaneous, which makes it difficult to control. In contrast, the living organism is innovative, responsible and nimble, whereas the machine is inflexible and slow to respond. Aspects of both need to be utilised to make for a successful and dynamic organisation.

Key questions to consider post-seminar

  • Why do we need to think in different ways?
  • How do we adopt strengths from each way of organising ourselves?
  • How do we allow people to do their own thing within an organisation but direct/foster them?

Slides from Chris Jansen's seminar

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