Complex Change Calls for Cross-Sector Collaboration

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I had the opportunity last week to help facilitate a session for non-profit, business, technology, education, and media leaders who came together for the inaugural summit of ConvergeUS.

Co-Chaired by TechNet’s CEO, Rey Ramsey, and Twitter’s Co-Founder, Biz Stone, ConvergeUS drives technology-based breakthroughs for critical social problems and thus accelerates social innovation. ConvergeUS—the non-profit arm of TechNet—is a bipartisan, political network of technology sector CEO’s and senior executives. It was founded this year to mobilize corporations, academic institutions, and other nonprofits to leverage technology to create positive change on critical issues facing American society.

The goal of this organization is to bring together dedicated people across sectors who can identify systemic challenges within our society, who can define ways to address them applying technological approaches, and who can work collaboratively to achieve sustainable and ideally transformative change. To meet this goal, each year ConvergeUS will identify no more than three problem areas to concentrate its resources and reach out to people in business, government, social services, media, and education who have an interest in collaborating to design and implement change.  They also intend to apply research methodology to build a methodology that can be duplicated in many areas.

For 2011, ConvergeUS has partnered with the Silicon Valley Education Foundation in order to focus on improving STEM education, or science, technology, engineering and math skills skills, for children grades K-12. ConvergeUs has also partnered with The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading on its 0-3 Literacy Gap campaign to boost the reading proficiency of young children; and the organization formed an alliance with CommonHealth ACTION, Farm Sanctuary, and Reach Out and Read on its Health Literacy campaign, which focuses on healthy eating and literacy for children in low-income areas.

Almost 150 participants took part in the ConvergeUS inaugural meeting on October 5th and 6th at Fort Baker in the San Francisco Bay Area. AmericaSpeaks helped coordinate the event and brought in facilitators to support engaging this group of eager participants in productive dialogue for change.

Founded in 1995, AmericaSpeaks provides citizens with a greater voice in the policy making process and helps develop new institutions that can strengthen our democracy. Over the last 16 years, they have brought together more than 160,000 citizens to influence critical policy issues. AmericaSpeaks believes that by bringing together thought leaders, elected officials, and advocates to discuss the state of our democracy and the kinds of changes that need to take place across our nation, we can create a stronger, healthier democracy.

I was privileged to have been selected to help with the facilitation and learn more about this movement for cross-sector collaboration toward social change. Participants came from across the U.S. with a deep desire to work together and make a difference in critical social problems.

I worked with the STEM group, which was comprised of close to 40 participants who defined pathways to support work being done by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. These pathways include a means to provide schools and teachers with the resources they need and help them develop a greater emphasis on teaching science, technology, engineering, and math by making STEM a meta-discipline that is driven by a curriculum rich in problem-solving, discovery, exploratory learning. STEM has a lot of support at the national, state, and local levels, yet there are significant challenges in making radical changes to K-12 education. By discussing some of the major challenges, the group that met at the ConvergeUs meeting was able to begin to design a technological blueprint to support the change.

Our working groups at the ConvergeUs meeting emerged eager to offer their knowledge, skills, and resources to support continued collaborative work that could truly make a difference.  The challenge of course, is to create the supporting structures and processes that will enable these eager participants to continue to work together once they are back in their home towns, at their offices, and dealing with their day-to-day challenges. We all know the difficultly of staying involved over the long-term. 

Cross-sector collaboration work is new work and those of us interested in participating in it and facilitating have plenty to learn.  In many ways, it is an innovative design process of bringing people together around a critical problem and finding new and innovative ways to address it.  It is inspiring and fun work. 

Last semester a small group of students at Saybrook took a course with me to learn more about cross-sector collaborative work—what we called Inter-Organizational Networks (IONs).  The many organizations that partnered to support this event described here, are a great example of an ION. The results of our learning were published in the OD Practitioner’s fall publication and can be viewed here.

I hope you will find a way to get involved in this important work.

Read other posts by Nancy Southern

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