A Call for Collaboration, Empowerment, and Change

Collaboration comes in many forms.  From students working together on a group project to school leaders empowerworking as a team to effectively implement the next district-wide initiative, collaboration at all levels of a school district is needed for successful and sustainable change.  

In his book The Prince, the 16th century Italian statesman, political philosopher, and author Machiavelli wrote, “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” Too many times districts will look to implement change in isolation.  Someone, somewhere in a district’s administration will attend some conference and learn about a great new piece of technology or concept that will help the district.  This person will bring this idea back to the district, present it at an in-service, and walk away thinking, Great! Now all that has to happen is the staff to do it. The key piece that is missing in this scenario is buy in.  How does a leader get buy in? Through empowerment and collaboration.

Organizational change, in its simplest form, is about people.  When faced with change, especially rapid change, many organizations (school districts included) are very quick to focus on the technical or mechanical side of change.  One reason for this could be, in most cases, the rapid change is coming in the form of a new technology or some constantly changing educational fad. Much of the research out, though, has pointed to the fact that the leaders of organizations must begin to understand that their employees are their organizations most valuable assets, and that they must begin to focus more energy and time on developing those assets-both individually and as a whole unit.  Stevens (1993) writes, “A sound total quality management implementation process should be concerned with more than just the mechanical aspects of change.  Instead, it should focus on improving the more indirect value characteristics of the organization such as trust, responsibility, participation, harmony, and group affiliation.”  If, during a time of change, an organization fails to involve its employees, there will be very little hope for that organization to survive.  Simpson (2003) states, “…lack of employee commitment could be an indication of a company on the way to becoming another [organizational] failure. The educational and school landscape is changing dramatically- there is a strong demand for high quality teaching focused on 21st century skills, the globalization of learning is taking shape, and the pressure for high scores on state and nationwide assessments is increasing.  To remain competitive in the face of these pressures, teacher and full staff commitment is crucial.” David Weidman (2002) explains this further, “Employees play a critical role in any successful change effort. Regardless of how committed a leadership team is on a task, if the employees aren’t on board, the effort will fail.”  Here the focus is on supporting, from all levels, the ‘people’ that make up the organization and are responsible for carrying out the day-to-day tasks and services the organization, in this case school district, provides.  These same people will also be responsible for putting the change into action.  Focusing on taking care of these people, then, needs to be a major focus of any organization planning a change effort.  How does an organization then do this-keep up with the technical side of change, as well as focus on improving the ‘soft’ side of an organization (trust, responsibility, teamwork, etc.) and gain employee support, buy-in, and commitment?  The answer, most will argue, is through empowerment, which will lead to increased collaboration.

Throughout much of the literature present, a number of definitions or explanations of the concept of empowerment emerged (some similar and some slightly different).  Peccei and Rosenthal (2001) wrote, “Empowerment has of course been conceptualized in a number of ways, and no consensus on its status has yet emerged. Some writers focus on ‘empowering’ work practices such as provision of organizational information to employees, reduction of bureaucratic controls and increased task autonomy…Another stream of writing adopts a critical perspective on empowerment, treating it as a rhetorical device to obscure an increase in management power.” Davison and Martinsons (2002) write, “Fundamentally, “to empower means to give power to”…empowerment involves ensuring that: information is shared with workers; rewards are based on organizational performance; employees are trained to contribute more to organizational performance; and employees are involved in management decision making…empowered workers need to have the “authority to make the decisions needed to get (a task) done.” Webster’s Dictionary (1989) defines empowerment as, “1. the giving of power or authority to; authorizing. 2. enabling or permitting.”  On a similar note, Robert Kent (2003) defines empowerment as “…transferring appropriate and sufficient authority to employees and making resources available (including information), to enable them to succeed in their jobs.” Common among all these definitions is the idea of or the need for a shift, transfer, or sharing of power or authority among or between different levels in an organization.

At the heart of this shift or sharing of power and responsibility is collaboration. A 1990 Vogt & Murrell study defines empowerment from the point of view of social change agents as “…empowering is an act of building, developing, and increasing power through cooperation, sharing, and working together.  It is an interactive process…that enlarges the power in the situation as opposed to merely redistributing it.”  Unique to this idea is the belief that power already exists in the multiple levels of an organization and that instead of ‘transferring’ or ‘shifting’ power, the strength here lies in the process of ‘building’ and ‘developing’ through cooperation and teamwork. Blanchard, Carlos, & Randolph (1996), in their book Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute, open the first chapter with a short anecdote that contains conversation between two managers in which one says “Empowerment is not giving people power,” she explained. “People already have plenty of power-in the wealth of their knowledge and motivation-to do their jobs magnificently.  We define empowerment as letting this power out.”  Inherent in this statement is the belief that the ‘power’ to do a job, correct a problem, or adapt to a changing environment lies within each employee, and that ‘empowering’ the employees is merely helping them to realize their potential.

So collaboration is for more than just classroom teachers and students working on a project.  It is something that, at all levels of education, is needed for continued growth and successful change.

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