the art of convening diverse voices across difficult boundaries
What it is
Many challenges today require learning that brings people together across different practices, different institutions, different goals, different cultures, different loyalties. Fostering social learning across social landscapes with such entrenched boundaries requires a certain kind of leadership, which we have called systems convening.
Systems conveners look at the social landscape in which they operate—an organization, a big challenge, a city, a community, a field, a country, the world—and they see unrealized potential across traditional boundaries and silos. Their stance is both visionary and pragmatic. They work to open spaces for new kinds of conversations between people on different sides of a boundary, for example, a geographic, cultural, disciplinary, political, organizational, or social class boundary. Taking a social landscape perspective, they spot opportunities for creating new learning partnerships across boundaries, often among unlikely people. Importantly, systems convening requires enough legitimacy in different worlds to invite these people into a joint learning space. Many people do this kind of work without any label, often unrecognized, and sometimes not even being able to articulate the full extent of what they are doing.
How it contributes to social learning capability
Social landscapes are complex and diverse with all sorts of boundaries. Even when much learning takes place, it can easily remain local and siloed unless social learning capability is expanded. Systems conveners take a wide-angle lens of wherever they are to figure out what they need to do to increase the learning capability of the broader landscape—rather than simply in their own location. But they recognize that the development of broad social learning capability requires local work on aspirations, boundaries, practices, identities, and power relations. They build broader foundations for learning capability through various aspects of their convening work:
- The invitation of their convening call triggers imagination about what is possible
- Establishing their convening legitimacy inspires confidence that new aspirations are feasible
- Engaging across difficult boundaries expands learning possibilities
- Expanding the horizon invites new dimensions of identity
- Carefully fostering agency enables change in practice
- Leveraging and confronting relationships of power is a way to reshape the playing field
- Weaving a value-creation narrative helps sustain cross-boundary learning efforts
More on systems convening
Workshops and events
We host regular workshops on systems convening, for people in a variety of roles and contexts who need to develop learning capability across complex boundaries.
Our first writing on systems convening
In Part III of this 2014 book, we included three chapters on systems convening. The first chapter introduces the concept. The next two are in-depth case studies co-authored with systems conveners we worked with.
A deeper understanding of systems convening
This 2021 book is based on a wide-ranging series of interviews with systems conveners in very different contexts. We were able to articulate seven dimensions of their work, as well as the perspective underlying their approach.