Walking the walk of complex systems: Moving beyond "doing change" to build systemic capacity

Thursday 9:30 am – 9:55 am PT / 10:30 am – 10:55 am MT / 11:30 am – 11:55 am CT / 12:30 pm – 12:55 pm ET Online
Concurrent Session

John Morelock, University of Georgia

In their landmark publication ten years ago, Henderson, Beach, and Finkelstein (2011) advocated that STEM institutions must be viewed as complex systems for long-term change initiatives to be successful. That notion has recently gained momentum in scholarly works (e.g., Reinholz & Andrews, 2020) and funding solicitations (e.g., National Science Foundation, 2020) focusing on transforming STEM institutions. While this notion has led productively to a greater focus on the use of change theories that incorporate complex systems literature, general approaches to change projects in STEM remain largely the same. Namely, we still focus on interventive approaches to change, where single projects can be scoped, evaluated, and funded in isolation of other systemic factors and initiatives that affect the change process.

However, complex systems theory, by its definition, pushes back on the notion that institutional change can be envisioned as a chain of cause and effect between a single initiative and a lasting result (Boeing, 2016; Mason, 2009). Rather, institutional change requires attention to systemic conditions for change, such that all actors are willing and agile enough to collectively move in a productive direction—a feat that requires significant, intentional, and continuous preparation (Bain, Walker, & Chan, 2011; Mason, 2009; Stoll, 2009). Across interdisciplinary change literature, the work done by change agents to create such agile institutions and prepare organizations for change is called capacity building (Bain et al., 2011; Brinkerhoff & Morgan, 2010; Stoll, 2009).

This presentation will provide a framework to help participants understand the dimensions of institutional capacity and what ongoing initiatives to build capacity can look like. Particularly, I will review two change theories—connected learning communities (Stoll, 2009) and self-organizing schools (Bain et al., 2011)—created specifically to help change agents build capacity in educational organizations, and showcase how my institute is leveraging these theories to build our College of Engineering's capacity. Finally, I will discuss implications for priorities in future change practice, research, and funding.