Recognizing that solutions to today’s complex problems go beyond the boundaries of a single organization or institution, some postsecondary education leaders and training providers are turning to a more focused and deeper level of collaboration to drive both individual and broader systemic change with potential for far-reaching social impact. Building on the foundations and lessons from past efforts, these collaborations—which we refer to as higher education-focused networks—have become increasingly important in the 21st Century. Oriented around the cross-cutting problems of improving student success and social mobility, enacting structural and cultural change, and managing overlapping organizational responsibilities, these networks develop and strengthen enduring relationships that iteratively generate new ideas and processes to tackle the most pressing postsecondary problems of our times. This playbook discusses the conceptual grounding for these kinds of networks and offers a set of key action steps on how to start and develop a successful network with rich examples from the field.
When and why might organizational leaders choose to take a network approach to higher education challenges? We discuss three situations in which a network approach may be advisable, or even necessary, to achieve an impact: (1) when the focal problem is complex and important to the community from which the potential network will be drawn; (2) when the knowledge, expertise, access to target populations, and other components of potential solutions are distributed across different organizations; and (3) when the problem has no readily apparent solutions, requiring the iterative discovery and development of solutions. In such circumstances, a network approach allows stakeholder organizations to quickly mobilize diverse sets of resources and human talent to tackle both individual and broader systemic change, and develop enduring relationships that support a sustained flow of activities.
To achieve these benefits, networks require careful planning and management. Through our research, we identified four key action steps to starting and developing an effective network. It is important to note that establishing a highly functioning network—an important and perhaps necessary step—is not the same as achieving the broader practical goals with tangible social impact for which the network was created. While it may be more challenging than assessing the health of the network’s relationships and processes, developing ways of assessing whether the network is furthering its underlying purpose is an important component of this more fundamental form of network success.