Wednesday, July 10, 2013

(Re)(Organize) for Resilience

I work for a BOCES program. For people outside of New York, this stands for Board of Cooperative Educational Services. BOCES' job is to use economies of scale to meet the needs of districts within their constituency. For example, they organize a health care pool for districts to offer to their employees, have professional development programming, offer special education for student with highly specialized and/or intensive needs and vocational education programs to students. Approximately two decades ago, our BOCES noticed that districts were having a hard time finding people to provide in home tutoring to students out of school for medical reasons and that some districts were looking to better meet the needs of their residents who attended private schools but still needed special ed services. They established a small group of professionals to serve this role as a trial. As they proved capable of meeting the needs of the districts, the department expanded. This is a great example of responsiveness and customer centered offerings.

Ranjay Gulati is a professor from the Harvard School of Business who wrote (Re)(Organize) for Resilience: Putting Customers at the Center of your Business. He would argue that any successful organization that can withstand the cycling of the economy, competition for services and changes of technology needs to be customer centric. To be resilient in the face of challenges, a business cannot be about its products and what it offers, but must be about solving its customers' problems. When my boss developed our department, that is what the goal was: identify a problem: tutoring in homes and private schools- propose a solution: certified staff that will accommodate the needs of the families or schools assigned.

Fast forward to today. The department has gone from part-time, hourly staff to full-time, salaried staff. The flexibility to meet the needs of the clients has been impacted. An hourly person may choose to sit for an hour until the next student needs services, a salaried person needs to be booked so that their salary can be paid. Experts in a particular area or age group could be utilized and two people might serve a school part time each versus a full time person supporting parts of programs that they do not have the skill set to adequately support. Staff that wanted to work part time could be employed, now they are jettisoned to be rehired as new opportunities arise.

It is an example of how schools are different from businesses. They cannot flexibly change staffing to meet changing needs. If staff do not have the capabilities to handle the evolving demands of the job, training can be offered, but in light of tenure and teacher contracts, legacy employees are not bound to upgrade skill sets. Switching out unsuccessful pairings is difficult because staff need to be paid whether they are busy or not.
As much as people would like to compare schools to businesses, they are different in fundamental ways. Some like having to accept everyone who comes through the door, regardless of their race, home language or disabilities are important. Others, however, interfere with schools being able to adjust with the time.  If schools want to become 21st century learning centers, they need to eliminate the binds that prevent them from being flexible and embrace the risk that is inherent in progress.

Finding ways to be student-centric is important. Although many schools would propose they are just that, they do not offer programs to meet the advanced potential of our gifted students and often struggle meeting the needs of our struggling students who do not fit in the box. Gulati's tools of cooperation, coordination, clout, capabilities and connections could be used to meet these students needs, if we can break free of the chains of "the way we do it" and "what we have to offer." Unlike a business, a school will not fold when it fails to meet the needs of its students. The children, however, will fail- either in school or once they leave it.

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