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