Change Networks Require Three Types Of Expertise

The work of Global Action Networks (GANs) as global change networks requires three types of expertise.  The types shift if importance as a network evolves.

Particularly in their early days GANs lead with physical or substantive issue expertise such as expertise in some aspect of water, forestry, labor, conflict prevention, and youth employment.  In early days, a network’s leaders are usually seen as experts in the issue.  This is important to ensure the network is grounded in its issue expertise to build its legitimacy with key stakeholders. 

A second type of expertise is tool expertise.  There are certain activities that networks elect to realize their vision.  These include such tools as certification, resource management, index development, and financing. 

But as networks develop, these types of expertise become less central.  Networks do not aim to develop leading substantive issue expertise – that is the work of universities, think tanks and consultancies that participate in networks.  And after applying tool expertise to create a financing or certification system, simple expansion in detail and maintenance are required.  Networks just need to make sure that they have these types of expertise in their network to maintain legitimacy, relevance and an appropriate level of quality.  They often have a place for issue and tool expertise, such as with a Technical Committee.

As global change networks develop, a third type of expertise becomes increasingly important.  It is change process expertise in applying the tool to the issue arena to enhance social, economic and environmental outcomes in the issue field using the tools.  The type of change process expertise that networks need is driven by their particular theory of change that, for Global Action Networks, is a multi-stakeholder one. The work of developing (1) change through (2) multi-stakeholder processes is what defines the complexion and array of the competencies that networks need for success, although a different complexion of similar competencies is often needed in other types of organizations.

To understand how this change process work distinguishes networks, consider the tool of “certification and standards”. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO:  often mis-referred to as the International Standards Organization because of the acronym mis-match) also produces standards that are used in certification. ISO is a business-government network.  ISO has an important “system organizing” role like other GANs.  But it is not a GAN. Its goal is not about change, but rather about summarizing current standards and ensuring there is some international uniformity and way of translating standards between countries. ISO emphasizes tool expertise rather than change process expertise. It does not have transformational change as part of its fundamental purpose – transformational change that includes change in power relationships.  

In contrast to ISO, GANs like the Global Reporting Initiative, the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council that are involved with measurement and certification, take a position of leadership by gathering stakeholders who want to significantly advance the standards in terms of their social, environmental and economic impact.  Advancing practice for this triple bottom-line impact is distinctive in GANs across issues.  GANs’ belief that the certification should be done by embracing diversity and voluntarily, gives additional wrinkles to the particular competencies that they have to both develop and integrate for success. 

This change competency must not relax into complacency if the GAN is to maintain its leading edge…something I refer to as “getting stuck” (good scientific term!).  To get the feeling of the posture GANs require, think of yourself standing up and tipping forward and barely avoiding a fall.  Organizations like ISO are about standing straight up, in place. In GANs there is always a feeling that things are somewhat “out of control” as they tumble into the future.  

How to maintain this position is a core challenge for success.  It demands great skill in ensuring stakeholders are really challenging each other effectively, rather than sinking into comfortable familiar relationships.  Change processes of the duration that the global ones GANs are tackling must not only manage differences, but also familiarity. 

A large number of brilliant processes have developed over the past decade that, by and large, GANs make little use of.  These include such methodologies as dynamic facilitation, future search, world café, scenario development, change labs, appreciative inquiry and deep democracy.  More on these in a future blog. 

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