Another dot in the blogosphere?

Reflecting on school cultures

Posted on: June 18, 2016

Some people travel to experience a different culture. Ask a group of travellers what “culture” means and you will get different answers.

Culture is hard to define, but you know it when you see, feel, or otherwise experience it. The same can be said of the culture of a workplace or school.

The first thing I do when I work with a new group is ask to walk around and get a feel of the place. I do this to get a sense of the culture of the workplace and the mindset of its workers.

I have visited the headquarters (HQs) of two technology giants in Singapore several times. One giant’s name sounds like a fruit, the other sounds like a large number. Just sitting in their waiting areas provides a palpable sense of the different cultural mindsets of the organisations.

I am not talking about the decor. I am talking about how they treat their guests.

The current campus of Fruit HQ is divided into two main blocks, each with its own waiting area. You speak to a human at reception to have your identity verified and to get a name tag sticker.

I had a series of visits where I met different people from Fruit HQ. Some told me which block to go to while others did not even when I asked. I found out the hard way that the check in system and the human receptionist do not tell you if you are in the wrong block.

I always arrive early for my appointments. On one occasion I waited for a long time to be met by my contact. The receptionist decided to call the person and discovered that my contact was in the other block. I scurried over to the other building and was told that I had to check in and wait some more.

Had I not already done that? Was my contact not already waiting for me? Apparently there was protocol to follow.

At Number HQ, you self-register and get a sticker at a computer kiosk. There is more than one kiosk and people can be processed individually or in groups efficiently. There still is a human receptionist if you need one, but you see the kiosks before you spot the person in the background. Better still, there is just one meeting spot.

Another way I look for how an outfit welcomes its visitors is its guest wifi policy. The access points are easy to see on any modern mobile device. How you join them is a different matter.

I asked the receptionist at Fruit HQs how I might access guest wifi and I was told that my contact would have to request it. This meant meeting the person first, being asked to show something, saying you need wifi, the person going back to reception and making the request, processing the request… it is tiring just recalling and typing the process.

This is why I have a mifi device. Unfortunately, Fruity HQ does not have the best reception and things only get worse inside its core.

At Number HQ, you hop on their guest wifi by registering with your mobile device online like you would at a mall or public library.

The people that you meet at both HQs will generally be schooled and skilled in the art of social interaction — these are the 1%. That is not an accurate picture of the culture and mindset of the workplace — this is the 99%.

While the people on frontline are a good show, the protocols and processes are a better indicator of the culture and mindset of workers. The latter are a result of how well an organisation takes the perspectives of the people it serves and policies it puts into play.

The technology giants are very successful even though they vibe different cultures. That said, would you rather have a closed and controlled environment, or would you like a more open and expressive one? Both seem to lead to the same end, but what would you like to invest part of your working life to?

Now transfer this philosophy to schools. Then consider these questions:

  • What are your school’s cultures and mindsets? What is real and what is perceived?
  • If you say you are a leader or teacher in a school and do not know the vibe it gives off, how do you find out?
  • If you are aware of the vibes, what would you like your stakeholders to resonate with?

Like the tech giants whose success is measured by how much money they make, the success of schools here are judged by standard exam results. However, as we swing back to values-based education, academic results fade into the background. It is the cultures in different schools that help them stand out and apart.

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