Developed by: Michigan State University
CIRTL AGEP was designed to innovate and to address climate and context issues for emerging scholars in STEM fields from historically marginalized communities. The universities used a Network Improvement Community (NIC) as their guiding organizational change approach. Through regular in-person and virtual meetings, members learned from grant-related projects on their respective campuses, helped each other problem solve, and shared strategies for creating campus change.
The NIC required simultaneous learning by the core group of network grant leaders and on their home campuses to accomplish the intended goals. Many challenges of collective work among the grant leaders at the center of the NIC mirrored those of campus efforts including the need to build trust, create shared goals and common understandings, develop effective communication strategies, manage disruptions and leadership changes, and sustain momentum over time. Differences in grant leader positionality within their campus, access to levers of change and needed resources, institutional readiness and building capacity for change, and maintaining focus on the grant’s goals were issues in the NIC itself as well as on the campuses themselves. Institutional variation had to be regularly negotiated as did political and resource issues that differed across universities over the grant period. Similarly, finding a network structure that accommodated the political and resource issues of the grant leaders over time as well as how to encourage consistent engagement during leadership and role changes were reflected in the work of the NIC.
Participants in networked improvement communities (NICs) and similar collaborative organizational structures simultaneously work at multiple levels—at their institution and within their network community. They must navigate the priorities, norms, cultures, histories, and structures of both contexts as they work on the content of their task (e.g., increasing aspirations to faculty careers among Black, Latinx/a/o, and Indigenous scholars). In an emerging NIC or collaborative, participants are also constructing a way of working together even while staying focused on the intended goals of the collaborative. Participants need to be committed to the network as well as to their campus work in order to make the best of the deep learning and problem solving that can come from using a NIC as an approach to postsecondary organizational change. Proposing a NIC to implement change involves recognizing and preparing for the following organizational characteristics:
- Managing, Assessing and Implementing Change: The ways in which change occurs – in particular, managing, assessing, and implementing change – is different in higher education cross-institutional consortia as opposed to K-12 settings because of the different contexts and lack of central control.
- Relationships Matter: In a higher education NIC, the grant leaders, professional experts, participating institutions, relationships between and among members, and positionality of the members all matter.
- Time Must be Spent Building Trust with Members: Little consideration from funding agencies is given to the amount of time it takes to build bonds, common language, norms, and establish a trusting relationship between and among members of a newly formed NIC. Strong and trusting member relationships are critical to handling regular onboarding of new members, leadership changes, interpersonal and organizational disruptions, and sustained commitment that, while common to any organization’s development, will occur on member campuses and within the NIC.
- Continuous Improvement Does Not Equal Sameness: Due to the varying contexts of the member institutions, and the grant leaders’ positionality and access to levers of change and resources, different strategies are required to achieve the most comprehensive solutions. Important learning and innovating can and does occur among partner campuses even when they are not implementing the same strategies.
- Contextually Based Implementation is Required: While the NIC members share a common goal, the strategies utilized and the solutions implemented are different. Yet, each intervention is in support of the same overarching NIC goal based on individual member circumstances. Sharing strategies, challenges, and lessons learned increase collective learning and strategic problem solving.
- NICs Facilitate and Expedite Change: Members learn from process, not just outcomes. When members share their context, what worked, what didn’t, and why (while sharing their resources), members are able to learn more than they could on their own.
Partners, or Who to Engage and Why
In the network:
- Everyone key to campus implementation, not just the grant leaders or most senior leaders
- Pay particular attention to those in similar roles (e.g., staff in the Graduate School; faculty; administrator in a role specifically working on DEI efforts), those with similar institutional contexts (e.g., demographics, resources, organizational cultures)
- Invest in network-level support:
- NICs and other consortia need central support for coordinating and disseminating information, meetings, archiving, data collection and analysis, etc.
- Invest in relationships with those already working on the problems you want to address to build coalitions, share information and support each other
- Identify those who have formal and/or informal power to get work done, move proposals up the ladder, open doors, secure needed resources, etc.
- Find trusted advisors, allies, and confidants to support and guide the work
In the network:
- Onboarding throughout the life of the network; adding members mid-stream; offboarding
- Do not assume common understandings of key aspects of the work, norms and values even with pre-existing relationships
- Leadership structures and expectations should be reflective of the network’s development over time
- Early phases tend to be more hierarchical but can become more shared across network over time
- Leadership structures affect aspects of participation and accountability that need to be expressed not assumed
- Membership structures and expectations
- Collectively establish clear expectations for participation, accountability, and communication
- Recognize that changes can and should occur as expertise emerges relevant to the work, institutions increasingly share interventions that result in new collaborations
- Create rosters of campus partners and allies
- Consider needs and norms of your campus
- Prepare for change and disruptions (e.g., leadership turnover, shifting institutional policies, political issues that affect the work, unexpected resource constraints)
One of the most significant costs to Network Improvement Communities is time. NICs can be very effective structures for accomplishing greater learning, identifying and sharing relevant implementation strategies, and spaces for mutually beneficial problem solving. Building the community in which ideas can be shared, vulnerabilities exposed, and failings acknowledged requires trust, which takes time to establish and continually nurture. The same is true with creating campus changes as change agents need to develop their networks and champions, build cultures that support change and manage institutional shifts and disruptions, especially those whose natural constituency may not be central to the stated project goals.
Appropriate intervention assessments are key to continued buy-in and overall goal achievement. Standard assessments relying predominantly on numbers of participants typically do not reflect change in values, actions, or impact, and these need to be the measures developed and regularly assessed. NIC assessments are typically different even while equally valuable, and need to focus on aspects of the network’s development, communication, trust, and ways in which the collective continuously improves.
For those that might adapt and adopt this program model, please provide attribution to the National Science Foundation funded CIRTL AGEP Project.
References and Resources
Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) Evaluation Capacity Building Conference (ECBC). https://agep-ecbc.edc.org/
Bennett, M. L., Cardenas, E., & O’Rourke, M. (2022). Collaboration agreement template. Integration and Implementation Insights. Collaboration agreement template – Integration and Implementation Insights (i2insights.org)
Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., and Grunow, A. (2010). Getting Ideas into Action: Building Networked Improvement Communities in Education [essay]. Carnegie Perspectives. Stanford, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., and LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
LeMahieu, P. (2015). Why a NIC? Carnegie Commons Blog. https://www.carnegiefoundation.org/blog/why-a-nic/
LeMahieu, P. G., Grunow, A., Baker, L., Nordstrum, L. E., and Gomez, L. M. (2017). Networked improvement communities: The discipline of improvement science meets the power of networks. Qual. Assur. Educ. 25, 5–25. https://doi.org/10.1108/QAE-12-2016-0084
Noble, C. E., Amey, M. J., Colón, L. A., Conroy, J., De Cheke Qualls, A., Deonauth, K., Franke, J., Gardner, A., Goldberg, B., Harding, T., Harris, G., Hernandez, S. X., Holland-Berry, T. L., Keeles, O., Knuth, B. A.,McLinn, C. M., Milton, J., Motshubi, R., Ogilvie, C. A., … Woods III, A. (2021). Building a networked improvement community: Lessons in organizing to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM. Frontiers in Psychology, Educational Psychology, 12, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.732347