At the same time that it is becoming more essential to individual mobility, economic vitality, and social cohesion, postsecondary education is becoming a more complex endeavor. In response, a growing set of leaders in higher education, workforce development, business, and government are turning to focused and deep collaborative efforts to drive change within their own organizations and across the ecosystems in which they operate.

In a new Ithaka S+R publication, Unlocking the Power of Collaboration, Jenna Joo, Jeff Selingo, and Rayane Alamuddin investigate and draw out the lessons of a set of these higher-education focused networks that emerged in the 21st Century. By developing individual and organizational relationships that focus attention on the network mission and allow knowledge and resources to flow to areas of need, these networks are designed to take on cross-cutting challenges of student success, economic mobility, and racial and socioeconomic equity.

Organized as a “playbook,” Unlocking the Power of Collaboration discusses the conceptual grounding for these kinds of networks and unpacks a set of critical steps for starting and sustaining a successful network, with rich examples to illustrate.

The authors explain that a network approach may be advisable, or even necessary, to achieve an impact (1) when the focal problem is complex and important to the community from which the potential network will be drawn; (2) when the knowledge, expertise, access to target populations, and other components of potential solutions are distributed across different organizations; and (3) when the problem has no readily apparent solutions, requiring the iterative discovery and development of solutions.

Having identified the features and context of higher education challenges that lend themselves to a network solution, the authors lay out four key action steps to developing a successful network: 1) organize people around a shared vision and purpose; 2) design an organizational structure that will pave the road to success; 3) cultivate a culture of engagement and shared responsibility; and 4) continuously develop the network’s capacity, capability, and purpose. Included in these steps are detailed strategies and organizational features—supported by concrete examples—such as the importance of choosing the right partners, the value of having a robust backbone organization, and the motivation that comes from elevating both shared and individual achievements.

While the playbook primarily focuses on the process of establishing a highly functioning network, the authors note that this is not the same as achieving what they call “network success”: the broader social impact for which the network was created. For this reason, they also emphasize the importance of both internal and external stakeholders assessing whether the network is furthering its underlying purpose.

Are you or your organization participating in a higher-education focused network? If so, do the insights in the playbook resonate with you? If not, is your organization facing challenges for which a network approach might be useful? We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your feedback on the playbook and your own experiences with networks in the comments.