A Masters by Research project being conducted by Rebecca Johnson at the University of Sydney, through the Department of Media and Communications.

DIRECT VOICE: Building stronger networks for stronger university cultures.

A systems approach to understanding the constitutive role of communications in the creation of organisational culture in Academic institutions under-going substantial change.

In 2016, the University of Sydney launched a five-year Strategic Plan that arguably represents one of the most radical plans for change in the institution’s 170-year history. One of the primary targets of this plan is to enhance the “Culture of Shared Values”, which was defined after consultation with some key staff members to encompass the values of courage and creativity, respect and integrity, inclusion and diversity, and openness and engagement. Whilst the 2016/2020 Strategic Plan notes that “culture change is an on-going process”, it also places the focus of “concrete actions for the realisation” of this goal onto staff in leadership positions. Whilst such commitment to culture change through leadership example is admirable, it is also reflexive of more traditional top-down, linear approaches to change management.

Open a PDF of the University of Sydney 2016/20 Strategic Plan

It is the researcher’s assertion that by utilising more modern constitutive approaches to organisational communication and examining how the construction of the university culture is perceived by Higher Degree by Research students (HDRs), that a change in perceptions and attitudes of the culture may be developed from the bottom-up.

To test this assertion, a three-phase study has been designed by the author with support from the University Executive and some of the members of the Senior Leadership team of the University of Sydney.

Phase 1 – Baseline, constitutes a questionnaire that will be distributed to all 5,000 HDRs students at the University of Sydney; this phase is to gauge the current perceptions and attitudes of HDR’s to the “culture of shared values”, the University environment, and their connection to, and place within, the University community.

Phase 2 – Direct Voice, is a pilot project that has been developed by the author with the support of the University Executive – Research and Education Committee (UE-RE), a committee in which some key decisions are made regarding the research environment and processes that affect the experience of HDR candidates.

A direct cybernetic feedback loop will be created between UE-RE and the engaged HDR’s in four iterations over a four month period. Each month the UE-RE will select a topic or issue that is under discussion by the committee and that directly impacts HDR students. A short questionnaire, as well as a more detailed FAQ sheet, will be developed to be sent to the engaged HDRs for their feedback. The aggregated data from the HDRs on the topic under discussion will be fed back into the UE-RE. The UE-RE will use this data to inform their discussion prior to making a decision on the topic. The UE-RE will then compose a response to the engaged students of the final decision as well as how their “voice” was considered in the discussion prior to making the decision. This then completes the cybernetic feedback loop.

Phase 3 – Change is the final part of this study and will be conducted after all of the Direct Voice feedback events have occurred. The questionnaire for this part looks somewhat similar to that of Phase 1 and is designed to ascertain changes in HDR perspectives on the culture of shared values, their place within the University system, and their response to being given more direct constitutive power in the construction of their environment.

Thus, the object of study becomes the Culture of Shared Values at the University of Sydney, and more specifically the perceptions of the HDR students toward this culture, their connection to the University Community, and their constitutive role in the creative of the organisation. 

“Organisational Culture” is difficult to define and can mean different things to different people. USyd’s culture of shared values is defined in its Strategic Plan as “…inevitably in part the product of history, but it can also be shaped by shared reflection and by a commitment to evincing particular values in the ways in which we relate to one another and to the external world”. A primary aim of this study is to understand how HDR students feel about the academic culture at the University. Organisational culture can include shared beliefs, collective values, how people act, how people treat each other, general attitudes at work, how happy/unhappy organisation members are in their environment, how safe members feel to express their voice and ideas, and how much they feel their voice is heard.

To read a USyd discussion paper on Organisational Culture open this PDF link.

Phase 2 of the study is interventionist, action research. The object of the Direct Voice pilot project is to increase the strength, frequency, and symmetry of communication links between HDR students and Academic Governance decision making arenas and from this observe a change in HDR perceptions. It is envisaged that such a mechanism for change may provide HDR students with a stronger sense of constitutive power within the University system.

The methodology that informs the above research is transdisciplinary in nature and utilises complexity theory as a conceptual framework or emerging approach as well as the highly complementary field of study, Communication Constitutes Organisation.

When studying the dynamic change of the intersubjective reality of a “culture of shared values” emergent properties may be observed by focussing on the relational perspectives of key agents. A shared culture can be viewed as an emergent phenomenon of a system. When considering a conceptual framework of intersubjective constructions of culture manifested by a social complex system, a relational approach enables the observer to achieve a meta-paradigmatic perspective of the system. This application of an intersubjectivist approach of Complexity theory to analysing the interventionist communication tool, Direct Voice, is based on the paradigms of narrative analysis, meaning and interpretation, and living activity (Poutanen et.al., 2016; Salem et.al., 2003).

Communication Constitutes Organisation theory (CCO) has been selected as a complementary approach as it is also non-linear, dynamic, relational, and attempts to explain the emergent behaviour of an organisational system by observing how the communication in a system constitutes the system itself. (Cooren et.al., 2013; Schoeneborn et.al., 2014; Taylor, 2009).  In this framework, the organisation is viewed as an expression or function of communication processes, rather than a static framework of objective reality within which communication happens.

Traditionally it has been our deep-rooted desire for predictability that has encouraged us to remain focused on linear causality models. Complexity thinking does not seek to provide a high degree of accurate prediction, rather it provides a deeper epistemological understanding of the dynamics of a system and the poised edges of state transitions where self-organised criticality lies.  CCO aims to understand the processes and interrelationships that construct organisations. Complexity lends additional language and epistemological tools to drive CCO into an arena of research beyond textual analysis and into the function state of intersubjective realites.

By employing these more modern paradigms of thought to understanding how the “culture of shared values” is created and effected by communication processes in the University of Sydney, the author hopes to lay some concrete foundations for combined applications of CCO and Complexity thinking to changing cultures in Academic Organisations.


Cooren, F., Taylor, J. R., & Van Every, E. J. (2013). Communication as organizing: Empirical and theoretical explorations in the dynamic of text and conversation: Routledge.

Poutanen, P., Siira, K., & Aula, P. (2016). Complexity and Organizational Communication. Human Resource Development Review,15(2), 182-207. doi:10.1177/1534484316639713

Salem, P. J., Barclay, F., & Hoffman, M. (2003). Organizational culture at the edge: a case study of organizational change. In Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association Meeting in San Diego, CA, May.

Schoeneborn, D., Blaschke, S., Cooren, F., McPhee, R. D., Seidl, D., & Taylor, J. R. (2014). The Three Schools of CCO Thinking. Management Communication Quarterly, 28(2), 285-316. doi:10.1177/0893318914527000

Taylor, J. R. (2009). Organizing from the bottom up. Building theories of organization: The constitutive role of communication, 153-186. 

Further information about the action phase of this research can be found here:

Prezi – Direct Voice mechanics

Theoretical Framework.

Prezi – theoretical framework.

If you would like to share news about this study with other HDR students or perhaps post an information flyer in your HDR lunch room you might like to use this PDF Invite to Direct Voice (flyer)