Growing Pains (1)

Evolution of a young plant(This is the first part of a two part post)

One of the issues that I often come across when speaking with managers of language schools is the problem of managing the transition from a small organic organisation to one that is larger and more mechanistic.

To explain a little more: Many language schools grow from small beginnings, perhaps with one or two teachers. In these schools, everyone does everything – the owner teaches, answers the phone, manages the business and cleans the classroom.  Aside from the business management side of things, the teachers probably do much the same. The business is small and everyone knows what is going on. It can feel like being part of a family. Slowly the business grows, and more people are hired, more teachers, more office staff, and so on.  But still the same ethos exists, and the staff feel that they are part of something. They feel recognised, appreciated, and free to be creative in their work

At a certain point though, a tension starts to appear. A tension between this close-knit family of employees and the needs of the business to have a bit more formality. The parent of a student comes in and ask to speak to someone about a certain matter – and no-one is quite sure who they should talk to.  Some students are offered payment plans which are unusual and they tell their classmates (or they stop paying and nobody notices). Teachers complain that students who passed the previous level don’t know what they expect them to know. A part time teacher who said she only wanted ten hours teaching a week, is annoyed when a newer member of staff is given a full time contract. And so on. The list of possible signs of this tension coming into play is probably endless.

It becomes increasingly clear – to everyone – that there needs to be formalisation, some more rules and procedures. That people’s job descriptions and responsibilities have to made more explicit. And while everyone can see this need, there is of course resistance to such a change. “Will we lose the feeling of togetherness that brought us here?” “The reason I love working for this school is the freedom and creativity I have here” “We don’t need rules, we just need to make sure we keep communicating”

The transition that at some point needs to be negotiated from a small young informal organisation to one that it is larger and more formal is a very tricky one to handle. Sometimes the tension materialises slowly and is worked out slowly. It might take a few years between recognising the need to change and actually changing. Sometimes the change is more or less instant – usually in the case when a small LTO is bought by a large chain. It can be a process which is painful, sometimes with staff leaving, or it can be a relatively smooth shift.

Carter McNamara’s organisational life cycles model (which is quoted in From Teacher to Manager, and which can also be found here) shows how organisations typically develop

Birth Youth Midlife Maturity
Size small medium large very large
Bureaucratic nonbureaucratic prebureaucratic bureaucratic very bureaucratic
Division of labor overlapping tasks some departments many departments extensive, with small jobs and many descriptions
Centralization one-person rule two leaders rule two department heads top-management heavy
Formalization no written rules few rules policy and procedures manuals extensive
Administrative intensity secretary, no professional staff increasing clerical and maintenance increasing professional and staff support large– multiple departments
Internal systems nonexistent crude budget and information system control systems in place; budget, performance, reports, etc.. extensive — planning, financial, and personnel added
Lateral teams, tasks forces for coordination none top leaders only some use of integrators and task forces frequent at lower levels to break down bureaucracy

In the second part of this post, I’ll take a model of trying to best facilitate this transition  and try to apply it to the language school context

5 Responses to “Growing Pains (1)”

  1. Fiona Thomas' ELT Blog Says:

    Thanks, Andy. It’s fascinating how difficult the transitions are. I like Greiner’s growth model too to shed light on this too. Can’t find a link to the original but if you apply this article to LTOs, it makes sense: Looking forward to part 2.

    • Andy Hockley Says:

      Thanks Fiona. I’m not familiar with Greiner’s model, but it looks interesting. Something to read on the plane on Monday!

  2. Dennis Warren Says:

    I found the article fascinating. Thanks very much for some thought-provoking ideas. I wonder to what extent an LTO might still go through these stages without actually growing so much. Can a medium-sized LTO, which stays medium-sized, enter the more mature stages without growing? I see I’ll have to read up more on McNamara’s ideas.

    My own limited experience has seen my LTO grow into high complexity but very little in the way of explicit procedures or documentation, thus there are many things left unwritten, and a reliance on the knowledge/memory of a few individuals. Getting that kind of LTO to create explicit written policies is very hard work!

    Can I ask what may be a really dumb question? How does one define a medium or large-sized LTO. Is it based on student numbers? The only definitions I could find were related to US college sizes, which suggest up to 5k for small, 5-15k for medium and 15k+ for large, but that doesn’t chime for me with LTO.


    • Andy Hockley Says:

      Thanks for the comments Dennis. I think your observations of your LTO are not unusual, and as you say – it can be difficult to get people to want explicit written policies (and then having realised that they would be useful, finding a way to write them without upsetting people!)

      I think a medium sized LTO can “mature” without growing, yes. Though perhaps the problem lies in it maturing just through inattention, if you see what I mean. Sort of ossifying as much as maturing, perhaps.

      The question of size is definitely not dumb! And I am not sure of the answer to be honest – I think people know it when they see it, but it’s not a clear figure. I’d say in my experience the size when this change needs to start is probably around 25-30 employees, but it could be fewer or could be more. I guess those figures from the US were student numbers? In organisational growth terms they don’t really work for me!

  3. Growing Pains (2) | From Teacher to Manager Says:

    […] few weeks ago, I wrote about the problems of transitioning from a small LTO to a more medium sized ones with all of…This is something which I’ve encountered fairly often in my work, but I was reminded of it […]

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