Collective impact describes the next evolution of collaboration.
I’ll say what “collective impact” means a few paragraphs from now, and will include a chart and a youtube video. I’m still learning about the idea, so this is quite preliminary.
But first a story.
I came across the phrase a few months ago when a friend returned from a weekend conference wanting to quit her job and devote all her efforts to achieving something called collective impact.
I’ve been around long enough to recognize true believer symptoms. Someone in the honeymoon embrace of a cult is not going to be talked down from a new idea high. Even if the idea is simply a restatement of something anyone who’s been paying attention already knows. So I did my best to listen politely.
A few weeks later, my wife started speaking with a collective impact vocabulary.
I can’t pretend to listen politely to her because we’ve been married too long.
Instead I went to my default academic trick. “That sounds interesting. Is there any research on it?”
Ten minutes later I had two articles from the Stanford Social Innovation Review in my e-mail: “Collective Impact,” and “Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity.”
My wife does not fight fairly.
She knows anything with the words “emergence” and “complexity” in the title eviscerates my “If this were important I would already know about it” resistance.
It took me a few weeks to read more than the title. I grudgingly allowed myself to learn I didn’t know enough about collective impact to critique it.
Fast-forward a few more months.
I had an opportunity to talk with some fusion center directors. In preparing for that meeting, I read the 2012 National Network of Fusion Centers report (released in June 2013).
It struck me as I was reading the document that many of the dynamics described in the report were similar to the problems collective impact wants to address. And they weren’t problems unique in homeland security to fusion centers: governance, measurement, goals, multiple stakeholders, and so on.
Collective impact is a significant shift from the… current paradigm of “isolated impact,” because the underlying premise of collective impact is that no single organization can create large-scale, lasting… change alone. There is no “silver bullet” solution to systemic… problems, and these problems cannot be solved by simply scaling or replicating one organization or program. Strong organizations are necessary but not sufficient for large-scale social change.”
Sounds like life in the homeland security enterprise to me.
Collective impact is also not a silver bullet. It is not particularly appropriate for technical problems, claim its advocates.
However – and here I rely on what advocates say because I have not seen the research – collective impact initiatives are “being employed to address a wide variety of issues around the world, including education, healthcare, homelessness, the environment, and community development.”
It seems to me collective impact might be a helpful way to think about – and act within — “the information sharing environment,” “cyber security,” “preparedness,” “border security,” and who knows how many other thorny homeland security issue areas.
One test of its utility will be if someone says, “We already do that, but we call it….”
So, what is collective impact?
Here is the definition I see most frequently:
“Collective impact is the commitment of a group of actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a complex social problem.”
Two more data points about social impact.
There seems to be wide agreement that five conditions have to be met if collective impact is to have a chance of working. These are the conditions I thought about while I was reading the Fusion Centers Report. The information sharing environment has a shot at achieving all five. (Insert the appropriate NSA caveat here):
- a common agenda
- shared measurement
- mutually reinforcing activities
- continuous communication
- backbone support.
Here’s a chart with more words about each of those conditions:
I’ll close with a 2 minute youtube video that summarizes the concept. I think collective impact is an idea worth exploring.