Content / Social Embeddedness and the Art of Organizational Virology

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"Effective leaders are like sophisticated viruses: they fool the immune system and are able to inject new DNA without destroying the host." - Michael Watkins

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Two and a half years ago, I found myself in the role as Director of Social Embeddedness wondering how I was going to advance this core value at an massive organization like ASU as a lonely team of one. I had painstakingly collected 1400+ records of engagement activity from dozens of academic and administrative units throughout ASU, and realized that few people had this vantage point - a veritable 30,000-foot view of ASU's social embeddedness.  How could I connect people that I saw were working towards the same community issues or with the same community partners? How could I tell the narratives I saw in this dataset? How could I reflect back to leadership, faculty, staff, students, and community members that this work is an essential part of our institutional identity? How could I generate buy-in to address the gaps I saw in these data or create standards and thresholds for more equitable community-university partnerships?

I reflected on the words of my mentor: "At a place as large and decentralized as ASU, there is no way you can dictate organizational change through command and control. That's not how the ASU organism works, and it will fail. You must learn what the organism recognizes as part of itself, and adapt to be that thing before multiplying your message." In short, become an organizational virus.

I took this advice to heart, and approached by porftolio strategy using some principles of virology. (Note: I should disclose, however, that I am not a scientist and have only a crude understanding of viruses and immunology sufficient to dangerously wield this metaphor.)

Step 1: Tollerize the Immune System

The purpose of the immune system is to distinguish between "self" and "not-self." You must not be perceived as a threat. You must not come in with all the answers and authoritatively challenge the status quo. Rather, spend time understanding the culture. Build key relationships. Reflect back to them their own identity. I looked at my dataset and realized that I held the key to this organization's institutional social embeddedness identity in its current form. I had 1400+ lines of what hundreds of scholars considered to be their proudest community engagement efforts, how they defined community engagement within their unique disciplinary context, across both research and teaching. As a collection, it was our university's Social Embeddedness story.

So, I wrote their story (annually, in fact). I wrote the stories in a way that didn't assign credit to specific units or disciplines, but rather in a way that cohered their work together as a reflection of the institution as a whole.  I sent it to 3,000 faculty, staff, administrators, but also community leaders, donors, and local public officials. In a professional environment that only rewards citations in academic journals, I was genuinely eager to celebrate the uncited work - the messy human work they were doing to build authentic relationships across sectors and populations, deliberately blurring the lines between a university and the public to which it is accountable. They were doing good work, and I was thrilled to elevate it in a broader narrative of which we could all be a part.

Step 2: Contaminate the water well

The next phase is to locate the source of trusted information, the "watering hole" of your target organism, and "contaminate" it.

In my case, it wasn't enough that I alone was describing ASU's partnerships with community organizations in a way that reflected a dynamic of mutual respect and reciprocity, which were consistent with our university's values and a more rigorous standard for community partnerships. I had to change how people throughout the institution were describing their own work wherever they had opportunities to do so - a daunting task to be sure as professors have a well-known affinity for talking about their work. As long as every one of the thousands of faculty, staff and administrators at ASU was using language like, "ASU's impact ON communities" and “our service TO communities”, we would not be able to advance a more rigorous standard for high quality, equitable community partnerships. These tiny little prepositions uttered from thousands of respected and prestigious individuals everyday were signaling a power dynamic between the university and the community that undermined the ethos of ASU’s social embeddedness as it was originally intended. But how do you change the mindset of a campus population the size of a city? 

At a place like ASU, every academic and administrative unit has its own communications and marketing specialist dedicated to developing marketing materials and messaging unique to their disciplinary context. This army of 200 communications specialists are led by a central administrative unit in charge of establishing communications guidelines and messaging that reinforce ASU's carefully crafted brand. Their brand guidelines, I soon discovered, reinforced this notion that ASU was the sole actor in our pursuit of social impact. True to traditional marketing efforts, the focus was on claiming credit for the wonderful work the university was doing instead of demonstrating our unique capability as a university to work collaboratively with partner organizations to achieve more sustainable, broader outcomes in the even the thorniest of social challenges.

So, I drafted revised guidelines for the section on all Social Embeddedness communications, and because the thought work was already done, they obliged in updating their brand guidelines within a couple days. They also invited me to train communications specialists and to share materials that could be re-used in other marketing pieces. 

Water well status: Contaminated.

Step 3: After uptake, multiply as fast as you can

With the authority of university-wide Marketing operation at my back, I began to widely refer to the new communications guidelines wherever I could. I quickly got to work coalescing a network of faculty and staff at ASU who were similarly engaged in community partnerships and build platforms for them to connect and share best practices and where I could model the new standards - a conference attended by about 200 people from 70 different units, a Slack channel for on-demand inquiries and messages, a digital newsletter with nearly 900 readers who would be exposed to the new Social Embeddedness language at least monthly, a monthly brown bag lunch series to showcase exemplary engagement initiatives, and an annual survey to continue to collect information. These platforms provided them value - space to share strategies and support, to coordinate efforts, and connected with similarly-minded colleagues. My goal in strengthening the network, however, was to ensure that the system was self-reinforcing, and did not rely on my role to dictate organizational change. In a network, champions emerge, but no one is in charge or has the central authority. It yields a diffuse culture and collective identity around shared values. 

I'm happy to report that the social embeddedness "virus" is multiplying. We solicited presentation proposals for this year's Social Embeddedness Network conference, and nearly 70 people submitted to share their work or an effective tool/strategy for forging, maintaining and assessing community-university partnerships, or lead a community of practice. It is sure to be a fantastic convening this year because there are more participants, more interest, and more enthusiasm than ever before. 


Content / Social Embeddedness and Art Organizational Virology