An Innovation Tale: Learning the Science and Art of Networks

by Bill Robinson, PhD

As they saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Four years ago, Bob Sherman and I came to the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (newly rebranded as The Jewish Education Project). Serving a catchment area containing over 800 different early childhood centers, congregational schools, youth programs and day schools, we quickly realized that we did not have (nor conceivably) would ever have the resources to work 1 on 1 with each of these programs in the standard manner that has been the modus operandi of central agencies – teacher education and curriculum consultations. Add to that the new trend – the seeming need to offer organizational coaching – and we were doomed from the start. In the day school area alone, our catchment area was the size of the public school systems of Cleveland and Columbus combined. If we continued to pursue the standard strategy, by the time we would reach a quarter of the institutions, the cultures of the original institutions would have shifted back to their old ways, educators would have left their positions and lay leaders and funders would have moved on to other exciting opportunities. We needed a new strategy.

We stumbled upon a paper by Valdis Krebs, a pioneer in the use of networks for social change and spoke to a young friend of my cousin’s (tapping into my own network) who helped develop Howard Dean’s online strategy. Soon, we realized that the only way we would have sufficient resources to “move the needle” across the greater New York area is if we mobilized the entire community toward shared purpose and supporting each other. In network language, we would shift from being the hub of the network to being the network weaver. No longer being the central agency, we would become the catalyzing, connecting and creating agency.

Or, as Roger Cohen has described Obama’s strategy in Libya, we would lead from behind. Which often means that while our staff worked assiduously back-channeling, our name and our brand would not be out front. Many of you have heard about the re-branding of the Schechter Day School Network. But, even close colleagues of mine in other institutions don’t know that it was The Jewish Education Project that brought to an emerging consortium of tri-state Solomon Schechter day schools the idea and the resources (through a collaboration with UJA-Federation of NY) to achieve this and guided this process in a collegial manner with a great group of professional and lay leaders from those schools.

Our presence is often hidden because we want to empower our partners to devote their energy and talents to our shared endeavors. So, we stay mostly behind the scenes, as with the Schechter rebranding, or we work in collaborations and build coalitions. The Jewish Futures Conference, the Digital Jewish Learning Network, and the Coalition of Innovating Congregations are some of those examples.

Yet, networks are not just a strategy to increase resources (or even be more efficient in the use of resources). Understanding the nature of specific networks and the place of particular institutions and individuals within those networks is an invaluable aid to effective change. We tend to look at people or institutions as fairly isolated entities pursuing their own self- interests alone. We tend to look at ourselves that way. But the reality is that we all exist within webs of relationship that define who we are and enable us to achieve our goals. This is an old truth; just re-surfacing under the guise of our current fascination with networks.

At some point in our life, I’m sure we have all thought about what goes into the meal before us. And, we begin to recognize that we are part of a web of relationships that has allowed this dinner to come into fruition. Similarly, the education of every child occurs within a web of relationships of which any of us is only a small part. The ability of any teacher to teach is due to many players. In addition to the fairly obvious – educational director, rabbi and synagogue lay leadership – there are parents, the children themselves, funders, and educational resource providers (ranging from the publishing houses to innovative start-ups, such as Moving Traditions, Facing History, Teva, Hazon, Storahtelling, Jchoice, G-dcast and many others). To change the educational experience of the learner, we must change the relationships that work to create it.

In order to know what relationships are the key to effective change, we need to map these relationships – what is now called value network mapping (a play on the business term value chains). After doing this two years ago with a group of congregational education directors and education resource providers (ERPs), we realized in a very compelling visual way how overwhelmed the educational directors were and that this was creating a logjam. So, we created a pilot that provided congregations with 2nd tier leadership – Coalition Educators – who work in multiple congregations as a resource and catalyst for change. We have also been working with those ERPs to bolster their capacity to more effectively deliver expertise, materials and programs to congregations, early childhood centers and youth programs.

Networks are also the pathways through which new ways of teaching and learning spread among institutions. As Malcolm Gladwell has popularized a decades-old study, Everett M. Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation, people (individually and in teams) take on different roles when seen through the lens of personality and relationship. Some are high-risk, socially-connected early adopters. Others have less tolerance for risk; they wait and observe the success of the early adopters before taking on new ideas. (And, there are still other types in the system.) Thus, to successfully launch a network strategy, you need to understand who in your network are the early adapters, who are the late adopters and who are the innovators, among others. And, you need to know who is already connected to whom.

This is called social network analysis. We tested it out two years ago (along with the value network mapping) to give us a visual representation of our networks. Working with Valdis Krebs and June Holley, we are about to do it again with the same group and a more expanded group of educators, rabbis and lay leaders. We will learn to what degree we have strengthened the networks in our community, who are the most influential people (nodes) in the network through which information, advocacy and new ideas can flow, what areas of the network need to be strengthened.

Network-weaving is a craft combining the science of data analysis with the art of personal relationships. It is not easy. It takes a lot of resources up front that could be devoted to traditional teacher education programs. But in an era where knowledge – because of the emerging online networks – can be easily accessed by educators through a few key strokes, we must shift from spending our time down-loading content knowledge and pedagogic skills to training educators in how to creatively and critically work with each other. Which again is all about relationships. Except that it’s primarily about their relationship with each other; not with us.

And, this may be the hardest part to establishing a network strategy. Getting our staffs to trust that the educators “on the ground” working together, along with their lay partners, can do it without us having to script and control their behaviors. Maybe not all at first, but there are enough educators out there who are willing and capable to take on leadership for change within their institutions and the community. This leadership is to be found in the Coalition of Innovating Congregations and the recently created Digital Jewish Learning Network, among others.

At The Jewish Education Project, we have learned much along the way. I’d like to think that our recent recognition by Slingshot as one of the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations is due in good part to the work of our staff in pioneering the approach of network-weaving. We are eager to share our successes and continuing struggles. Since we began four years ago, many others have begun to embrace a network approach. Today, we all have much to learn from one another. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but networks are the midwives of system-wide, sustainable innovation.

Bill Robinson is the Chief Strategy Officer at The Jewish Education Project.