From technology to fashion to social-issue intervention, nothing stays stagnant. As COVID highlighted, organizations need to be ready to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. How can organizations, especially those in social impact networks, prepare for a changing landscape? One strategy that social impact organizations can use to prepare for change is to enhance their organization’s absorptive capacity.
As our previous two blogs have shown, a network’s ability to manage change—both effectively and promptly—can dramatically impact the people, practices, and overall permanence of the network itself. This blog series has focused on the decision tree of change management outlined by Michelle Shumate and Katherine R. Cooper’s book, “Networks for Social Impact.” Our past blogs have covered the change management strategies of Strategic Planning for Networks, Action Learning Teams, and Deciding to Leave. This blog will cover the final change management tool, Enhancing Your Organization’s Absorptive Capacity.
Social impact organizations can enhance their absorptive capacity whether they are part of a goal-directed network or not. Organizations must focus on developing their absorptive capacity, or their “organization’s ability to identify, assimilate, transform, and use external knowledge, research and practice” (Oxford Review, 2022). In short, it’s the ability of the organization to pay attention to the changing landscape, learn from it, and transform its practices accordingly. An organization with a higher absorptive capacity can handle a changing landscape better than an organization with a lower absorptive capacity.
In general, Enhancing Absorptive Capacity allows network organizations to be more agile. The ability to pivot and make quick adaptations in the face of change is crucial when dealing with the rapidly fluxing world. There are four processes that a network can use to increase agility and quickly adapt to the flux state of the field: Acquisition, assimilation, transformation, and exploitation.
The use of external resources to obtain information
The communication of information across organizational units and up the chain of command
The process of collecting, organizing, and making meaning out of information
The application of new knowledge in everyday work
Acquisition refers to the process of gathering information. In the acquisition process, an organization gathers external resources—networks, consultants, journals, conferences—to learn about the social issue they are addressing and the core business environment surrounding the issue. There are two types of learning from the external environment: grafting and scanning.
Acquiring knowledge through hiring individuals who possess that knowledge or networking to find people with the knowledge that you seek
Acquiring knowledge through intentionally seeking out information by reading or conducting research
To optimize grafting and scanning within an organization, leaders must invest in these practices. For grafting, the investment might be taking the time to assess all new hires’ knowledge base. Additionally, organizations might encourage individuals with existing knowledge to participate in network meetings and interact with others who are knowledgeable in desired areas. Both practices increase information exchange and overall knowledge sharing. To enhance scanning, organizations can invest by giving individuals the resources, time, and incentives to pursue and conduct research. Overall, organizational investments to improve acquisition increase information understanding, which can be used to adapt more effectively and efficiently in the face of change.
Assimilation is the process of communicating information horizontally across organizational units and vertically up the chain of command. Increased individual understanding of the practices and activities of an organization can increase worker knowledge. Vertical barriers and horizontal barriers hinder the assimilation process.
Vertical barriers are obstacles that make communication between employees and superiors difficult. There are several strategies that organizations can employ to overcome these hierarchies. Some potential strategies include:
- Holding regular roundtables where front-line employees meet with senior leaders
- Requiring daily check-ins with front-line workers by senior leaders
- Setting up an employee council comprised of front-line workers as an advisory group
Horizontal barriers are obstacles that make communication between employees across functional units of an organization difficult. The best solution to combatting these silos is for organizations to develop cross-functional teams or taskforces that encourage different units to work together and share knowledge.
By increasing communication flow across, up, and down organizational units, an organization sets itself up to see and absorb change far ahead of poorly communicative organizations.
Transformation describes how information is collected, organized, and made meaningful. Acquisition might get data, but data without context is useless. Transformation allows organizations to take this data and apply it to current and future problems.
To make information meaningful, organizations must work to avoid information overload and overwork in their employees. Rather, organizations that transfer information through grand rounds, learning communities, and action learning create a space where knowledge can be exchanged and made meaningful without causing undue stress. Organizations should be intentional about how they disseminate information making sure that the quantity, delivery, and exchange of information is digestible. These information exchanges and meaning-making processes prepare organizations to be agile.
Finally, exploitation is the practice of applying new knowledge to everyday work. Through acquisition, assimilation, and transformation, organizations have attained and disseminated knowledge. Leaders can then take this knowledge and use it to make decisions about work routines. Organizations can emphasize a learning culture–reward risks and learning from failures–that might encourage the application of new knowledge even if it falls outside of the normal practices of the organization. Exploitation takes newly learned information and turns it into skills and practices that social impact organizations can use to absorb large and small scale change.
Ultimately, acquisition, assimilation, transformation, and exploitation illustrate the process of informing an organization and preparing it for change. Acquisition obtains new insightful information, assimilation ensures that this information is communicated, transformation helps organizations make meaning out of new information, and exploitation helps organizations apply this information to their everyday practices. All four work together to Enhance an Organization’s Absorptive Capacity and allow organizations to be more agile when the time comes to pivot.