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The Letter From: What is “Capacity”? (I)

August 20, 2008 5 min read
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A few days ago, I was asked to define “capacity” in the context of school reform. It’s an important question to the school improvement industry because building capacity is what it does. My first thought was “that’s pretty obvious, capacity is…..” Before I could open my mouth, that was quickly followed by “…no different from patriotism, equality, energy independence, tax reform, national security, or any number of words thrown around in political debate and policy discussions.” When they come from the soapbox, these words often hide more than they reveal.

Agreed on the need to build “capacity” in public schools, we reach for a box with that label. When the carton is opened, we are likely to disagree on whether the contents are what we had in mind. When we move from the soapbox to specifics, “capacity” refers to whatever one believes is preventing schools from doing whatever one believes they should do.

I didn’t try to answer the question then, but I’ve thought about it more, and try here. My approach starts with first principles: understanding “capacity” requires an appreciation of both how organizations do what they are established to do, and what it is you want an organization to accomplish. I apply the general discussion to the public school system, with an emphasis on what we have wanted and now ask public education to accomplish. Next, I discuss how schools are organized to do what we wanted, and the changes implied by what we want them to do today. Finally, implications for private sector school improvement providers.
Capacity refers to the functionality of an organization, the extent to which it can conceive and conduct the activities necessary to succeed in its mission. In the private sector, an organization’s mission is established by its’ board of directors, acting on behalf of the owners. The mission of government organizations is established by the legislature.

Functionality is a reflection of decisions made by management about the level and mix of resources combined into activities aimed at producing a given result. For example, offices can choose to deal with in-coming phone calls after hours by hiring a receptionist, installing a computer assisted answering system, making a direct connection to every employee’s office and answering machine, forwarding calls to employees’ personal phones, or contracting with an answering service. The design of activities involves tradeoffs between low and high cost alternatives, technology and people, experienced and junior staff, in-house and outsourcing.

Organizations that fail to make appropriate decisions about the form and sequence of activities are less functional than they might be. Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the measure of organizational capacity is its performance against a given measure at a given point in time. Those who assess organizational success measure it against objective benchmarks. Some objective measures are proxies for subjective criteria. In many cases, subjective measures are considered less important, “lesser included” cases, or subsumed by direct objective measures. When assessed against customer satisfaction during the workday, or employee time on task, the answering machine may or may not perform better than the alternatives.

Organizations that operate in the market are judged largely by profit. In the public sector, measuring organizational success in the pubic sector is problematic. The challenge is compounded by vast differences in the consequences of success or failure whatever the measure. In market environments buyers replace organizations that make poor decisions about their activities with organizations that make better decisions. In the public sector, absent political change, organizations generally continue on regardless of performance.

Time is a neglected component of capacity – functionality should not be impaired by the normal turnover of management and staff, and performance should keep pace with changes in the external environment. The functionality of an organization that cannot train new staff or generate new leadership from within will be very short-lived. With very few exceptions, the decline in performance of any organization employing precisely the same activities that it developed a century ago will be noticeable and large. This aspect of capacity might be called resilience.

The development of resilience in a new organization or its maintenance in an established institution is the fundamental responsibility of management and the board. The loss of resilience follows from management’s tendency to 1) give the “in-box” higher priority than less concrete concerns barely visible on the horizon, 2) see problems as something requiring a quick fix, rather than the opportunity to adapt the organization to emerging realities; 3) avoid decisions that need not be taken today for an unknown pay-off that wont be realized until they are gone.

While the first two tendencies can be justified on any given day and the third is completely human, over time the result is analogous to the nation’s historic neglect of its transportation infrastructure – a gradual erosion of performance and the risk of catastrophic failure.

The ability to foster organizational resilience is probably the most important element of management capacity. Ironically, it is least likely to be of interest to boards, especially when the typical threat they face is the loss of capacity day-to-day. The managers who sit on boards are not all that different from the managers hired to lead organizations. Absent a deliberate effort to “think different,” it is unreasonable to expect anything more in a culture dominated by short-term results.

Outsiders can make the case for “capacity-building” and provide support necessary to maintain it. Unless leadership within the organization has internalized long-term values, those providing external support must see it as an operating cost rather than an investment. They will affect a limited number of people within the organization, and once their support ends its effect on organizational performance will be short lived. Outsiders providing support in these circumstances must decide if they are merely enabling the organization as parents might enable an alcoholic child. In a market, advisors, creditors, suppliers and customers are more likely to work with troubled business partners than many realize, but there comes a time when they will, indeed must, move on. In the public sector, and especially where no alternative partners are apparent, that time comes rarely, if ever.

Next Week: Capacity in public school systems.

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