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A good deal of the literature on scaling focuses on a definition that refers to the replication (often with room for adaptation) of programs in new sites or locations. But the “what” of scaling can go well beyond programs, and the “how” of scaling can include much more than replication.

In the Winter 2009 issue of the journal New Directions for Evaluation, editors Judith Ottoson and Penelope Hawe1 offer an excellent overview of five theories on how knowledge moves among people and institutions for the purpose of effecting change. These theories have direct relevance to the concept of scale because they describe how things (in this case, knowledge) move or spread—a concept at the heart of scale. The theories help clarify different conceptualizations of what can be scaled, how it can be scaled, and what needs to be considered when evaluating the scaling process.

Adapting content from the New Directions for Evaluation journal issue, the matrix below outlines four definitions of what can be scaled. Programs are one option; others include ideas or innovations, technologies or skills, and policies.

Programs are packaged systems of services that work together to produce impacts for individuals or communities. Before they are scaled, programs usually go through a rigorous evaluation to prove that they are effective. Scaling then involves launching a program in other sites. That process may allow programs to be adapted for different contexts or populations, but adaptations generally do not venture too far from the original model.

Selected Resources on Theory

Fulbright-Anderson, K., Kubisch, A., & Connell, J. (Eds.). (1998). New approaches to evaluating community initiatives: Theory, measurement, and analysis. Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute.

Rogers, P. J., Hacsi, T. A., Petrosino, A., & Huebner, T. A. (Eds.). (2000). Program theory in evaluation: Challenges and opportunities. New Directions in Evaluation, 87, 1–112.

Idea or Innovation
Gladwell, M. (2002). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. New York: Back Bay Books.

Rogers, E. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.

Technology or Skill
Bozeman, B. (1988). Evaluating technology transfer and diffusion. Evaluation and Program Planning, 11(1), 63–104.

Goh, S. C. (2002). Managing effective knowledge transfer: An integrative framework and some practice implications. Journal of Knowledge Management, 6(1), 23–30.

Goggin, M. L., Bowman, A. O., Lester, J. P., & O’Toole, L. J. (1990). Implementation theory and practice: Toward a third generation. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

Sabatier, P. A. (2007). Theories of the policy process (2nd ed.). Boulder: Westview Press.

Ideas or innovations are new ways of thinking about or doing something. Unlike programs, they are more conceptual and can be approached in different ways. And whereas programs typically come with ownership or branding, ideas generally are not owned by a single individual or organ-ization. An example of an idea is microcredit, the idea of giving very small loans to people in poverty to spur entrepreneurship and self-employment. Microcredit can be approached in different ways, but the core concept is consistent—a small amount of money can make a big difference in people’s lives. Scaling ideas involves communicating and spreading them throughout a population or region.

Technologies or skills are products, tools, techniques, or practices. Scaling means increasing the number of people who use them. The scaling process takes place through training and skill development or through marketing and distribution. Examples include training health workers in a new treatment practice, or spreading the use of mosquito nets as a way to fight malaria.

Policies are codified statements about a course of action. Scaling refers to the implementation of those policies throughout an area or a jurisdiction. An example is the statewide adoption and implementation of new quality standards for early childhood programs.

As Ottoson and Hawe demonstrate, conceptualizations of the scaling process go well beyond the replication of programs. When those interested in the scaling process encounter effective practice, they should carefully examine what should be scaled and how. Is it the entire program? Is it the general idea, which can be adapted? Is it certain technologies or skills? Is it policy that codifies and mandates the action that can lead to positive change? Or is it some combination of all four?


What Is Scaled Definition of Scale Scaling Mechanisms Relevant Theory/Literature Influencing Variables
A system of projects or services that meets a need for individuals or communities. Copying a program that research has shown to be effective, with the expectation that it can or will produce the same results in different places. Scaled programs often allow for flexibility in implementation to best adapt to the local context. -Replication
-Program Theory
-Theory of Change
-Fidelity of Implementation
Idea or Innovation    
A new way of thinking about or doing something; new solutions to problems. Spreading an idea among individuals or organizations within a certain area or system (geographic, organizational, professional); ideas can be adapted to fit different purposes or contexts. -Communication
-Diffusion of Innovation
-Tipping Point
-Communications Theory
-Relative Advantage
Technology or Skill    
Products, tools, techniques, or practices. Increasing the number of people or places that use or apply a technology, practice, or approach. -Marketing
-Knowledge Transfer
-Technology Transfer
-Learning Theory
-Market Demand
-Existence of Supporting Policies
-Availability of Technical Support
Codified statements that define plans or a course of action. Ensuring that ideas expressed as policy are transformed into behavior throughout a place or jurisdiction (e.g., city, county, state, region, country). -Implementation -Agenda Setting
-Policy Implementation Theory
-Sociopolitical Factors

Julia Coffman
Senior Consultant, Harvard Family Research Project
Director, Center for Evaluation Innovation

1. Ottoson, J. M., & Hawe, P. (2009). Knowledge utilization, diffusion, implementation, transfer, and translation: Implications for evaluation. New Directions for Evaluation, 124, 1–108. The journal issue covers five “knowledge-for-action” theories: (1) knowledge utilization, (2) diffusion, (3) implementation, (4) transfer, and (5) translation.

2. Adapted from Ottoson, J. M., & Hawe, P. (2009). Knowledge utilization, diffusion, implementation, transfer, and translation: Implications for evaluation. New Directions for Evaluation, 124, 1–108.

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