The Oxford English Dictionary defines a system as, “A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.” There are, of course, a range of specific kinds of systems, including economic systems, computer systems, biological systems, social systems, psychological systems, etc. In each of these domains, the system includes specialization of component parts (a division of labor), boundaries for each of the constituent parts, both a degree of relative autonomy and an interdependence of each part on the functioning of the other parts of that system, long-term functioning (i.e. function over time), and the production of outcomes (whether such outcomes are intended or not). Systems produce effects.
While various systems are distinct, there has been an effort to generate a general science of systems, under the umbrella of “systems theory” (See, for example, this summary, “Systems Theory” ) Theorists have attempted to construct a general and abstract science that is able to describe a variety of systems. These efforts, although subject to some questions and criticisms, have been useful for mapping and describing a variety of systems and structures, and have helped social scientists and organizational/social change advocates to describe approaches to intervening in a variety of contexts, including organizational, educational, social welfare, and economic systems.
Systems thinking—or thinking about systems vs. thinking exclusively about individuals or single events, can help those who are attempting to strengthen initiatives and interventions. As Michael Goodman points out in “Systems Thinking: What, Why, When, Where, and How?” “Systems thinking often involves moving from observing events or data, to identifying patterns of behavior over time, (and) to surfacing the underlying structures that drive those events and patterns. By understanding and changing structures that are not serving us well (including our mental models and perceptions), we can expand the choices available to us and create more satisfying, long-term solutions to chronic problems.”
Program evaluation benefits from a systems approach because interventions (e.g., programs and initiatives) are themselves systems, and are embedded or nested in larger social and economic systems. Rather than thinking that challenges to program effectiveness are the exclusive result of individuals’ one-off actions, it is more productive to examine the systemic features of the program in order to identify how both internal structures and repeated behaviors, and larger external systemic constraints shape programs’ effectiveness.
The current health crisis is compelling many non-profits to rethink how they do business. Many must consider how to best serve their stakeholders with new and perhaps untested, means. Among questions that many non-profits must now ask themselves: How do we continue to reach program participants and service recipients? How do we change/adjust our programing so that it reaches existing and new service recipients? How do we maximize our value while ensuring the safety of staff and clients? Are there new, unanticipated opportunities to serve program participants?
New conditions require new strategies. While the majority of non-profits’ attention will necessarily be focused on serving the needs of those they seek to assist, non-profit leaders will benefit from paying attention to which strategies work, and which adaptations work better than others.
In order to investigate the effectiveness of new programmatic responses, non-profits will benefit from conducting evaluation research that gathers data about the effects and the effectiveness of new (and continuing) interventions. Formative evaluation is one such means for discovering what works under new conditions.
The goal of formative evaluations is to gather information that can help program designers, managers, and implementers address challenges to the program’s effectiveness. In its paper “Different Types of Evaluation” the CDC notes that formative evaluations are implemented “During the development of a new program (or) when an existing program is being modified or is being used in a new setting or with a new population.” Formative evaluation allows for modifications to be made to the plan before full implementation begins, and helps to maximize the likelihood that the program will succeed.” “Formative evaluations stress engagement with stakeholders when the intervention is being developed and as it is being implemented, to identify when it is not being delivered as planned or not having the intended effects, and to modify the intervention accordingly.” See “Formative Evaluation: Fostering Real-Time Adaptations and Refinements to Improve the Effectiveness of Patient-Centered Medical Home Interventions”.
While there are many potential formative evaluation questions, the core of these consists of gathering information that answers:
- Which features of a program or initiative are working and which aren’t working so well?
- Are there identifiable obstacles, or design features, that “get in the way” of the program working well?
- Which components of the program do program participants say could be strengthened?
- Which elements of the program do participants find most beneficial, and which least beneficial?
Typically, formative evaluations are used to provide feedback in a timely way, so that the functioning of the program can be modified or adjusted, and the goals of the program better achieved. Brad Rose Consulting has conducted dozens of formative evaluations, each of which has helped program managers to understand ways that their program or initiative can be refined, and program participants better served. For the foreseeable future, non-profits are likely to be called upon to offer ever greater levels of services. Program evaluation can help non-profits to maximize their effectiveness in ever more challenging times.
We’re living in a period where a lot of people are compelled to stay home, and many folks are out of work. Ironically, many employees are busier than ever. For the UPS driver, the grocery store cashier, medical personnel, truck drivers, and many assembly line workers, busyness is not a choice, but an on-going condition. While the COVID-19 crisis has increased the pace of work for those who are deemed “essential workers,” even in less stressful times, the pace of work is an intense and unrelenting activity.
