Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Can Dissolution Processes Fuel Systemic Change Innitiatives

During my vacation this week I have been trying to jot down steps in my conception of systemic change design process. trying to pull in some psychological tools for group dynamics has ended up being more of a minor technical detail than I had originally thought. The piece that I am finding the most challenging is finding a way to include the dissolution of overly matured & top-heavy group dynamics into the mix.

Most designs focus on the fueling the change process. In some wise designs you can see how the change process itself is meant to mirror an enduring structure. In other words, static solutions are out and the dynamics of the entire change process are repeated, albeit in less traumatic steps.

I personally tend to this two-in-one approach. Why undertake an immense change initiative when all it does is move you to a place where a stable solution can be implemented. I doubt very much there will ever be a feasible window of opportunity for the "final solution".

This leaves me wondering how to frame the natural dissolution of overly mature, bureaucratized structures as fuel in an overall change process?

The usual way seem to involve building on the shadow systems that are already in operation, fueling them with resources, and connecting them to larger contexts. The connection process produce systemic alignment via collaboration creating and implementing a common vision and mission.

This strategy is fine - but, almost by definition - it involves always creating something new. One alternative is to see if refinement of routines can cycle one out of an overly mature organizational space. Munby, Hutchinson & Chin has an article on refining learning routines that deals with this on the level of individual workers. However, the problem is no administrators ever refine themselves out of their own jobs. Thus the learning leaders and collaborative bodies that are created in well user-designed systemic change initiatives end up either 1) fading naturally in a way that doesn't add to larger system dynamics, or 2) morphing into quasi-administrative roles that increase a district's eventual overly mature organizational space.

As we move toward sustainability, we need to keep this tension in mind," [cycling through uniformed professional judgment to uniformed prescription to informed prescription to informed professional judgment back to uniformed professional judgment]. It is the classic centralization-decentralization dilemma. Any solution that aspires toward sustainability must reconcile this dilemma (Fullan, 2000, p. 9)

I've been struggling to find some insight from the life cycle of new religious movements. The question in effect becomes - how would one use something akin to a Protestant reformation to fuel the continued existence of an enduring system? Human dynamics usually rely on radical transformation to sift out free-loaders. D.S. Wilson lightly touches this process in "Darwin's Cathedral", while David Smith's book "Why we Lie" does an overly popularized account that provides some general background to the issue without actually getting to group-level reformations. Scott Atran's "In God's We Trust" approaches things from a fully religious angle. He brings up hard to fake commitments and moral Big Brothers. Moral Big Brothers are embodiments of moral landscapes whose articulation is fuzzy but whose judgements to novel situations dichotomize believers and fakers quite efficiently.

An overly mature organizational system needs to get back in touch with its roots and core work. In a dynamical environment contexts may have changed so much that those on the inside are likely to purge the system in ways which are too reliant on out of date clues. Using newcomers to purge the system is very risky - it has the benefit of having potential to remove overly "mature" leaders, but it has the risk of uniformed tyranny. The only thing I can think of right now that can softly purge a system while adding energy to a system comes from spirit in the workplace field of inquiry.

Part of this field focusses on balance between one's work and one's whole life. One of the ideas is that work is such a large part of our existence that it can't be compartmentalized from other aspects of our life. Thus to improve work we must also improve other aspects of our life and vice versa.

As organizational routines are sustained and refined, I suspect that focussing on balanced life for employees is one way to provide the necessary relaxation for the system in a way that maintains or fuels a larger system. For example, if a district has engaged in a systemic reformulation process, it will have spent some time in a sustainable phase. Eventually factors outside of its control will produce an overly mature system. As this happens, focussing on the larger well-being of employees will assist dissolution while adding fuel to the larger, general mission of education, overall well-being for students. In effect the dissolution process is modeling a soft aspect of education - healthy being and well-roundedness. I'll have to think on this for a bit.

Fullan, M. (2004). Leadership and Sustainability: Systems thinkers in action. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Is systemic change a way to continue pushing the "transformational" reform policies of the 90's

Educational reforms have tended to stall out over the last decade. One way of thinking about this is that older "transformational" reforms burned up a lot of human capital with little to show. Authors such as Andy Hargreaves point to the futility and counter-productiveness of standardized state-wide reforms. As systemic change procedures are becoming more formalized, I think deep questions about purpose are wise. When is systemic change just sophisticated top-down transformation and when is it facilitating a system to find homeostasis with its environment?

The key indicator of systemic change is paradigm change, which means that a significant change in one part of the system is accompanied by significant changes in practically all other parts, due to interrelationships and interdependence among parts (Reigeluth as cited in Richter, 2007)

Obviously paradigm change is very ephemeral measure. I suspect many ideas, like the paradigm distinction, draw on ideas of social critical mass, like those by Phillip Ball. Or does one also need to add in a conception of willingness and intention? I suspect the latter idea hits closer to some conceptions of systemic change. It is change that is more durable and lasting than 90's era piecemeal transformations. If this is the case, what time frames are appropriate to distinguish real systemic change from psuedo-systemic change?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Energy in networks

I was just typing up some annotations from a book I had read last year, and thought I would jot down a couple of ideas. One of the challenges of designing for systemic change is how to treat group dynamics? Do you assume that group dynamics have few causal factors that can be controlled? Or do you assume the environments that influence group dynamics can, generally, be perturbed positively or negatively (depending on one's intended goal).

