Does Organizational Structure Matter? Yes, But Not in a Traditional Way.


Dr. Bettyjo Bouchey and Dr. Erin Gratz

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Last Fall, we wrote about why we thought the emerging organizational structures of online units across our universities and colleges are important to study.  Leadership concept with red paper plane leading among white on blue backgroundSpecifically, CORAL Collaborative founders and founding members, a now formalized personal learning network born from OLC Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning (IELOL) alumni, launched an inaugural research study during the Summer of 2019 titled “The Evolving Nature of Online Organizational Structures in Higher Education Institutions”, and we are here to tell you about a few of our preliminary findings.  

Foreshadow alert: if you lead an online unit at your institution, prepare to start nodding your head and to feel validated by what we say in this post.  

First, who are we?  It bears noting that a study of this size requires a lot of hands.  Moreover, it requires a diverse set of perspectives, experiences, and availability to pull off.  Here is our esteemed research team: 

So, what did we do?  We set out on a journey of qualitative inquiry to answer the following research questions: 

  1. What are the implications of the current structure of the online unit within the institution?
  2. What are the planned changes to the current structure?

Over the course of the last year, we have been in conversation with the CHLOE researchers, Ron Legon, Richard Garrett, and Erik Fredricksen, to discuss our research questions, methodology, and preliminary findings.  These collaborative conversations have been incredibly insightful, as their quantitative research into online structures both inspired our research, and our findings are in alignment with many of the CHLOE findings.   Additionally, we were thrilled to receive a Seed Grant from National Louis University to help offset some of the cost of study logistics, transcription, and dissemination of our findings.  

We were excited to be able to recruit 32 participant institutions from across the United States. Of the public institutions we spoke to, 11 hail from the Northeast, 6 from the South, 5 from the Midwest, and 3 from the West.  Our private, not-for-profit institutions represented a smaller percentage of our sample with 4 located in the Northeast and 1 from the Midwest.  We also had two for-profit institutions in our sample, 1 located in the Midwest and 1 in the Western region of the county.  

We designed a semi-structured interview protocol resting upon traditional organizational design concepts such as work specialization, chain of command, span of control, centralization, departmentalization, boundary spanning, and formalization (Robbins & Judge, 2019).  For context: a) work specialization represents the degree to which tasks in an organization are divided into separate jobs, b) chain of command answers the question of “who reports to whom?” and signifies formal authority relationships, c) span of control represents how many employees each manager in the organization has responsibility for, d) centralization refers to where decisions are made in organizations, and e) formalization covers the degree to which rules and procedures are used (not simply codified) to standardize behaviors and decisions in an organization .  As a research team, we felt that borrowing from standard organizational design theory would help us understand the structures that are taking shape and provide a common set of questions we could ask of our participants as they make sense of how their institution is managing online today.  

Furthermore, because higher education is complex and knowing that online education is not simply a modality anymore, we knew we wanted to discuss the full student life-cycle with our participants.  As such, we felt the need to break up the interviews into three, discrete meetings; the first to discuss academic functions, the second to review student onboarding and administrative functions, and the last interview to cover student support services.  Learn more about how we defined the online educational dimensions

This blog entry gives you a sneak peak into two of our key preliminary findings from the first round of interviews to discuss the academic function–specifically the following areas: curriculum, programmatic oversight, instructional design, quality assessment, and faculty development and support.  If you are attending the rescheduled OLC Innovate, come to our Featured Session to learn about findings and for more explanation of our preliminary findings!

Moreover, prepare to nod your heads, online leaders.  If we were to write some headlines about two of our preliminary findings, they would read like this:

  1. Typical organizational design concepts do not fully help to explain the online academic function.  
  1. What the online unit manages varies, though it most often does not include management of online faculty.  

The beauty of research is that sometimes we find out really interesting things, sometimes we do not find anything, and sometimes we find out what we already know–deep in our hearts, minds, and lived-experiences.  These findings seem to fall in that latter category (and so do the others!) and it is both validating and slightly worrisome to see these themes across so many institutions.  The results put a small dent in the echo chamber that many of us live in, and hopefully speak to a call-to-action for our institutions to work diligently to legitimize, formalize, and codify the existence and efficacy of online education.  Online is here to stay. This is all the more relevant as we watch the news on the Coronavirus and see emergency plans regularly including bringing campus-based courses online in preparation for virus isolation. All of us, online leaders and educators, are breathing a sigh of exaltation and then throwing ourselves into our work–like we do every day.  

For a more robust, nuanced dialog on what we found regarding the academic functions please join us at our OLC Innovate Featured Session on Monday, June 22nd, 3:45 PM to 4:30 PM.  Not only will we dig in more on what we found, there will be games — and prizes of immeasurable value.  And stay tuned for our write-up of the formal findings.  See you soon Online Community!


Dr. Bettyjo Bouchey is Associate Professor of Business and Management and Associate Dean of the College of Professional Studies and Advancement at National Louis University.  She also holds university-wide responsibility for online academics. She is a 2018 IELOL alumni and is co-founder of the Collegiate Online Research Leaders Collaborative (CORAL).  Her research interests span online pedagogy and the effective leadership of the evolving organizational structures of online education in higher education. or @DRBouchey 


Dr. Erin Gratz is the instruction and outreach librarian at Orange Coast College in Southern California.  She is deeply interested in the role of online learning within higher education, and has led an online campus and taught for many years online.  She is a 2018 IELOL alumni and is co-founder of the Collegiate Online Research Leaders Collaborative (CORAL). Her research interests are in faculty trust and readiness for change in higher education; barriers and motivators to faculty teaching online; and effective organizational and leadership structures for online education.

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