Although for many, busyness is imposed and involuntary, for others–especially middle and upper managers, and entrepreneurs– busyness is not an imposed condition, but a prestigious choice. Indeed, busyness is a status symbol and an indicator of social importance. “In a recent paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers from Columbia University, Harvard, and Georgetown found through a series of experiments that the busier a person appeared, the more important they were deemed.” https://globalnews.ca/news/3343760/the-cult-of-busyness-how-being-busy-became-a-status-symbol/ The authors of the paper write, “We argue that a busy and overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, has become an aspirational status symbol. A series of studies shows that the positive inferences of status in response to busyness and lack of leisure are driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market.” As early as 1985, Barbara Ehrenreich noted that effect on women, “I don’t know when the cult of conspicuous busyness began, but it has swept up almost all the upwardly mobile, professional women I know.” https://www.nytimes.com/1985/02/21/garden/hers.html
Why are so many people obsessively busy? Tim Kreider writes in “The ‘Busy’ Trap” New York Times, June 30, 2012 “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” Similarly, Lissa Rankin writes, “It seems to me that too many of us wear busyness as a badge of honor. I’m busy, therefore I’m important and valuable, therefore I’m worthy. And if I’m not busy, forget it. I don’t matter.”
In a recent article. “7 Hypotheses for Why we are So Busy Today” Kyle Kowalski posits the following hypotheses about busyness:
- Busyness as a badge of honor and trendy status symbol — or the glorification of busy — to show our importance, value, or self-worth in our fast-paced society
- Busyness as job security — an outward sign of productivity and company loyalty
- Busyness as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) — spending is shifting from buying things (“have it all”) to experiences (“do it all”), packing our calendars (and social media feeds with the “highlight reel of life”)
- Busyness as a byproduct of the digital age — our 24/7 connected culture is blurring the line between life and work; promoting multitasking and never turning “off”
- Busyness as a time filler — in the age of abundance of choice, we have infinite ways to fill time (online and off) instead of leaving idle moments as restorative white space
- Busyness as necessity — working multiple jobs to make ends meet while also caring for children at home
- Busyness as escapism — from idleness and slowing down to face the tough questions in life (e.g. Maybe past emotional pain or deep questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is my purpose?”)
Whatever the reasons, busyness has its costs. The most obvious result is “burnout”. Others include: the long-term negative impact on happiness, well-being, and health. Ultimately, busyness may make us feel like we are important and in demand, have a high status, and command the respect of others, but it may also be destructive.
“The cult of busyness: How being busy became a status symbol” Global News, March 30, 2017
‘Ugh, I’m So Busy’: A Status Symbol for Our Time” Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic, March 1, 2017
Busyness 101: Why are we SO BUSY in Modern Life? (7 Hypotheses) By Kyle Kowalski, Sloww
“Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol,” Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia, Anat Keinan Columbia Business School Research Archive
“The cult of busyness in the nonprofit sector” Susan Fish, Charity Village, May 25, 2016
HERS, Barbara Ehrenreich. New York Times, Feb. 21, 1985
“This is why you’re addicted to being busy” Jory MacKay, Fast Company, August 12, 2019
“Are You Addicted to Being Busy? Why we should consider the hard truths we mask by staying busy.” Lissa Rankin M.D., Psychology Today, Apr 07, 2014
“Busy is a Sickness,” Scott Dannemiller, Huffington Post, February 27, 2015
The current health crisis is already having a powerful effect on non-profit organizations, many of whom had been economically challenged even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. (See “A New Mission for Nonprofits During the Outbreak: Survival” by David Streitfeld, New York Times, March 27, 2020) Despite economic challenges, and as the immediate health crisis develops, non-profits will need information, including accurate and robust evaluation and monitoring information, even more than ever.
Under conditions of uncertainty and tumultuous social-environmental environments, and rapid adaptation, non-profits will benefit from information gathered by flexible and adaptable evaluation approaches like Developmental Evaluation. “Developmental evaluation (DE) is especially appropriate for…organizations in dynamic and complex environments where participants, conditions, interventions, and context are turbulent, pathways for achieving desired outcomes are uncertain, and conflicts about what to do are high. DE supports reality-testing, innovation, and adaptation in complex dynamic systems where relationships among critical elements are nonlinear and emergent. Evaluation use in such environments focuses on continuous and ongoing adaptation, intensive reflective practice, and rapid, real-time feedback.”
As Michael Quinnn Patton has recently pointed out, “All evaluators must now become developmental evaluators, capable of adapting to complex dynamics systems, preparing for the unknown, for uncertainties, turbulence, lack of control, nonlinearities, and for emergence of the unexpected. This is the current context around the world in general and this is the world in which evaluation will exist for the foreseeable future.”
