Organizations are built on interactions among leaders, members and the larger culture (Schein, 1990; Sessa & London, 2006). Beyond the people and communities of which they are a part, organizations carry history and face issues of both internal and external change.  The combination of people, culture, organizational history and change set the stage for whether organizations can successfully learn and remain sustainable.  Very little research has been done on a case study level regarding how organizations – specifically those that address higher education needs – begin, evolve, and adapt to change. This study seeks to fill that gap by looking at the specific case of Wakonse, a small teaching and learning conference held annually for the past 25 years. By focusing on a single case, we begin building the opportunity to make meaning of other organizations and why they persist (or not) and what strategies and key elements must be in place for organizations to remain viable.


Review of Literature


Higher education organizations, similar to other complex organizations, have seen the creation, restructuring and demise of institutions, educational organizations, and academic conferences (Brancato, 2003; Kezar & Eckel, 2002; Lesniaski, et al., 2001).  It is likely, given current internal and external influences on higher education that higher education organizations will need to continue to evolve and adapt.   Demographic changes such as an aging professoriate, decreased public support for funding higher education, and increased pressure to demonstrate effectiveness are a few examples that demonstrate challenges faced by higher education organizations. In order to survive, organizations need to exhibit both consistency and adaptability (Bassis, 1989; Kimball, 1989; Scanzoni, 2005).


 Organizational learning theory focuses on the management of organizational knowledge – how it is created, kept and conveyed across the organization and into the future (Argyris & Schon, 1996; Senge, 1990).  Organizational learning focuses not only on leaders and members, but also on how people serve as actors in helping the organization learn (Argyris & Schon, 1978, 1996). Additionally, this theory takes into consideration concepts such as organizational history, the impact of external factors and the constancy of change (Argyris & Schon, 1978; 1996). The purpose of this study was to use the organizational learning lens to examine Wakonse as a case study in order to determine how leadership, membership and culture impacted the conference’s sustainability.


Before exploring this particular case study, it is important to put in place a foundation of the existing literature. The learning organization is able to deal with change through human resources as well as organizational culture (Senge, 1990). This study make the case that a learning organization is more likely to be sustainable over time than one that does not engage in learning organization strategies.  Just as a learning organization values the human element of the organization, so do human resources (leaders and members) contribute to organizational sustainability (Bartlett & Goshhall, 2002). The organizational culture as a means of conveying knowledge in a learning organization (Argyris & Schon, 1978; 1990) also sets the stage for organizational endurance or vulnerability (Kezar & Eckel, 2002; Schein, 1990, 1993). Finally, organizational strategies for managing constant change are parts of learning organizations (Senge, 1990) and are also necessary to ensure continuity and success (Battilana, Gilmarting, Sengul, Pache & Alexander, 2010; Boyce, 2003; Burke & Litwin, 1992; Gumport, 2000; Robertson, Roberts & Porras, 1993). In this study the organizational learning lens aligns with the participant responses to the research questions – why did Wakonse begin and why has it continued over time?


Organizational Learning Theory


There are a variety of ways in which organizations learn. Levitt and March (1988) identified history, experiences (organizational and individual), and organizational memory as learning opportunities for organizations. Clark (1972) referenced organizational sagas as ways in which organizations not only learn but track what they have learned. Within the context of higher education, organizational vision (Martin, 1999), learning as survival in a changing world (Rowley, 1998) and learning through members via faculty development (Brancato, 2003) have been explored. Wakonse uses these strategies to sustain an organization focused on the value of teaching even when faced with an increased emphasis on research over the past 25 years since the conference began.


Human Resources: Organizational Learning Through Members


Organizational learning is, in part, the result of the learning of individuals. Greenberg and Baron (2008) defined an organization as being a group of people working toward a common goal. In this case study, the individuals included Wakonse founders and long-term participants who became staff members for the organization. The common goal is enhanced teaching, learning and student engagement.

