School & District Management Opinion

Organizational Grit: Thoughts on an Implementation Framework

By Contributing Blogger — January 10, 2017 7 min read
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This post is by Susan Fairchild, Vice President, Knowledge Management, New Visions for Public Schools; Catrin Davies, Senior Director, Strategic Growth, National Center for Learning Disabilities; Russell West, Deputy Director, Instruction, New Visions for Public Schools; Angel Zheng, Senior Policy Analyst, New Visions for Public Schools; and Michele Meredith, Deputy Director for School Improvement, New Visions for Public Schools.

What does an organization “know,” as compiled from the people who work there? How do staff then apply this information toward achieving a goal, and how will the organization “know” a month later--and several years later--whether this goal was achieved? Over the past few years, we’ve been exploring these questions by studying structural and relational systems within schools and the organizations that support them.

Two years ago we suggested that gritty schools share three attributes: (1) they are learning organizations that produce reliable results (see David Garvin’s work on learning organizations); (2) they strive for authentic accountability (see Cynthia Coburn’s work on scale); and (3) they engage in meaningful social learning experiences (see Amy Edmondson’s work on teaming). In order to then translate these theories into practical action, we grabbed our copy of Learning to Improve and we spent a year closely studying a high school in the Bronx--New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science II (AMS II).

We focused on one system--the school’s attendance system--to get a general sense of how the school approaches the design and maintenance of its core systems. We catalogued all of AMS II’s attendance resources in New Visions’ Search Engine, our organizational knowledge repository, which gave us insight into the information accessible to school staff regarding attendance research, attendance policies, and attendance interventions, plus roles and responsibilities as well as the desired outcomes of those attendance systems. Once we understood the resources at hand and communicated expectations, we shadowed school staff as they monitored and acted upon daily attendance patterns, and we tracked student outcomes. In doing so, we were able to understand how the system was actually implemented and how it diverged from the desired and documented state (see the Ed Week Blog Post Series here).

What we learned is that the relentless management of information and a disciplined response to that information greases the wheels of system re-design. The New Visions team, working with AMS II staff, synthesized all that we knew about student attendance behaviors, attendance protocols, and staffing workflows and then coupled that knowledge with strategies to observe and improve their current attendance system. “What we know"--a precondition to any continuous improvement work--necessitates a content management infrastructure that ensures staff across the organization have a good sense of: (1) what information exists; (2) where it is located; (3) how to maintain access to it; and (4) how to use it. “Improving what we do” requires a common understanding of what is to be done and how--and the ability to tweak that common understanding over time. In other words, managing information and acting on information are two distinct, highly complex strands of work that must interlock. In this blog post, we describe one effort to do just that.

The CM & CI Maturity Model

The CM & CI Maturity Model is a core framework for organizational and department use. It has six dimensions that define a process of how an organizational infrastructure promotes content management (CM) and continuous improvement (CI): Technical Expertise (Know), Enterprise Taxonomy (Understand), Findability | Usability (Apply), Relevance (Analyze), Workflow | Sustainability (Synthesize), Strategic Integration (Evaluate). The first three dimensions--technical expertise, enterprise taxonomy, and findability | usability--are critical preconditions that set the stage for the more complex, continuous improvement strands of work captured in the last three--relevance, workflow | sustainability, and strategic planning. Table 1 describes the six dimensions of the maturity model.

We believe that organizations should ascribe to the widely known philosophy of continuous improvement to consistently and efficiently solve problems, evaluate the solutions, and adjust approaches in a fluid manner. This maturity model, however, emphasizes the critical role of content management in feeding the continuous improvement process. In order for an organization to achieve each of the six dimensions, it needs a healthy infrastructure--one that can be diagnosed and built by improving dimensions along a scale of maturation: Unmanaged, Incipient, Formative, Operational, and Anticipatory. The state of each of the six dimensions is categorized using the five levels in Table 2.

One of the hallmark features of a maturity model is that it helps organizations move away from thinking about abstract “desired” states and move toward concrete “target” states along with specific criteria for advancement. In this model, target states are represented by products. Each maturation stage of a dimension has products associated with it, such that once products are achieved (or, the criteria have been met), the dimension advances to the next maturation stage. For example, if we consider the Workflow | Sustainability Dimension of an attendance system, we might generate the following products (See Table 3).

Table 3. Products to advance the Workflow | Sustainability Dimension of an attendance system

Click here for printable view of Table 3.

But it’s not enough to describe the elements and products within a maturity model, the work has to be thoughtfully managed. The interconnectedness within and across the six dimensions can be easily visualized in a CM & CI Tracker that supports the day-to-day project management of products aligned to the maturity model. For instance, Figure 1 displays the total number of products within the Technical Expertise Dimension by state of maturity (e.g., four products must be completed in order to advance from unmanaged [U] to incipient [I]). This display of product development helps school leaders understand better the sequence of the deliverables and ask questions about why staff have moved on to Formative and Operational products when products associated with the Unmanaged state are unfinished.

Figure 1. Dashboard of Products by State and by Technical Expertise Dimension

The display in Figure 2 highlights the progress across all six dimensions and allows school leadership to re-examine the strategy when work lags behind in one or more dimensions. The dashboard in Figure 2 clearly shows progress within the content management dimensions (the top part of the dashboard) as represented by the green cells. But it also shows a worrisome lack of movement within the continuous improvement dimensions (the bottom part of the dashboard) as represented by the red cells.

Figure 2. Dashboard of Products by State and by Dimension

Visualizing the developmental arc of CM and CI infrastructure is particularly important given the fitful nature of reform. Maturity models make it clear that authentic reform requires the thoughtful coordination of work across multiple dimensions and the related skill sets that are necessary if an initiative is to reach its maximum potential. They give us a good sense of the sequence of incremental progress, highlighting what work has come before and what work must come after to move the initiative forward.

Moreover, maturity models help us stay disciplined. On any project, it is easy to get distracted and shift to an area of work that we might find (a) more interesting and/or (b) easier because it falls within our skill set. Maturity models quickly highlight when some strands of work are progressing faster than others and when some strands are lagging behind. Maturity models make it easier to build and monitor workplans and timelines. By tracking product data with precision, we get a much better sense of just how much work it takes to deliver one product within one stage (e.g. unmanaged, incipient, formative...) within one dimension (e.g. Workflow | Sustainability). Documenting the work required to generate products provides a roadmap and acceleration points that benefit others. And when we combine that documentation with Networked Improvement Communities, what took one year for one team to learn, may take the next team three months.

To access the full documentation for the CM & CI Maturity Model as well as more detailed information about the different Dashboards and drill down capability in the CM & CI Tracker, click here.

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