"Network Enablers": Exploratory Study of High Goal-Enabling Professionals in Higher Education

Trail, Juliet, Education - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Pusser, Brian, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

In the field of higher education, goal attainment is fundamental to professional success for all employees. “Goals” in the higher education context are multiple and multifaceted, encompassing research, scholarship, teaching and the administration of all activities of the institution. As the mission complexity and resource compression of higher education continues to increase, it will become progressively more important to identify and to understand more about members of academic networks who have a direct impact on the success of others and on the system as a whole. Such individuals may be considered exemplars of distributed leadership who serve to facilitate knowledge-intensive work, organizational learning, and innovation. This research explored the skills, behaviors, and perspectives of a potentially significant group of academic professionals who were identified by their colleagues as being personally successful while also consistently enabling the success of others, termed Network Enablers (NE).

Three research questions guided the present study: (1) What patterns emerge in asking colleagues to identify Network Enabling individuals in their academic network? (e.g., are those nominated identified multiple times by peers?); (2) In what ways do NE participants describe their motivation for network enabling?; (3) In what ways do participants describe their professional roles and identities (e.g., do they consciously see themselves as coaches, mentors, and/or leaders?)

Data were collected from a survey of 240 full-time employees of a professional school at a research university and from generative knowledge interviews with 14 individuals who were nominated three or more times by their peers for the study. Interview participants were examined in terms of how they referenced specific skills, behaviors, and perspectives during a generative knowledge interview (GKI) process. Themes from the interview narratives were captured by a coding framework that merged the competencies of the Emotional and Social Competencies Inventory (ESCI) with the identified characteristics of resonant leaders and of energizers in networks, along with novel traits that emerged from the interview data.

The findings of the study were used to develop a visual model for the emerging concept of Network Enablers. The NE orientation was found to be characterized by contextual factors, individual traits, and a balanced investment in relationships (people) and ideas (projects). When combined, these aspects contributed to the outcomes of high-frequency mentoring (including formal and informal problem-solving and guiding), trust-based networks of relationships, and entrepreneurial behaviors (including innovation and catalyzing change). NE may offer insight into a group of professionals in higher education – from across genders and across academic position-types – who have a skill set that significantly contributes to the success of complex, knowledge-intensive organizations like institutions of higher education. The NE theoretical model may provide a useful framework for researchers from across the fields of emotional intelligence, organizational network analysis, distributed leadership, and higher education to consider the importance of having network enablers present and nurtured in organizations. This, in turn, could influence how organizations might recruit, develop, reward, recognize, and retain network enablers in the future.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
network enabler, higher education, organizational network analysis (ONA), Emotional & Social Competencies Inventory (ESCI), emotional intelligence (EI), resonant leader, energizer, distributed leadership, Generative Knowledge Interview (GKI), mentor, trust, entrepreneur
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