Leadership. The leader of an organization sets goals and vision for the organizational work (Battalina et al., 2010). This study examines the role of organizational leaders – the three founders – and how they created and have sustained Wakonse. While some research on leadership has focused on what leaders do (Sessa and London, 2006), other research focuses on who these leaders are. Competencies identified as necessary for effective leadership in higher education include: academic credibility, university experience, the ability to crate and execute a vision, and people, communication and negotiation skills (Bryman 2007; Spendlove, 2007). In this case study, the founders of Wakonse exemplify these leadership skills – not in a single person, but in the unique team that has worked to keep the conference relevant throughout the past 25 year


Membership. While leaders are important, there is no organization without members. Who are Wakonse’s participants? Why do they attend? The answers to these questions are linked to the philosophy and goals of the organization. Vogt and Murrell (1990) wrote, “Giving high priority to both the worth of individuals and their value in terms of contributions to the organization requires a close examination of the organization’s values” (p. 47). Additional research has reiterated that in order to recruit, retain and develop talent in higher education, an understanding of the needs of organizational members is crucial (Mclawhon & Cutright, 2012; Michel & Michel, 2012; Trower, 2012). Carnevale (2003) wrote that organizations and their members are social systems that “must collaborate for mutual gain” (p. 123). This study explored how Wakonse as an organization connected with participants to the benefit of both the conference and the individuals.


Organizational Culture


Organizational culture exists in higher education (Light, Cox & Calkins, 2009; Meyer, et al., 2007; Middlehurst, 1999). Schein (1993) defined organizational culture as “the sum total of what a given group has learned as a group” (p. 705). With that in mind, new members are taught or must learn the culture of their organizations. Researchers found that the gradual process of learning new culture and unlearning previous cultures is how participants generate identities as members within organizations (Klausner & Groves, 2002; Tierney, 1997). With that in mind, participants were asked about their experiences related to the culture of Wakonse. They reflected not only on how they learned the culture, but what things are planned and intentionally organized to bring new members into the Wakonse culture.


Community. The community within an organization contributes to organizational culture or lack thereof (Tierney & Bensimon, 1996). Research shows that a lack of connection or a sense of isolation can lead to marginalization of faculty and staff (Aguirre, 1987; Gray & Conway, 2007; Tierney & Bensimon, 1996).


This is particularly important as staffing patterns on campuses change. A current example is the increased use of adjunct faculty in higher education (Feldman & Turnley, 2004; Forbes, Hindley & White, 2010; Kirk & Spector, 2009). Some studies estimate as many as 50% of undergraduate courses are taught by adjunct faculty (Feldman & Turnley, 2004). The use of organizational learning to identify the needs of these members can prove useful not only in recruiting and retaining adjunct faculty, but to more successfully integrating them into institutional culture. In the case of Wakonse, the integration of new members into the institutional culture of the conference is essential. The conference is built on a need identified by the participants of this study for community in an otherwise isolated culture of academic work.


Organizational Change


The human beings and culture in an organization set the stage for how organizational learning will take place. Organizational learning is central to navigating change and sustaining organizations (Boyce, 2003). Additionally, learning and change can also be sources of fear (Kofman & Senge, 1993). Navigating change is also challenging because cultural transitions are often incremental and a result of internal and external mandates (Abelson, 1995; Hamel & Merz, 2005; Kyle, 2005; Sindelar & Rosenberg, 2000). While change is difficult, it does not need to be negative. Adaptation to meet changing goals, needs and members is progress. Duderstadt (1999) suggested, “Change equates to hope and is an opportunity to be strategic in order to control our destiny” (p. 39).


Similarly, change is central to organizational development and sustainability (Abelson, 1995; Hamel & Merz, 2005; Kyle, 2005; Sindelar & Rosenberg, 2000). Organizations persist because they meet needs by adjusting to change or fail because they do not adapt (Deming, 1994; Gumport, 2000; Henkel, 2000; Hirsch & Weber, 2001; Kogan & Hanney, 2000). Wakonse has used human resources, organizational culture and organizational learning in order to adapt to keep the conference relevant to faculty and staff in higher education.


Finally, the study of an organizational culture must be situated in the context of the organization’s history. This study builds on the work of past research dealing with institutional life histories in higher education (Light, Cox & Calkins, 2009; Meyer, et. al, 2007; Middlehurst, 1999). The role of the history of Wakonse in charting the future of the conference is also explored in this study.


Research Methods


The purpose of this study was to answer two questions: Why was Wakonse created and why has Wakonse continued for 25 years? Through interviews with founders and long-time participants, these questions were explored. The result of this case study was the finding that Wakonse is a learning organization and uses learning organization strategies in order to stay viable.


