Can Small Group Theory be a basis for organizational change at Universities?

The NSF GOLD-sponsored program, Sparks For Change, tested an innovative theory of organizational change for universities. The basic question was: can a special forces team of change overcome a superior (larger) force that just isn’t very interested in the topic – except that they are generally resistant to change in any form? The “resistance to change in any form” was characterized as institutional inertia, and, more formally, refers to the resistance to change where the benefits of the status quo are diffuse. That is, even if geoscience departments are not opposed to efforts of diversity, equity, and inclusion, how can we overcome the diffuse benefits of avoiding uncomfortable conversations, having fewer meetings, or reviewing department policy?

There are lots of reasons to think that small groups can be the catalyst for change, and our own experiences suggest that they are especially good at stimulating activity, enthusiasm, and optimism, all of which are necessary (but not sufficient) to address the challenges of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at our institutions of higher education. But what infrastructure do universities have to protect institutional inertia? Committees.

Committees, the foundation of shared governance and consensus-based leadership at many institutions, may also be the most effective protective wall surrounding institutional inertia. Already, we have heard, anecdotally, that motivated small groups on campus have been ‘invited’ to join or form committees on diversity (equity and/or inclusion). At first, this appeared to be a positive public recognition of the efforts of the small groups. But is it possible that the committee is the equivalent of the university’s immune system? Deployed in the face of unknown, external threats that need to be contained and assimilated? Or, is the committee an effective message multiplier that will take the motivation of the small group and disseminate it across campuses, resulting in climate change for under-represented faculty?

Actually, in either of these cases, the effectiveness of small groups as agents of change is justified. If the committee is where great ideas of change are sent to die by a thousand cuts (or delays), than the small groups represent a real threat to the status quo. The small group is an effective stimulant for change, and the next innovation is to create systems that allow the small groups to continue to operate outside of the institutional infrastructure until measurable change is documented.

If the committee acts as the vehicle of change through which the small group can act, then the small group effectively precipitated change in the way anticipated.

We’ll keep monitoring whether or not small groups can stimulate campus climate change, but in the meantime, could these groups be effective change agents for other systems in the university environment. For sure, there are many systems in place because “that’s how we have always done it.” When we start asking the question “why?”, and are ready to deploy special forces teams of change, could it not put us on to a path that improves everyone’s research, educational, and community service missions?

This page last updated 22 Jun 2018 - 12:27pm