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Emergent Strategies for Complex Social Systems

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 05, 2014

Researchers who studied the myriad social exchanges among students, teachers, principals and parents that make up daily life in schools came up with a measure they called social trust. They found that social trust is a key resource for educational reform, and that the level of relational trust is an even stronger indicator of improvement in a school than new teaching practices or curriculum design.

Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and colleagues spent 10 years looking at relationship dynamics in 400 Chicago elementary schools. They found that in schools with low social trust, something as routine as arranging a kindergarten graduation can ignite controversy. In schools with strong relational trust, collective decision making happened more readily, reform initiatives diffused more easily, and children's academic outcomes improved. Bryk recorded an eight percent increase in student reading skills and a 20 percent increase in math skills over a five year period in the schools where relational trust was high. In an ASCD article on educational leadership, Bryk calls relational trust the connective tissue that binds individuals together to advance educational achievement and student welfare.

The Chicago school work is also cited by John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell, in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article as an example of the kind of new philanthropic strategies needed in today's complex world. "Relational dynamics are one of the primary reasons interventions in complex social systems are so unpredictable," according to the authors. "They explain why building system fitness can accelerate the spread of evidence informed solutions."

Conventional philanthropy doesn't fit the realities of complex social change, they assert, and philanthropists need to adopt an emergent strategy that that allows for constantly evolving solutions uniquely suited to the time, place and participants. The authors say McGill University management professor Henry Mintzberg was one of the first to capture the dynamic of an intended strategy bumping against complex realities, "triggering further evolution in strategy." Emergent strategy, which has to be both rigorous and flexible, "requires a constant process of 'sensing' the environment to ensure resources are applied where opportunities are the greatest." Such sensing also enlarges understanding of how various parts of a system change in relation to each other and external events, the authors write. "The concept of sensing and leveraging opportunities without any certainty about the outcome," these authors say, "is at the core of emergent strategy."

The three complexity principles the authors say are needed for emergent strategy are

co-creating the strategy and broad participation, working with positive and negative attractors, and improving system fitness. Fitness requires improving knowledge, effectiveness, and resilience and building social trust among all parties.

While complex systems are unpredictable, they say, "sources of energy or convergence within the systems, known as attractors, can be observed and influenced." In social systems, attractors can be people, ideas, resources or events that lead a system to move toward, or away from, a goal.

The Rockefeller Foundation, which in 2008 launched a $42 million initiative to improve the lives or poor and vulnerable people throughout the world through impact investing, has also practiced an emergent approach. Impact investing was a new field the foundation had begun to develop earlier by convening a group of 30 organizations that created a network of relationships among boards, committees and memberships. This group was joined by 70 more organizations from profit and nonprofit investment funds, universities, consulting firms, international development organizations and government agencies. Over the years, the initiative evolved to attract new players, new ways for organizations to become involved, and new collective action platforms. By 2010, program staff members recognized changes in U.S. and UK public policy-a new attractor that could be amplified-and formed an Impact Investing Policy Committee, which ultimately led to $2 billion in government funding.

With thanks to Liz Rykert for the Stanford Social Innovation Review article. Read Bryk's article "Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for School Reform" and more on impact investing here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  education 

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