Skip navigation and go directly to this page’s content.

Research Base

We approach the change process from an  asset orientation. This involves identifying the characteristics and circumstances, based on practice and research, which are known to contribute to  healthy outcomes. From a defined  outcome we then work backwards to examine programs that will lead to those results. The process includes all those impacted by the change and thus empowers the people who are experiencing challenges to become involved in the solutions.

Linking Theory and Practice

University Outreach & Engagement is committed to promoting both the understanding and the effective application of  positive change. We believe that positive change can best be understood and achieved through an interplay between asset-focused theory and practical application.

This approach, as illustrated below, is derived from work by Peter Senge (1994) on what he refers to as “Actionable Knowledge.” The interplay involves four steps:

  1. Understanding asset-related theory.
  2. Designing practical understanding, processes, structures, and tools that will support the application of the theory.
  3. Applying the theory under “real” conditions.
  4. Carefully examining and documenting the new understanding and insights that result, so we can enhance the theory base and begin the cycle anew.
An illustration of the four steps of the change process

Actionable Knowledge

Adapted from Peter Senge (1994, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook)

In applying this approach of linking theory and practice to create positive change, we have integrated several research concepts and theories into the  Outcome-Asset Impact Model (O-AIM). These concepts and theories address the context in which development occurs, social development theory, theories of learning and intelligence, models of community development, conditions necessary for change, and spread of change to be most successful.

A listing of the key authors and theorists includes:

  • Organizational Theory: Senge (1990, 1994)
  • Systems Theory: von Bertalanffy (1968)
  • Integral Theory: Wilber (1995)
  • Bio-Psycho-Social Theory: Beck & Cowan (1996)
  • Learning and Intelligence Theories: Csikszentmihalyi (1996); Gardner (1983)
  • Community Development Models: Kretzmann & McKnight (1993); McKnight (1995)
  • Change Theory: Beck’s (2001) Variation on Change; Gladwell (2000); Rogers (1983, 1995)

Our unique synthesis of these theories has allowed us to develop the O-AIM and the key understandings that are part of it; applying the O-AIM leads us through the conceptualization, design, and facilitation of a plan for a particular community. The O-AIM and the key understandings are described in detail in the Our Outcome-Asset Impact Model (O-AIM) section of this website. The following is a more detailed description of the concepts and theories listed above.

The Context

Systems theory is the understanding that a system is a functional whole composed of a set of component parts which, when coupled together, generate a level of organization that is different from the level represented in any individual or subset (von Bertalanffy, 1968). A common way to describe systems theory is “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

In addition to systems theory, Wilber (1995) identifies four aspects of development. We believe that for effective lasting change to take place, it must occur in all four aspects.

  1. Individual intention: one’s own thoughts, beliefs, understandings, and values
  2. Individual behavior: behaviors and skills one has learned and exhibits
  3. Collective culture: our commonly held social understandings and agreements
  4. Social system: written records, buildings, transportation systems, laws, economic systems, etc.

Taylor-Powell (1998) talks about the various levels in which we interact. As we envision and strategize the process of change for a particular community, the four aspects of development that Wilber identifies provide a guide for examining relationships among, within, and between these five levels, which we refer to as the levels of interaction.

  1. Individual: one person at a time
  2. Family or group: family members or within a small group
  3. Block, organization, or agency: among neighbors on a block, or within an organization of which one is a member, or within an agency where one does business
  4. Neighborhood or service delivery system: relationships among people who live in a neighborhood or between and/or among agencies that provide interconnected services
  5. Community: the larger community where one lives

Bio-Psycho-Social Theory

The O-AIM incorporates understanding, findings, and approaches from several asset-oriented human development theories and approaches. These include:

For some time there has been acceptance of the concept that children’s physical and emotional development occurs in ordered stages. Most theorists recognize that challenges or tasks need to be successfully mastered at one stage before a child can move on to the next developmental stage. More recently, adult developmental stages have also been identified. Simply reaching some preset age does not determine full adult development. Authors such as Wilber (1995) and Beck and Cowan (1996) have written about developmental stages in larger systems.

The developmental theorists cited in this website all approach development, albeit in different areas, using certain key principles:

  1. Changes, regardless of the level, occur in stages, not in a single broad leap. (Social changes are analogous to a dimmer switch rather than a one-stroke, on/off light switch.)
  2. The stages are nested, each stage forming the basis for the next. As Wilber says: “Each stage surpasses and includes the stage before.” (Letters are nested in words, which are nested in sentences, nested in paragraphs, and so on).
  3. While progression through the stages does not necessarily occur in a linear fashion (one may jump briefly to the next stage, then back, or may rest in different stages under different circumstances), there is an identifiable pattern to the stages.
  4. The stages are identified in descriptive, rather than judgmental, terms. Subsequent stages may be a higher developmental order or represent more complex views or thoughts, but there is no judgment that higher stages are therefore “better.” Each stage has its unique challenges.

