When I was a teacher, a colleague of mine wanted to try a new reading program. He had done his homework and carefully examined the research base upon which the program was grounded. He even went to visit schools that had successfully implemented the approach, carefully noting strengths and necessary modifications for our school. As he presented the approach at a staff meeting, he was convinced he had constructed a very powerful, balanced, rational argument for the program. I was quite impressed with the work he had done and the persuasiveness of his line of reasoning.

However, after the formal staff meeting, an informal ‘parking lot’ meeting took place with a few influential well-connected staff, one of whom was very central in the ‘gossip’ network of the school. This teacher reported to the others she had a ‘friend’ in another school in which they tried the program and reported that it ‘didn’t work’.

After this meeting, the teacher, who in a sense was an informal ‘opinion leader’, quickly spread her thoughts about the program across the school’s network and despite the ‘objective’ quality of the idea it was essentially finished before it could begin. I would like to think this was an isolated experience, but after many years in K12 education and now being at a university I can tell you informal networks are alive and well. In fact, I think govern what happens in systems more than we realize.

We are increasingly interdependent and that interconnectivity is both wonderful as we leverage collective wisdom, but it also has its challenges in terms of how we think about change and reform.

Who’s the Boss?

Although reforms are documented and monitored through plans and reports, change does not necessarily result from these formal plans and blueprints. Rather, change occurs through the interaction of participants within the system.

Change processes ultimately emerge and are maintained through interpersonal relationships, and it is the interdependence of relationships that may ultimately moderate, influence, and even determine the direction, speed, and depth of a change. Therefore, recognizing the quality of social ties between and among individuals in a system is important in understanding the flow of relational resources such as communication, knowledge and expertise, and further how that network of relationships may support or constrain efforts at change.

As this figure shows—sometimes we may think someone is in charge (red box on left) in the formal system, but in the informal networks may be quite marginalized (red circle is the “boss” in an informal system).

Visual of communication and relationships in networks

Through the Social Lens

The idea that social relations can influence the diffusion and depth of a change effort suggests an alternative view to understanding how reform does or doesn’t occur. Although much of the reform literature reports the importance of the technical elements of change such as curricular and structural arrangements, social network theory foregrounds the informal relations between individuals and how patterns of interaction may influence change efforts. Network theory provides a lens and set of methods for examining not only the movement of relational resources associated with reform (collaboration, knowledge, etc.), but potentially attitudes and opinions about that effort.

Relationships First

My work on social networks suggests that ‘informal’ webs of relationships are often the chief determinants of how well and quickly change efforts take hold, diffuse, and sustain. Focusing on the pattern of relationships first represents a shift in the way we approach reform.

Typically a reform effort begins with an overall articulation of the strategy including the components of the effort, necessary resources, assessment tools, timelines, and personnel. In the best situations these elements are integrated with existing social systems. However, in many cases these formal approaches are merely layered onto existing efforts without systematically attending to the structure of the informal network or established relationships already in place.

This emphasis on relational linkages suggests an equally important supplementing, not a supplanting, of the more formal technical aspects of improvement that are currently demanded by federal and state policy. The implication of this integrated perspective is that successful change efforts will require intentional emphasis on both the formal architecture of reform as well as the informal networks of relations upon which these formal structures are layered.

Living, learning, and leading are central to our lives and our ability to do all of them with vitality, gusto, and compassion has much to do with the most human part of ourselves—our ability to connect, care, and commit to another.

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