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3 New Rules for Achieving Scale 2.0 in Education

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This post is by Ben Kornell, Chief Operations Officer of Envision Education.

"Scale" is not the newest buzzword in the social sector, but it has gathered renewed momentum as education innovators and investors shift from scale via replicability to scale via exponentiality. At the recent Stanford Non-Profit Management Institute, "Scale 2.0" took center stage among the who's who of the nonprofit and foundation worlds. This reconceptualization of scale has dramatic implications for education organizations striving to innovate and grow as our century hits its teens, implications that practitioners and champions of Deeper Learning can incorporate into their thinking and planning.

In the education space it used to be enough to demonstrate that your model could be reproduced in a second, third, or fourth site. Whether it was a charter school system, an innovative curriculum, a technology platform, or a policy shift, the multi-site proof of concept was enough to differentiate the great from the good. The Scale 2.0 challenge is simple but daunting: how can you double your investment and achieve 100 times the impact? (See Scaling Impact, by Jeffery Bradach for the Stanford Social Innovation Review.)

Education is changing: the factory model of rote learning and bubble testing is shifting to a dynamic model where critical thinking skills, teamwork, and applied knowledge trump content cramming. While the Deeper Learning movement is gaining momentum, the broader change in how education is delivered remains incredibly slow due to the entrenched nature of factory model institutions. For organizations that are striving to reshape education, cracking Scale 2.0 represents the best hope for supplanting the status quo and delivering a transformative education to ever-larger numbers of students. Moving forward requires a new set of rules for your education organization; below are three that can kick start your "Scale 2.0" strategy.

1.      Systems Scale, Not People

The heroic teacher has become the paradigm of success in education. Working endless hours, he or she helps students overcome all obstacles with grit and determination. Many organizations have embraced this model of leadership intentionally or out of necessity, but the results are clear: it may not be sustainable or reliable and it is certainly not scalable. Thriving education groups build clear structures that are independent of the particular people who execute. These systems and processes are codified and communicated clearly, ultimately becoming core to the organization's daily operations. To be clear, talent is scalable if an organization adopts strong systems and processes for acquiring and retaining exceptional talent. How much of your organization's effectiveness depends on specific individuals versus strong systems and processes? 

2.      Capability Scales, Not Compliance

The counterpoint to scaling systems is the well-worn advice: "don't overdo it." Systems create the structure within which leaders operate. If that system is too constrained, it crowds out the leader's ability to respond dynamically to challenges and opportunities. Investing in the capability of practitioners at all levels empowers them to navigate the system effectively and deliver optimal outcomes, while also providing a retention boost due to professional growth. This ultimately holds true for your organizational capability as well - building an empowered employee architecture expands leadership capacity and enables opportunistic growth. When trying to achieve 100 times the impact at 2 times the cost, spending to build organizational and individual capability is a wise investment. How does your organization invest in capability at the individual and organizational levels?

3.      Think Local, Act Global

While the classic call to action is "Think Globally, Act Locally," scaling educators should flip the phrase and deliver scale by leveraging local assets and by connecting with local stakeholders. School districts and existing non-profits have massive pre-existing infrastructure in most markets. In a Scale 2.0 environment, duplication of expensive infrastructure eliminates the potential for 2x100 investment/impact. Local stakeholders are also crucial. They can help you adapt your model to local conditions, champion your service or product, and plug you into local talent pipelines, if necessary. Exporting a one-size-fits-all model is a classic mistake that edu-scalers make; systematically leveraging local infrastructure and building strong connections with local stakeholders will not only ensure that you can achieve exponential scale, but also improve the likelihood that your scaling efforts will succeed. How are you leveraging local infrastructure and local stakeholders to grow your organization's impact in new markets?

The evidence around scaling social impact via technology is anecdotal, at best. It is obvious that technology can provide an expansive audience or broad distribution, but ultimately, the quality of service delivery trumps technology. At the Stanford Non-Profit Management Institute, the best advice came from a fellow participant: "Think about the experience first, and the technology second." Ultimately, it is organization-dependent as to whether technology is the lynchpin of your Scale 2.0 strategy or merely one tool in your scaling toolbelt.

Achieving Scale 2.0 clearly requires a focus on systems, capability, and local assets. No organization is perfect in all three areas, but if yours has core strengths in each, then you are well on your way to 100 times the impact at only double the cost. The "New Rules" for scaling invite educators to imagine exponential impact for schools and students across the country: where might they take you and your organization?

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