Learning and Intelligence Theories

Our model also incorporates learning and intelligence theories, which recognize that there are multiple natures of learning and intelligence (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Gardner, 1983). Some individuals are more analytical in nature and learn best from a precision and logic-based style, while others are more emotional in nature and learn best with an affective presentation. This leads to the necessity for presenting concepts, approaches, and tools in a variety of formats that appeal to a wider range of styles and strengths.

Gardner defines assets as:

  • The skills of individuals that can be mobilized to help others or to become income producing.
  • The resources (meeting space, equipment, peoplepower) and opportunities that community associations, businesses, and institutions can make available.

Once identified, these assets can then be used to build connections between adults and youth, organization and individuals, and among organizations.

McKnight (1995) particularly emphasizes concerns about the benefits that human service systems gain from the creation of “Professionalized Assumptions Regarding Need” and the disabling results these assumptions can have on a community’s ability to be self-supporting.

He lists three key need-based assumptions of professionals and their potentially detrimental effects on community capacity:

  1. “The translation of a need into a deficiency” (p. 43). Instead of need being viewed as a condition, a desire, or an unresolved issue, professionals tend to define need as an “...unfortunate absence or emptiness in another” (p. 43).
  2. The common professional definition of need places “...the deficiency in the client” (p. 43). This focuses the deficit in the individual and tends to remove the consideration of problems away from the complex socio-political context, which in many cases is the true origin of the need.
  3. Community problems are categorized and separated into professional specializations requiring experts to focus on specific sections. This professional specialization contributes to the development of specialized professional language that is largely unavailable to those in the community.

As an alternative to diagnostic “needs assessments” and “problem documentation,” which McKnight argues are designed to empower organizations of experts to get resources, he recommends that communities engage in mapping their own assets as a way of mobilizing their own resources. These community asset maps can include such areas as businesses, individual capacities, schools, citizen associations, religious organizations, home-based enterprises, and so on. He also suggests that the map distinguish between assets that are under the control of the community, such as local organizations and personal income, from assets that are under external control, such as institutes of higher education or electrical energy.

Change Conditions

Beck and Cowan (1996) identify six conditions that need to be considered in designing social change. The available scope of desired change must be assessed in relation to the conditions of change that are present. For substantive change to be achieved, these conditions need to be considered as “pre-conditions” to the ultimate desired change. The more substantive the change that is desired, the greater the number of these conditions that need to be in place in order for the change to occur.

  1. What is the potential in the individual or collective group? Is the individual or group open, closed, or arrested in considering the change?
  2. Do solutions exist for current or past problems? Major changes can’t be expected if serious, unresolved problems or threats still exist within the present state.
  3. Is there some level of dissonance present? If no discomfort exists with the current situation, why change?
  4. Is there any insight into what went wrong with the current system and why; what resources are now available for handling the problems better?
  5. Are there barriers to change that must be identified and overcome?
  6. Is there consolidation occurring during the change? Are people supported as they attempt to change and integrate new ways of acting?

Beck (2001) also identifies eight variations (or degrees) of change. The variations are listed in order of complexity of the change. The first five variations are relatively simple to implement and take place within the system; the system itself does not change and the core beliefs and understandings remain the same. The last three variations represent strategies for significant change. These represent complete system shifts to new paradigms, new assumptions, and new structures.

The Spread of Change

In The Tipping Point (2000), Malcolm Gladwell uses Everett M. Rogers’ theory about the diffusion of innovation (Rogers, 1983 & 1995) to compare the progression and spread of social change with medical epidemics. He argues, “Ideas and products and messages spread just like viruses do” (p. 7). If we consider the dynamics of change and apply this epidemiological analogy we may be able to influence the nature and speed of change in social institutions and systems. Based on his evidence, Gladwell provides three principles of how change spreads:

  1. Change is contagious; it moves from person to person.
  2. Small changes can cumulate into large effects.
  3. Change can happen very quickly.

Gladwell particularly emphasizes the last point, the potential speed of change. At first a disease will spread at a gradual rate, affecting only a few in a population. The “tipping point” is the critical point when the spread of the disease suddenly jumps to an exponential rate, now affecting a significantly large number in the population. He suggests that those interested in promoting social change consider and apply the rules of epidemics:

  1. “The Law of the Few”: People with particular, identifiable characteristics can influence and promote the spread of change through a much larger population.
  2. “The Stickiness Factor”: Change can be enhanced if ideas, messages and products are presented in language and images that stick in people’s memory.
  3. “The Power of Context”: The speed and nature of change is significantly influenced by the conditions and circumstances that exist at the time and location of the pending change

Those promoting the spread of good ideas need to concern themselves with both the conditions and circumstances most likely to promote change.

Charts and Tables Demonstrating O-AIM Work

The following charts and tables help explain some of the concepts and practices that Outreach Partnerships uses in its O-AIM work.