The Case for Coaction


Phil Holcombe

Phil Holcombe is the Principal and Design Director at Form & Faculty. He has crafted communications for brands around the world, built curricula as a Program Director in higher education, and serves as a trustee of a Philadelphia high school.

Schools are undergoing an important evolution, and it’s nearly invisible. Once designed to manage discrete responsibilities like curriculum development, student recruitment, and fundraising, modern schools must also pay careful attention to where and how these responsibilities connect. At Form & Faculty, we call this coaction, a term that describes a school’s systems, experiences, and individuals acting in coordination to produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Schools that nurture these connections and consistently engage in coaction deliver superior experiences to their community.

If you look carefully, you’ll find that this evolution is occurring outside of education too, quietly influencing the design of everything we experience. Noted designer and educator Dr. Meredith Davis recently observed that 

complex problems in the contemporary context for design involve perpetually changing relationships among countless interdependent variables, making it impossible to address one variable at a time in isolation or through a single discipline.

In short, if everything is interconnected, the areas that require the most attention are the “seams” between these many variables. Cliff Kuang, author of User Friendly: How the Rules of Design are Changing the Way we Live, Work, and Play, writes:

The dilemma lies in somehow convincing thousands of people to work in concert on the tiniest details so that the seams never show, and getting those details to reflect a unified experience. And yet their seams show nonetheless... The seams these companies are striving to hide away still persist, because they reflect how these companies themselves are built: the groups inside fighting for control, and the people inside those groups who may or may not understand how a thousand tiny trade-offs, all of them reasonable enough, might chip away at an experience until it’s dust.

Kuang’s example is about a company, but if you're employed by a school, you’ve witnessed the same challenge. Given the current challenges, schools have to build systems and experiences that in fact are seamless. A school that has its communications, curriculum, and its physical environment in close coordination — in complete coaction — will flourish, even in the hardest of times.

So what happens when schools pay special attention to this coaction? Schools that value coaction, and nurture symbiotic relationships between people and programs, succeed on many levels...

A more unified school experience for students and families

Coaction ensures the school’s values manifest themselves consistently with each experience, from orientation to the everyday classroom experience. This is particularly critical for prospective families, who are still forming their opinion and understanding of the school.

An ability to pivot more quickly and more precisely in times of crisis

Schools engaged in coaction can pivot faster in times of crisis, because faculty, staff, programs, and communication will move nimbly, since they are acting with a unified understanding of the mission and a unified goal.

Better storytelling

Coaction means no “gaps” in the brand: what the Marketing & Communications office says matches exactly with what the faculty deliver, and that matches exactly with the experience of the students; the same story — and a positive story — is told everywhere.

Improved collaboration

The same message is communicated by all parts of the school — that’s coaction. This kind of collaboration means better use of resources: less duplication of efforts, and less waste of human resources, financial resources, and time. 

Form & Faculty continues to offer discrete solutions to discrete problems, as we have for the past ten years. And in response to this evolution, we’re now pleased to offer schools Coaction Audits. By visiting your school community, Form & Faculty looks at ten areas where different systems, experiences, and individuals need to interact successfully. These audits promise to provide real feedback to help the different parts of your institution operate in harmony, overcome challenges more effectively, and provide superior experiences to your community.

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