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Organizations Vs. Partnerships Vs. Networks

Posted by Steve Waddell in Net Dev on March 16, 2010

When participating in a seminar on partnerships sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, I noticed that people were using the terms “network”, “partnership” and “organization” inter-changeably. This created a lot of confusion. Consequently I developed the table below to help distinguish between the concepts and identify important implications for organizing.

Others may use the terms differently. Some may consider what are here referred to as “partnerships” as what I mean when I write “network”. Partnerships are defined as task oriented – they have a relatively limited and well-defined objective such as producing a report or constructing a water system. The main rationale behind them is to coordinate activities, resources and skills. There are perhaps as many as a couple of dozen participants – a small enough number for people (or organizational representatives) to know each other and coordinate activities. They are organized on a hub and spoke model, with a central coordinating committee or organization of some sort.

In contrast are inter-organizational networks that may have thousands of participating organizations and tens of thousands of people from those organizations participating – many more than can possibly know each other. They come together because they are participants in a system that they want to move in a certain direction – they want to create greater “coherence” between their activities. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) wants to move all stakeholders in the “forest and forest-product system” in a direction that supports sustainable forestry practices. This includes forest companies, manufacturers of forest products, retailers of those products, environmentalists, the forest communities, consumers, financiers and others.

But the FSC’s success is not dependent upon its ability to engage every stakeholder organization as a participant. In fact, building upon the “tipping point” theory popularized by Malcom Gladwell, FSC probably can achieve its goal with only a minority of stakeholder organizations participating. Its goal is to influence the whole system by engaging enough stakeholders so that it can change the rules of the system and the way it operates. The “system” is very diffuse, and does not have any particular organizing focus although many organizations would be sub-network nodes, such as commercial timber company associations.

Of course FSC doesn’t have any formal power to enforce the rules (standards), but as adoption of them grows organizations that don’t follow them will find themselves locked out of some opportunities such as access to some customers. (Over 50% of forestry products consumed in the UK are now FSC certified.)

One important complication is that big networks like Global Action Networks (GANs) are inter-organizational networks, but they have many “partnerships” within them working on particular projects. For example, the Global Water Partnership has local partnerships working on a particular water basin. But a GAN also is an “organization” in the form of what is usually referred to as a Secretariat. This central node has staff and a reporting structure that is no different from other traditional hierarchies. Larger GANs also have similar regional “organizational” nodes.

This usually is confusing for GANs. They must be networks, partnerships and organizations. They must understand which is doing what, and why; they must be able to apply the appropriate “organizing logic” in each situation. They must be excellent at managing Secretariat staff, at coordinating partner projects, and creating coherence for the network as a whole.

You may also be interested in a book that was produced by the Dutch symposium: Partnerships, Governance And Sustainable Development: Reflections on Theory and Practice. The Chapter co-authored by me and Sanjeev Khagram is available here.

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