This study utilized a qualitative case study as it’s primary method.  As Merriam (2009), described, unique aspects of the case study approach include: particularistic, descriptive and heuristic was (Merriam, 2009). In other words it focused on the particular case (Wakonse conference), included a thick and rich description based on interviews and observations related to the specific case, and serves to expand on the knowledge of organizational learning as a result (Maxwell, 2005).   Wakonse was considered an instrumental case study in that the case (i.e. Wakonse) was examined to provide insight into another phenomenon (i.e. organizational sustainability) (Merriam, 2009).


 Qualitative Case Study


Context: Wakonse Conference on College Teaching and Learning. The context for this case study is the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching and Learning. For six days over Memorial Day weekend, approximately 125 faculty, staff and students gather at Camp Miniwanca on Lake Michigan. Faculty from the University of Missouri organize the conference. These faculty comprise the Wakonse staff who recruit through their own connections and those of previous attendees at a variety of institutions to bring new participants to the conference. The goal is to connect individuals with a passion for undergraduate education to share strategies and to reinforce the value of teaching, learning and student engagement.


Since 1988, Wakonse has been held at a children’s summer camp on the shores of Lake Michigan. The Wakonse culture is structured to build community. Meals are eaten in a communal dining hall. Technology (cell phone reception and computer access) is limited and there are no televisions. Participants have a roommate with whom they share small rooms and each floor has a community bathroom.


One participant said, This setting allows participants to disengage from daily pressures and instead to think about themselves and their personal and professional futures.” These conditions are an intentional part of the conference designed to encourage human connections and the development of community without the distractions of technology or luxurious accommodations.


The conference integrates sessions led by participants. In addition, however, dialogue groups are utilized to explore issues related to teaching, learning and student engagement in more depth. There is also scheduled time for reflection and goal-setting.


Finally, there are other activities to encourage engagement and connection in a less formal way. Social activities include horseback riding, hiking, golf and a high ropes course. Participants are given free time in the evening to have conversations with others, go into the small town nearby, participate in board game nights, or engage in solitary activities such as hiking or sitting on the beach. There are events such as an ecumenical church service, a Polar Bear Plunge into Lake Michigan and a Chautauqua (talent show). The conference concludes with a slide show that includes photos of every attendee.


The setting and structure of this conference are intentionally designed to encourage community building and to stimulate self-reflection. From the accommodations to the small- and large-group activities to the closing slide show where participants see themselves as a part of the Wakonse experience, participants are made to a feel a sense of belonging and fellowship with like-minded professionals in higher education. Wakonse has been developed as a safe place for faculty and staff to share their passion, successes and challenges related to student learning, teaching and engagement.




The participants in this study consisted of the three Wakonse founders who have led the conference since its inception. In addition, another six participants who have attended for at least four years and eventually became Wakonse staff members. There were four men and five women who participated in the study.


Data Collection


Interviews. Data was collected through individual, semi-structured interviews (Maxwell, 2005). The first question for the founders was, “Why and how did Wakonse begin?” The first question for each of the non-founder participants was, “How did you get involved with Wakonse?” Questions related conference sustainability (leadership, community activities, and vision) and why participants valued the experience were explored.


The interviews lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. Each interview was recorded and transcribed. Themes were identified and both transcripts and preliminary results were shared with the participants for feedback and clarification.


Observations. In addition to the interviews, observations were conducted at Wakonse for two years. The first year observations were more limited and the intent was to experience the conference and develop an understanding of the goals and activities as strategies for developing a community dedicated to student learning and engagement. In the second year, more intentional observation was made focused on how the conference is structured. Additionally, the intentionality behind the location, the activities and how the Wakonse culture has been developed to support individual participation and cultivate community among participants was observed. The context for the event was explored along with opportunities to engage with other participants. Extensive note-taking and reflexive journaling were used to make meaning of the experience (Brown & Strega, 2005; Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Merriam, 2009).


Data Analysis


Themes were identified through coding (Levine, 1985). As themes emerged, the frequency of themes was noted (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Categories were limited, as not everything discovered was relevant to the specifics of this study.


Trustworthiness. Validity threats (Maxwell, 2005; Miles & Huberman, 1994) in the study were addressed through acknowledging researcher bias (the researcher’s positive Wakonse experience), reflective journaling and memo writing to insure data was collected consistently and the study could be replicated. Finally, member checks were conducted throughout the study.




