The danger of claiming that relationships can’t scale

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May 2, 2019

For months, my Twitter feed of educators and education reformers has been lighting up with praise for New York Times columnist David Brooks. In a sharp departure from some of his more technocratic arguments of years past, Brooks has been writing passionately about the essential — and oft-ignored — role that relationships play in our lives and the lives of children. He’s spotlighted programs like StriveTogether and Thread, and philosophies like social-emotional learning that are doubling down on relationships.

Amid his relationship fever, however, Brooks insists on a stark limitation: “Relationships do not scale.”

He follows this assertion with the more encouraging caveat that norms, by contrast, do scale. If we want to weave the social fabric of our country back together, his argument goes, a norm or cultural movement that puts relationships first could spark mass investment in local community-building at a national scale.

Core to his axiom that relationships can’t scale is perhaps our most limited social resource: time. Relationships demand emotional intimacy, and building that sort of trust takes time. Plus, the logistical hurdles in terms of time, transportation and other costs of bringing people together — especially those who don’t already know each other — can be high. Brooks also has evolutionary psychology in his favor. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, our brains can handle only so many friends at a given time (approximately 150 friendships, he finds). The tidy notion that “relationships do not scale” makes good, scientific sense.

But it’s also dangerous, especially for education systems taking a page from Brooks’s work. Relationships need not be boutique or luxury goods reserved for high-touch, high-cost or hard-to-fund models. In our research on innovations and policies that expand students’ social capital, we’re surfacing a host of possible solutions to overcome the seemingly fixed reservoirs of trust, bandwidth, time and, let’s face it, money that it takes to invest in relationships.

1. Scaling Our Relationship Reservoirs. In a world awash with social media, certain types of relationships feel hyper-scalable. Brief, vapid online connections are of course not the sort Brooks has in mind. And in fact, Dunbar himself found that racking up Facebook “friends” doesn’t actually expand our number of real friendships.

But social media tools like Facebook and LinkedIn are quietly doing something else that does beget scale: They are slowing the rates at which our friendships decay. Put differently, with the advent of digital Rolodexes, the costs of maintaining connections have decreased. This nurtures the reservoir of relationships we can depend on, which inevitably shifts over time. Different deep relationships can offer different value depending on how our circumstances change. If you lose a parent, suddenly a friend who has experienced the same can become a close source of solace. If you are looking to switch careers, friends — perhaps from past lifetimes — in your new industry can suddenly become trusted sources of knowledge and opportunity. In other words, these technologies scale our ability to keep in toucheven as relationships naturally wax and wane over decades.

2. Scaling Support and Trust Online. If technology can prevent us from falling out of touch with our offline relationships, it’s also opening a host of new connections otherwise out of reach. There’s healthy skepticism from a range of scholars that “real” relationships can unfold online. However, we’ve been studying technology tools in the education sector that are starting to scale virtual connections to offer critical, authentic human support where education systems fall woefully short. Tools like Student Success Agency use virtual near-peer mentors to address chronic shortages in time students have with guidance counselors. The model unlocks time where traditional approaches can’t. Some estimate that the average high school student receives only 38 minutes of interaction with a guidance counselor per year. Instead, students who participate in SSA spend an average of 38 minutes with e-mentors per month.

Similar models cropping up in postsecondary education, like Beyond12, pair low-income first-generation students with virtual coaches who are themselves recent first-generation graduates. Although its coaches work with a caseload of more than 100 students, by recruiting coaches with shared experiences and backgrounds, the model can expedite the rate at which trust is built to support students through college.

3. Scaling Public Investment. Besides the biological and time limits that inherently cap how much we invest in caring connections, part of what Brooks might actually be saying (without saying it) is that relationships are hard to scale cheaply. But one simple solution would be increasing public investment in relationships and the infrastructure required to nurture social capital development.

Luckily, policymakers seem to be taking note. For example, Mentor’s Massachusetts affiliate’s decade-long advocacy effort has resulted in a $1 million Department of Education investment in expanding evidence-based mentoring relationships for kids. This work is replicated nationally in the growing investment in mentoring, now at a high of $95 million, by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Also, Massachusetts and Indiana are putting big dollars into wraparound student support models that shore up a web of care around students. Some of this has been sparked by the impressive academic results and cost benefit of the Boston College City Connects model, which places coordinators in schools to generate customized support around each student. Rather than making politicians gun-shy by talking about hard-to-scale models, we should encourage them to invest in approaches that generate this significant return on relationship investment.

4. Scaling New Business Models. Just as spending money can unlock scale, so can making money. As crass as this may sound, to unlock a better infrastructure for brokering relationships, social programs and tools can begin to adopt business models that prosper not simply by providing one-off services, but by brokering connections. In business jargon, these are known as facilitated networks business models. Uber may hardly be the model to hold up for weaving society, but at its core, its business model generates revenue through connections rather than transactions.

So what about an Uber for unlocking and coordinating community connections? In the public sector, these are starting to emerge. For example, CommunityShare allows teachers to find and partner with neighbors to work with their classes on projects. And big brands like Nike, Starbucks, LinkedIn and the NBA have used their platforms to leverage technology to recruit through Mentor’s Mentoring Connector, a marketplace of mentoring opportunities reaching more than 100,000 people per year. Certainly, it still takes time to nurture these connections, but by lowering search costs, these facilitated network tools lessen the friction and logistical burdens of putting new relationships within reach.

5. Scaling Relationships as Outcomes. Finally, in thinking about how these innovations scale in the public sector, and in particular in education, we need to start treating relationships as outcomes rather than inputs. To quote another axiom, what gets measured gets done. Schools and youth programs have been scaling standards-based approaches to keep students on track to graduation and drive test scores since the passage of No Child Left Behind. That, and other widespread reform efforts, always treated relationships — with educators, mentors, tutors and even peers — as inputs to development and learning. That means relationships can be inadvertently treated as one-offs, disposable and even at risk of automation. If relationships are instead treated as outcomes, we’ll start investing in institutional designs and intervention models through which relationships are deliberately nurtured and outlast one-time interventions.

None of these are relationships themselves, but they mark the tools, infrastructure and brokers that could put more relationships within reach, and keep them within reach, for more young people. That’s a healthy dose of scale.

This post originally appeared in The 74.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.