What is Collective Impact, Really?

by Anita McGahan

To answer, “what is collective impact, really?,” first begs the question, “How do we have impact in the field of management and organizations?,” which then raises, “How does that impact emerge collectively?”   Our Collective Impact conversations got me thinking about both.

So how do we have impact?   A potent and important way is likely through our roles as educators.  From there educational impact arises collectively not just through the sharing of curriculum and ideas among professors across institutions, but also through our conversations with students directly.   This is most often acknowledged when the students are PhD candidates, and therefore knowledge producers.   Yet it is equally important in my experience in other degree programs, such as MBA and undergraduate education.   Students push us.   They ask creative questions that are informed by deep engagement with frontier problems and questions, and they are unencumbered by the siloed thinking that characterizes so much of what goes on in universities.    Their frequent insistence on clarity and realism has impact on everyone in their orbit, including other students, staff, and faculty.   We would greatly benefit by amplifying this route to impact, I think.   For example, it would be a terrific route to collective impact to break the research-teaching divide to involve undergrads and professional-degree students in research projects.    Involving students in everything we do makes what we do more interesting, relevant, and creative.

A second and equally important type of impact occurs through our research, although the ways in which we have impact – and particularly collective impact – can often take years to unfold.   My colleagues who have posted on this domain offer thoughtful and important insights on the accumulation of knowledge within our scholarly disciplines.   To complement their insights, I want to also point to the cumulative impact that can occur as we bring insights from practice into our research projects.  This has occurred for me, for example, as I’ve talked with global-health physicians about the challenges that they face in delivering healthcare to the poor in low-income countries.  As I learned about constraints on resources for treatment and their passion for disease prevention, my research questions changed to reflect the kinds of problems about which I had been told.   Through collaboration research with former doctoral students and other scholars, I have been quite fortunate to be involved with a series of papers that have influenced public policy, including a series of debates about how science institutions have emerged in low-income countries.   Other examples have also arisen on this pattern of practitioner involvement leading to research questions, which lead in return to policy impact.  Sometimes the link is less direct, but the potential for collective impact through policy change has been, at least in my experience, much enhanced by starting with conversations in the field.

Involving students in research projects and integrating practitioner realities in our research enables impact in our field. When we do both, we’ll know what collective impact is really.

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