Northumbria University Learning Synthesis Report
Northumbria University has produced a Learning Synthesis from their findings on the Place Action Inquiry drawing on data collected over the last 2 years. The content of the report acts as a review of where we are now as well as signposting potential areas that can be explored in more detail. The full report can be found here and identifies key themes and learning across five main areas. A flavour of the areas are described below:
- Goals, Paradigms and Perspectives
Clear aligned values and a shared vocal point were identified as being important in driving systems change work. Although there seemed to be some uncertainty around goals and purpose in the early days, the current data suggests that several places have now achieved greater clarity. This was facilitated by effective messaging around the objectives and mission of the work to create shared understanding. At the heart of system change work, there tended to be a strong motivation and belief in the perceived continued need for change to existing systems with examples of people ‘falling through the cracks’ and fragmented services described as being drivers for change. Throughout the 2 years, there was evidence of shifting perspectives of actors within the system with examples such as moving from a solution focus to a learning focus and generally ‘doing things differently’.
- System Structures, Actors and Networks
‘Shining a light’ on existing systems through increased knowledge, awareness, and understanding created dissonance and curiosity about existing service structures and often acted as the first step in the shifting perspectives described above. Structures were regarded as both a help and hindrance. They created a point of development in the system change work, with ability to influence systems linked to the level of power held by actors over system ‘rules’ and strategic support from senior stakeholders being central to the commitment of group members. The report describes the system evolution moving from an appetite for change towards a feeling that things are gaining momentum organically, with aspirations for greater interconnectivity and to become ‘self-organising’. It was recognised that systems change work is a long-term commitment. Given the slow speed and subtle nature of change and the complexity of the work, several practical challenges were described.
- Power, Participation and Relationships
System change work was seen as an attempt to redistribute power. A movement towards more meaningful coproduction, shared decision making, and a more mutual sense of accountability was described. However, there were differences across places around perceived participation effectiveness. Building and nurturing relationships were perceived to be central to system change practice, and increased opportunities for conversation were described as a direct result of change work. However, the need to discuss change in accessible lay language to aid understanding as well as valuing different perspectives to facilitate constructive challenge was seen as important, and a number of additional barriers to participation were described.
- The Learning Journey
Creating space and capacity for learning was seen as important, and the role of funder was viewed as crucial in supporting this. However, capturing and sharing learning appeared to be the least developed aspect of system change work, with some tension about the capacity to do this and also the desire for action over discussion described. Sensemaking was perceived as central to learning about systems and ensuring that a diverse range of perspectives are involved in this process was an important part of this. It was recognised that learning from what already works well might be beneficial, and other potential learning tools were also identified.
- Specific Roles and Functions.
There appeared to be a natural ordering of activity with relationship/network-building and diagnostic work taking place first and challenging practice, providing alternative ways of working and setting examples to come later. The report describes the functions of Associate, Learning Partner and Funder roles and suggests that some ambiguity regarding boundaries and functions has persisted over time. Finally, the intense and complex nature of the work was acknowledged by many, therefore, emotional support and learning to exist in chaos was reported as being important.