West-Burnham (2002) illustrates a fundamental notion between Plato and Aristotle. The latter differs from the view that quality can be regarded as an absolute. Aristotle in contrast to Plato, views quality in terms of behaviour. West-Burnham (2002) suggests that there is a tension between the two notions of quality as a state of perfection and quality being viewed as a relationship. Arguably, this resulting relationship can be derived from Tonnies’s (Truzzi 1971) notion of Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft.
When investigating quality systems that are externally applied to institutions we may choose to work from Plato’s or Tonnies Gesellschaft model of an absolute or state imposed standard that is to be aspired to or complied with and underwritten by legislation. However, when implementing a quality systems and working within an organisations culture, a model of Gemeinschaft or behavioural approach would seem more relevant. This model deals with working with people and professional individuals and relationships. It would appear that in the majority systems of quality found in organisations, strive to, or at least, attempt to measure quality.
In order to do this what is first sought are outcomes. The assumption here is that evidence of improvements, results and achievements can only be recognised if they are compared against some external standard or benchmark or to use Plato’s behavioural paradigm of an absolute gold standard. Quality imperatives can also bring about issues such as individual credibility, the desire to continually improve through professional practice, personal integrity and team willingness to reflect on weaknesses, imperfections or faults.
These would appear to be more connected with Gemeinschaft or Aristotle’s paradigm. The intention of wanting to improve could indicate a potential for quality and in so doing also bring with it a potential for change. Before examining such issues it is necessary to first highlight some definitions of quality in order to further understand the interaction between these different quality assumptions. Defining the Quality Imperative Conceptions of education quality are often confusing, elusive and even illusory.
It is not surprising that the meaning of education quality, a value-laden concept, changes over time and varies across different groups and concepts (Tam & Cheng, 1996 p16) The definition of quality proves elusive although one characteristic of quality could be argued, that its very nature brings with it an element of change to individuals and the organisation. The aspiration of wanting to improve opens up the opportunity of having to change. By changing procedures, attitudes or customs and practice these activities require individuals to relinquish their comfort zones and to embrace the uncertainness of change.
This may suggest a link to the original imperative given by Aristotle when he talks of quality being behavioural and supported by the concept of the community supporting change for the common good and not always supported by state legislation. The term behavioural suggests that changing for the better needs to become habitual, a natural and continual process to individuals and the organisation. It has to originate from individuals and permeate through an organisations culture before finally resulting as an action. A system of belief has to occur before a true form of change for the better can be properly perceived.
A culture of wanting to improve and seeking to change for the benefit of improving seems the first critical steps in arriving at a quality agenda. As a consequence evidencing intentions or cultural values poses a difficult endeavour and in particular when matching these illusive elements to an external framework criterion becomes extremely problematic. The people involved in running the system are the people best placed to improve it – constantly – since they may often be best placed for problem location and have the greatest amount of information above and beyond that provided by the monitoring. (Taylor-Fitzgibbon, 1996 pp.
50-51) An additional point is made by Argyris (1991) who reasons that, professionals above all, become very skilled in resisting learning. He suggests that the very success of professionals in achieving their position weakens their capacity to think critically of their own performance, to deal with criticism and mistakes, and to dismantle a faulty self-image that acts as a barrier between self and accurate self-assessment. When this phenomenon is compounded with the perceived notions of outcome driven control systems being imposed upon organisations the humanist behavioural quality agenda losses its impetus.
Perhaps the use of performance indicators as a goal to behaving appropriately to criterion driven expectations would be the answer to these problems. Quality when perceived as a “top down” hierarchical model supports the notion of an absolutionist approach and that quality as a non-negotiable entity aligned with Plato’s absolute standard paradigm for which organisations can only aspire to conform to, and has little to do with behavioural aspects when attempting to implement quality initiatives within organisations.