As a result of this study, several themes related to organizational sustainability emerged. Organizations learn based on the engagement of leaders and members, through an understanding and incorporation of organizational history and through responses to external factors and change (Argyris & Schon, 1978, 1996; each of these themes aligns with the framework for this study – organizational learning.  Organizational learning focuses not only on leaders and members but also on how people serve as actors in helping the organization learn and convey organizational knowledge (Argyris & Schon, 1978, 1996).


The conference originated based on the founders’ vision that there was a need in higher education for community built on a shared passion for teaching and learning. That vision became the foundation for Wakonse. The conference organization has continued because of a combination of the involvement of the founder-leaders, holistic attention to conference attendees and a sense of participant community.


The participant responses to the research questions about how the conference originated and why it has continued centered on people – founders and participants – and community.  The results here are divided into three sections.  The first focuses on conference founders and leadership in terms of both how the conference originated and decisions made to keep the conference going for 25 years.  The second section also focuses on people, in this case, the participants.  In addition to the tradition conference session experiences, this conference developed dialogue groups and other activities meant to focus on the whole person rather than the academic or professional person who is attending.  Finally, those interviewed identified the need and search for a community with common goals and passions as a key element to the continuation of Wakonse.




The founders had personal connections to the conference site (a summer camp in Michigan). Each of them brought a particular expertise to the roles they played at the conference. Joe serves as the coordinator and helped to institutionalize funding for Wakonse at his institution. At the conference, he welcomes and connects with each participant. Bill is the source of Wakonse wisdom and conference historian. Finally, Barb is the spirit of Wakonse. She acquired the initial grant funding and named the conference (Wakonse means mentoring someone to his or her vision).


During interviews, participants identified the role each founder played in Wakonse’s evolution. One participant said “I would be willing to bet that Joe touches base with almost every person at the conference.” Of Bill another person shared, “He’s the quintessential professor and his philosophy is, ‘The profession of the professor is to profess.’” A participant described Barb saying, “Her place was probably to be the outspoken woman.”  It took all three of these personalities – the leader to organize, the wise professor to represent the power of teaching, and the energetic, creative vocal supporter – in order for Wakonse to connect with and inspire attendees from a variety of disciplines and fields in higher education.


Participant Experiences


Participants focused on the role of dialogue groups, conference sessions and the holistic attention paid to individuals as key elements of the Wakonse experience and why the conference has continued for a quarter of a century. They said that the stage is set for these unique experiences by the location of the conference.  One participant shared that the setting itself lends to human connection, as there is not much else to do at the camp.  Another added, that the camp setting was a location where “people can voice their fears, their anxieties, their things that they feel like they don’t do well, things that frustrate them about students or whatever…”


Dialogue groups. The dialogue groups are the places intentionally cultivated to be safe spaces for this kind of risk-taking. Each participant is assigned to a dialogue group of eight or nine people. Attending these meetings is the only requirement of Wakonse. These meetings happen daily and are focused discussions on topics identified by each group based on its needs. Dialogue might center on tenure, family, creative ways to engage students, syllabi writing, or whatever else the group decides.


Participants described the dialogue group as “integral” and “the hub” of Wakonse. One participant said, “I can’t really place enough importance on the whole dialogue group thing… And it’s not important because it’s a rule, but because so much happens there.” Another participant shared that participating in this groups is essential, saying, “The requirement to be active is definitely one of the rituals that goes on at camp.”


Another reason the dialogue groups are essential to the continuation of Wakonse is the easy connection made between these groups and the teaching experience of the attendees. Participants shared that creating a safe space for people to share and take risks in dialogue groups mirrors creating a safe space for students to share and take risks in the classroom. This connection between the conference and the campus experience – between Wakonse and the work done by conference attendees creates a sense of purpose and a pragmatic use for these dialogue group experiences. Participants shared that coming together from different institutions in this safe space was a unique experience. Two of the founders and one participant stressed the idea that there are few places for these conversations – interdisciplinary conversations about the value of good teaching – to take place.


Conference sessions. While the learning from conference sessions may be a more common outcome of conference attendance elsewhere, this is only a part of the session experience for Wakonse attendees. One participant shared that from the beginning attendees are told by one of the founders that “Teaching matters, and you matter.” Rather than bringing in outside experts, conference sessions are facilitated based on participant skills and backgrounds. Attendees submit topics of interest or expertise. When they arrive, they find out what sessions they will be co- facilitating. The expectation is that the sessions are conversations rather than presentations. This is uncomfortable for some at first, but it is central to the Wakonse experience. One participant said, “To me the most important featu