Developmental Evaluation, the kind of evaluation approach Brad Rose Consulting has employed for many years, is extremely well-suited to serve the evaluation and information needs of non-profits, educational institutions, and foundations. For more information about our approach, please see our previous article “Developmental Evaluation: Evaluating Programs in the Real World’s Complex and Unpredictable Environment” and “Evaluation in Complex and Evolving Environments” .
“A New Mission for Nonprofits During the Outbreak: Survival” by David Streitfeld, New York Times, March 27, 2020
“Evaluation Implications of the Coronavirus Global Health Pandemic Emergency,” Michael Quinn Patton
With the onset of the corona-virus (COVID-19) in the US, increasing numbers of people are working from home. While many, indeed most, jobs don’t allow for home-based employment, both new technology (e-mail, video conferencing, etc.) and public health concerns are compelling increasing numbers of employers to permit their workers to telecommute/work-from-home. In fact, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, ever greater numbers of U.S. workers have been working from their homes. One source notes that between 2005 and 2017, the number of people telecommuting grew by 159 percent. Prior to corona-virus, about 4.7 million people in the U.S. telecommuted. That number is expected to dramatically increase in 2020.
Benefits and Liabilities of Telecommuting
Telecommuting offers a number of benefits. In her article, “Benefits of Telecommuting for The Future Of Work,” Andrea Loubier reports that productivity receives a boost from those who telecommute because telecommuters are less distracted and more task focused. “With none of the distractions from a traditional office setting, telecommuting drives up employee efficiency. It allows workers to retain more of their time in the day and adjust to their personal mental and physical well-being needs that optimize productivity. Removing something as simple as a twenty minute commute to work can make a world of difference. If you are ill, telecommuting allows one to recover faster without being forced to be in the office.”
Telecommuting offers workers flexibility that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Many workers are able to organize their work with greater efficiency, deliberately integrate non-work tasks into their daily schedules. For older workers, telecommuting allows many to remain in the workforce longer. Some studies indicate that working from home also reduces employee turnover and increases company loyalty. For employers telecommuting also reduces costs, including costs associated with office space, employee hiring (due to reduced turnover), office supplies, equipment, etc.
Despite the advantages of telecommuting, working from home (or working anywhere off-site) also has disadvantages. For some, distraction isn’t decreased by working at home; it’s increased. Working from home can also be isolating and reduce the social rewards of the non-home workplace. Jobs that require building and maintaining strong interpersonal relationships are not well suited for telecommuting. As Mark Leibovich writes in “Working From Home in Washington? Not So Great,” “So much of what we do is just looking someone in the eye,” “When you can see a facial expression or body language, you get a much better sense if you’re making your case. It can be much more challenging to convey urgency remotely.”
Telecommuting Statistics at a Glance
Below are some statistics about telecommuting as reported by Flexjobs:
- 3.3 million full-time professionals, excluding volunteers and the self-employed, consider their home as their primary place of work.
- Telecommuters save between $600 and $1,000 on annual dry cleaning expenses, more than $800 on coffee and lunch expenses, enjoy a tax break of about $750, save $590 on their professional wardrobe, save $1,120 on gas, and avoid over $300 dollars in car maintenance costs.
- Telecommuters save 260 hours by not commuting on a daily basis.
- Work from home programs help businesses save about $2,000 per year per person and reduce turnover by 50 percent.
- Typical telecommuters are college graduates of about 49 years old and work with a company with fewer than 100 employees.
- Remote workers are satisfied with the company they work for (73 percent) and feel that their managers are concerned about their well-being and morale (56 percent).
- For every one real work-from-home job, there are 60 job scams.
- Most telecommuters (53 percent) work more than 40 hours per week.
- Telecommuters work harder to create a friendly, cooperative, and positive work environment for themselves and their teams.
- Work-from-home professionals (82 percent) were able to lower their stress levels by working remotely. 80 percent have improved morale, 70 percent increase productivity, and 69 percent miss fewer days from work.
- Half of the U.S. workforce has jobs that are compatible with remote work.
- Remote workers enjoy more sleep (45 percent), eat healthier (42 percent), and get more physical exercise (35 percent).
- Telecommuters are 50 percent less likely to quit their job.
- When looking at in-office workers and telecommuters, 45 percent of telecommuters love their job, while 24 percent of in-office workers love their job.
- Four in 10 freelancers have completed projects completely from home.
“Benefits of Telecommuting for The Future Of Work,” Andrea Loubier , Forbes July 20, 2017
“What is Telecommuting?” The Balance Career
“The Growing Army of Americans Who Work From Home,” Karsten Strauss Forbes, June 22, 2017
“Working From Home in Washington? Not So Great,” By Mark Leibovich, New York Times, March 18, 2020