• Issue #40

Organizational Frames and Advocating for Digital Strategy

Several differently-colored arrows pointing in all sorts of directions.

This past week, I presented at PSEWEB! Unfortunately, due to flight delays, I couldn’t deliver my presentation in person. But that’s okay. My doggos were pretty happy about my staying home.

For my presentation, I discussed ways to gain traction with stakeholders for your digital strategy recommendations.

Support for our digital strategy can be surprisingly difficult to come by for many reasons.

  1. For one thing, higher education wrestles with the potential downstream effects of commoditization. When we treat students like customers and promote our programs like products, we might inadvertently signal certain expectations (e.g., the customer is always right or that education is a one-way service). This can change our relationships with our students and our collective responsibilities to one another within our learning communities. So, academicians and administrators can feel reticent to adopt new digital marketing strategies.
  2. We also work in a highly educated, hierarchical environment where people only trust a specific way of acquiring expertise.
  3. Our marketing and promotional strategies often represent our faculty’s thorough research, findings requiring subject matter fluency for appropriate interpretation, and educational experiences that necessitate substantial work and commitment. Getting these things wrong or underplaying them can put projects and programs at risk.

What we’re looking for is a certain kind of trust. People can trust your professionalism, good intentions, and even your abilities; they might still not trust you to represent their work. In order to trust you to represent their work, they’re looking for signs that you have their backs and that you see the world the same way they do and want the same things they want. Let’s call that kind of trust “team trust.”

But you can’t just say you deserve team trust. You have to demonstrate it. Trust comes from observations, not declarations.

So how do we prove that we deserve team trust?

There are lots of different ways. For my talk, I focused on two:

  1. Meet them in their organizational frame.
  2. Meet them in their conversational operating system.

Let me start with organizational frames. When I first encountered Bolman and Deal’s “Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership,” a classic in organizational strategy literature, it was pretty eye-opening. Bolman and Deal present four organizational frames or lenses in which people see their work:

  1. Structural
  2. Political
  3. Human Resources
  4. Symbolic

In the structural frame, we see our organizations and work through the org chart and documented processes. Success happens when we adhere to our goals, specialized roles, formal rules, and workflows. The source of workplace problems is a mismatch between our structure or processes and the situation at hand.

In the political frame, we understand our organizations as people vying for the power to get things done. They do this by obtaining and leveraging authority and influence. Success happens when we build coalitions and influence to overcome conflict. The source of workplace problems is a combination of limited resources and differences in opinions on how we should distribute and use those resources.

In the human resources frame, we see our organizations as comprised of people with varied skills, needs, feelings, and limitations. Success happens when we focus on what individual people need to feel motivated and productive. The source of workplace problems is a mismatch between organizational goals and what the individuals in that organization need to feel good about their work.

And in the symbolic frame, we see our organizations as the history, culture, and meaning of our work and co-existence. Success happens when we feel inspired and connected by the inherent significance of our work. The source of workplace problems is a lack of connection to something more profound.

Until I read Bolman and Deal, the political perspective was invisible. I understood in the abstract that people needed titles and raises and would want influence over work distribution and processes. But, I didn’t see how those desires played out in meetings and decision-making.

I was also frustrated by coworkers who saw things in the structural or human resources frame. Focusing on structure and rules felt inefficient and arbitrary. Needing to align staff members and the organization’s work seemed unrealistic; if people were frustrated, they could leave, and we could get others into those positions.

I was a one-lady symbolic-framed wrecking crew. I put inspiring ideals and our mission, vision, and organizational culture on a pedestal. I thought this was the key to motivation and our sun source of decision-making. The funny thing is, I was so un-self-aware. I had no idea that’s what I was doing. If the symbolic frame couldn’t explain the intuitions and behaviors of others, those intuitions and behaviors were incomprehensible to me.

This meant I struggled to gain team trust with my colleagues for a long time. They thought I was friendly, talented, and intelligent. I kept my promises and had good ideas. But, they couldn’t trust me to get on board with a political strategy or adhere to the organizational processes and rules. And I had no idea how I came across or what opportunities I missed.

These organizational frames are more than just a tool for self-analysis (though you can learn about your strengths in organizational frames at Lee Bolman’s website); you can use them to understand where others are coming from and examine other perspectives. When you can see from another’s point of view, you can reframe your strategy in ways that speak more directly to their needs and expectations.

So, first, I look to see how individuals respond to different situations and settings. How they see meetings, approach conflict, make decisions, or attribute success provide clues about their most comfortable frames. Once I have an intuition about how my colleague considers the organization, I can better prepare talking points to match their framing.

For example, if I hope to add another role to my digital strategy team:

  • In a structural frame, I might talk about how our team’s current capacity and responsibilities don’t match up well against our new enrollment goals. We need another role to be effective.
  • In a political frame, I might emphasize how increasing capacity could support our goals of building influence among university leaders.
  • In a human resources frame, I might discuss how our team feels overworked, and we’re at risk of losing staff members unless we can get them relief. Another person could increase morale and motivation.
  • In a symbolic frame, I might talk about how increasing our capacity connects to the larger goals and mission and feels like a natural outgrowth of our strategic efforts.

I am not recommending you change your digital marketing strategy to fit an organizational frame or take others’ recommendations because you now have a better understanding of where they are coming from. You can make the same recommendations and ask for the same resources. And, just because you understand someone else’s request doesn’t mean it’s reasonable or appropriate. You just need to be able to frame your arguments in the best political, structural, symbolic, or humane light.

Making an effort to meet someone in their organizational frame increases the likelihood they will disclose more information about their goals and bring you into planning strategies and tactics conversations. Additionally, when our frames come into conflict, we can negotiate with more knowledge and empathy.

Next week, I’ll write part two on how you can use conversational operating systems to influence decision-makers.

- Kristin Van Dorn