"There is a fundamental mismatch between the nature of reality in complex systems and our predominant ways of thinking about that reality. The first step in correcting that mismatch is to let go of the notion that cause and effect are close in time and space... Small changes can produce big results – but the area of highest leverage are often the least obvious." (Senge, 1990, p. 63).

No matter which side of the coin one falls on, I don't think one can understate the complexity involved in designing through group dynamics. Precision is, on any substantial time scale, impossible, but does that mean all levels of accuracy are as well? As I have been thinking more about this conundrum, some quotes from Parker & Cross' book on social networks seemed relevant.

In this section they are talking about a rather elusive topic of energy. Do you find it energizing or de-energizing to work with someone? The definition of energy was left open in the surveys, so I think the standard connotation of motivation, worthwhile future effort, etc can be read into it.

Two themes emerged. First, energizing interactions are clearly influenced by people’s behavior, but they are also influenced by certain characteristics of the individuals and the relationships between them. For example, two people – one trusted and one not trusted – can exhibit the same behaviors in a conversation but with different results. Similarly people can be energized by the vision of someone who has integrity and stands for more than his or her own personal gain. Yet the same vision articulated by someone without integrity can be highly de-energizing. Thus energy is not entirely a product of a set of behaviors in a given interaction but is also affected by people’s day-to-day actions. (Cross, Parker, 2004, p . 57)

This seems to illustrate the conundrum behind designing through group dynamics. Two measurable behaviours can look the same but lead to radically different group responses. I think Scott Atran's work on components of religious behaviour shed quite a bit of light on these differences. Numerous heuristics intertwine to produce a sense, as David Sloan WIlson would say, of viable group commitment. The challenge is knowing what non-trivially observable behaviours and actions make the difference. I think systemic designers are right to avoid this difficult problem, but I am not sure it is intractable.

According to Cross & Parker,
Energy lives in a sweet spot in five dimensions of conversations or group problem-solving sessions: a compelling goal, the possibility of contributing, a strong sense of engagement, the perception of progress, and the belief that the idea can succeed. (p. 57-58)

Certainly if network theorists can start to tackle some aspects of this question, then some of those the relevant fields of psychology can - and if they can, is it just a matter of multi-disciplinary training before those in educational change fields can?

Cross, R. Parker, A. (2004). The hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations. USA: Harvard Business School Publications.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Genes affect on Social Networks

Piccolinno has a good post up at Gene Expression. Let me grab a long quote.

Heritability estimates are slippery animals, but this recent PNAS paper is a great illustration of how they can be used to discipline theories of social network formation. The authors start by showing that three building blocks of social networks are heritable, namely the number of friends you have, the number of people who name you as a friend, and the likelihood that two of your friends are also friends. They then ask if existing theories of social network formation are consistent with empirical fact that a large share of individual variation in these buildling blocks is explained by individual characteristics. Perhaps not too surprisingly to readers of this blog, a model which allows individuals to differ ex ante does considerably better than models which make a blank slate assumption.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

When Life Isn't Rational

It was nice hearing about a piece Scott Atran has up on the NYT talking about the role of religious or quasi-religious like dynamics play in the logic of peace negotiations. Hat-tip Science and Religious News.

in general the greater the monetary incentive involved in the deal, the greater the disgust from respondents. Israelis and Palestinians alike often reacted as though we had asked them to sell their children. This strongly implies that using the standard approaches of “business-like negotiations” favored by Western diplomats will only backfire.

While your there, you should also check out Salman's posts on Swat area of Pakistan. Try thinking through what a successful educational change plan would look like there. If we fail to account for people's non-rational, but functionally adaptive preferences, I think, over time, we are doomed for failure.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Quandary with Instructional Design Models for Systemic Change

As of late I have been going through a number of articles and books on designing for systemic change in education. I think I’ll just spin off on some ideas raised by a foundational paper by Patrick M. Jenlink, Charles M. Reigeluth, Alison A. Carr and Laurie Miller Nelson. The paper is “Guidelines for facilitating systemic change in school districts” and it is found in the 1998 May- June edition of Systems Research and Behavioral Science.

The paper has some truly excellent thoughts on phases and components which occur in successful district level systemic change. Coming from a district that is, to some extent, re-inventing this process on its own, I found the discrete phases and ongoing processes to be pretty accurate. After taking a step back from the whole design process, one thing I have to wonder about is relative value of re-inventing the process yourself versus following an established design protocol?

Of course in the real world, no design is ever successfully replicated without customization. This leads to a philosophical question, is it possible to make a design process more or less invariant? By that I mean, can you sketch out phases whose precision, or lack thereof, captures what is commonly experienced? I suspect you can, but I would also suspect the benefits of accuracy over precision mostly arise from:
1. the confirmation this can provide about one’s progression along this path
2. the foresight this gives to facilitators

Does following a systemic change model limit the self-emergence necessary to power true alignment within a system? I keep wondering if systemic change designs don’t need to overtly leverage much of the cutting edge work being done in the group-dynamics branches of evolutionary psychology? I suspect too often change designers pick small battles that look easy to win without enough regard to the subtle tides that overtime shape what is sustainable.