Networked Improvement Communities: the Time is Right for the Ties that Bind

Louis Gomez photoLouis M. Gomez is a Senior Partner at Carnegie, working with Carnegie President Tony Bryk on R&D field building. He is also the inaugural holder of the Dr. Helen S. Faison Chair in Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh and the first director of the University’s Center for Urban Education.

This interview between Gomez and Carnegie’s Communications Director, Gay Clyburn, was held in January when the foundation, working with the Knowledge Alliance, brought together a mix of doers and thinkers with aspirations to improve education for all students. The meeting, “Towards Building Knowledge Networks for Innovation and Improvement,” continued a partnership between the two organizations to further a re-engineering of educational research and development.

GAY: Many are saying that we are at an unprecedented moment in time for innovation in education because of the Obama Administration’s investment and attention. This seems to indicate that a quick response is expected and needed. In fact, I heard Jim Shelton (Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the Department of Education) speak at a recent conference on education renovation and he ended his remarks with, “shame on you if you let this moment pass.” What does that mean for organizations tackling problems of practice right now?

LOUIS: This is a very important moment in time that, like Jim Shelton said, we shouldn’t allow to pass without making progress. The big “but” is that we need more than just aspiration. We need concrete and actionable advances to make it happen.

GAY: Undergirding Carnegie’s approach to our current new work are six core principles about how applied research and development might more productively engage educational improvement. These are:

  • Anchor R&D efforts around important, specific and measurable improvement problems;
  • Recognize that improvements at scale on complex educational problems entail sustained, coordinated efforts across diverse sources of expertise;
  • Affirm the power of practical design, educational engineering, and development activity (DEED) for advancing continuous improvements over time;
  • Acknowledge that the formation of such an intentionally-designed network of expertise entails not only new ways of working, but also new norms for practice;
  • Embrace a performance improvement ethic where change efforts are guided by a common analytic framework that is constantly tested and revised against emerging evidence about what is and is not working, for whom, and under what set of circumstances; and
  • Exploit the capacities of open resources both to accelerate innovation development and the rapid diffusion of demonstrated effective practices.

I want to focus on the fourth principle, what we’re now calling Networked Improvement Communities since this was, in fact, what the Knowledge Alliance convening at Carnegie was all about. What are the responsibilites of individuals or organizations working within a networked community and what  would be some of the new norms for practice and the new ways of working and how might this way of working connect with the national call for innovation?

LOUIS: We start from the conjecture that such networks have at least three key components:

First, they have an on-the-job-floor layer where the activity actually occurs.

The second component is an information system or feedback component, which is best thought of as the layer where information about first-layer activities is collected in order to improve them. We will need to understand what data and social practices (e.g., regular meetings) allow the organization to improve its current operations.

The third layer is an innovations component, where, based on activity in layers one and two, the work of the job floor is problematized and re-conceptualized. For example, a Networked Improvement Community might rethink work activity because an external innovation, such as a new technology, makes some part of the job-floor operation obsolete. Alternatively, activity may begin to occur under new rules that open up possibilities for new structures, as is the case with charter schools. We are working to understand the organizational tools and social practices that encourage NICs to accomplish the tasks in these three layers.

Attention must also be paid to the social organization which gets a diverse set of actors to the same table in the first place, and allows them to sustain engagement in the work in mutually beneficial ways. The networked activity implied in the process described above requires collaboration across practitioners, institutional leaders, educational designers and educational researchers; groups that are often unaccustomed—and unrewarded—for working together. For a variety of reasons (outlined by Bryk, 2007; Schoenfeld 2009), the incentives and work structure for each of these groups creates a number of barriers, preventing the creation of viable, effective network relationships.

These barriers are not insurmountable, however, but they require careful consideration and ultimately management. Networked forms of organization are becoming more common in the age of information and along with them an emerging literature on the unique management challenges they entail. In particular, networked organizations cannot depend on typical communication channels, coordination of work activities and accountability/authority/decision-making responsibilities arrangements (Goldsmith & Eggers, 2004; Podolny & Page,1998). Networked Improvement Communities, and the diverse colleagueship of participants they entail, also require new ways of achieving these capabilities. And they will need new forms of social organization and tools to allow them to do so.

GAY: Why do you think that educational research and development is not working together this way now and how hopeful are you that we can engage this kind of collaborative environment going forward?

LOUIS: I think there are a lot of reasons, one is what Tony (Bryk) often refers to as the “political economy of the academy.” A lot of the work that fuels new learning in education comes from the academy and the kind of work that Schoenfeld and Tony and I; Jim Stigler and his colleague James Hiebert and others have argued for, involves taking an engineering-like perspective to big and challenging problems. The dominant research community that has fueled a lot of what we know today as an ethic of individual and uncoordinated work, where the value system has been all about rewarding individuals for bright insights and not so much about rewarding individuals, or groups of individuals, for not just coming up with valuable and provocative insights but also for driving them in practice so that they become useful and usable.

The corporate sphere also fuels much of what we do. There’s always been an ethic of competition rather than coordination where you could have coordinated but competitive development. For example, in the open resources world, I think people recognize that while part of the value is in the technical things we create, a huge part of the value is also in the services that surround these, that allow them to be then used in schools and other places. To complete the three-legged stool, practitioners who have huge reservoirs of valuable and insightful knowledge tend to lock that knowledge up in individual classrooms, with no mechanism to be shared. Therefore, the wisdom of practice is not aggregated, not publicly vetted, and it never escapes individual schools and classrooms. So, I think that the social norms of the major stakeholder communities that fuel this kind of work mitigate against the formation of something like a Networked Improvement Community.

Collaboration and coordination are perennial themes in discussions of organizational improvement. Business literature is chock-full of examples where failures to collaborate and failures to coordinate within and across organizations lead to inefficiencies and sub-optimal outcomes. While the need to improve collaboration and coordination is pervasive, it is perhaps nowhere more starkly needed than in the practice of education. Educational practice is legend for its silo-ed nature. It is long overdue that educational designers should pay attention to techniques and tools that can realign education work systems so that action is more coordinated. It is this need that lies at the heart of the work that Carnegie hopes to seed. We are encouraged that a focus on creating educational Networked Improvement Communities—and exploring the tools and routines that might enliven these—can lead to educational practice that has a better chance of making more rapid and significant progress on some of the high-leverage problems that face teaching and learning communities today.