Communications Leadership Learning M&E

Seven Complexity Implications for Multi-Stakeholder Networks

Learning to work with complexity is absolutely essential for people working with multi-stakeholder networks.  It’s key to effective leadership, network development, impact measurement, communications, and change strategies.  A multi-stakeholder change network developing all these for a complicated rather than complex system is bound to fail…or at least fall far short of its objectives.   

When co-leading a workshop with The Change Alliance in Nairobi a few weeks ago, colleague Jim Woodhill brought forward again David Snowden’s cynfin (pronounced kun-ev’in) framework that presents the distinctive essence of complexity in an easily-understood way. 

Snowden starts with two major contextual factors that determine the appropriate strategic framework for an initiative.  The factor of level of abstraction is related to  trust – trust in whether people share the same values and goals, whether they believe they have the competency to do what they say they want to do, and whether they actually have worked together enough to knowing the meaning of each others’ use of words.  Where trust is high, people can handle relatively high levels of abstraction.   

A second factor is culture. Snowden distinguishes between a techno- or physical-oriented situation that can be minutely described and controlled, with a learning context where there are many unknowns and knowledge is emergent. 

This produces four different operating environments that require four different ways of strategizing and four different logics for any initiative like a network.  In the Visible Order domain, bureaucratic and highly structured approaches such as those associated with government application of laws and rules, and traditional business production lines are appropriate.  Strong control rules account for the possibility of low trust and a high number of transactions.

In the Hidden Order domain professional skills become much more important, since many more scientific judgment calls are made against an array of options.  This is associated with complicated situations, where there can be a large number of interacting variables but they can be understood through reviews of experiments, and controlled.  Think of sending a person to the moon.  This is the realm of scientific management.  This requires high abstraction and trust in technical abilities. 

Rather than techno-focused, the complex setting is people-focused. Rather than joining around hard science knowledge and standards, the high abstraction comes with people collaborating voluntarily around shared values and concerns.  However, the collective work is usually very broadly defined in terms of objectives – in fact, the work involves actually clarifying the objectives (eg:  what does sustainability really look like?).  People are continually learning about each other and how they can collaboratively realize aspirations.  Cause and effect cannot be separated, because they are intimately intertwined. 

The fourth action domain is chaotic.  In this situation, there is inability to learn or predict because the situation, people and issues are all changing so rapidly.  Patterns do not exist and do not emerge through interactions.  Crisis management is needed.

Seven Implications

1.     One implication is that multi-stakeholder change networks like Global Action Networks (GANs) by their very nature tend to operate in the complex domain.  They operate with high diversity in participants, in terms of culture, language and objectives.  They are addressing “stuck” topics and B-HAG (big hairy audacious goals).  They cannot look to history as a guide.  Their decision model is probe-sense-respond. 

2.     This emphasizes the importance of GANs developing sophisticated learning processes.  Traditional history-based research takes a second seat of importance.  GANs must support action learning projects to test and “emerge” potential answers to collective challenges.  They need to be good at understanding worst practice and adapting good experience in one part of a network, to work in another…as opposed to linear “scaling up” best practices that require a highly predictable environment to be useful. 

3.     Operating in the domain of complexity also emphasizes the importance of not thinking of “a strategic plan”, but of “strategic planning” as an on-going process. Rather than operating with detailed projects, a GAN should identify some broad goals and continually adjust as new opportunities and new learning arise.  “In a complex domain we manage (in order to) recognize, disrupt, reinforce and seed the emergence of patterns;  we allow the interactions to create coherence and meaning,” says Snowden. 

4.     Effective structures tend to take the form of well-connected networks, without a dominant center.  Empowerment for self-organizing is important. 

5.     And complexity once again emphasizes the value of leadership that is leaderful.  More on these implications next week.

6.     For communications, complexity stresses the importance of creating virtual platforms for discussions where people can probe, and sensing what is emerging to formulate appropriate responses – and this de-emphasizes the role of communications as “telling people”.  Supporting development of informal communities is key.

7.     Probably the most problematic implication for operating in the complexity domain is with impact measurement and evaluation.  Linear tools like log frames are appropriate for the techno worlds, but not for the learning domains.  They suppress the ability to respond to emerging knowledge and opportunities.  Moreover, they are predicated upon identifiable cause-effect relationships.  Although learning-based evaluation systems like outcome mapping are beginning to develop, we lag in tools and in understanding of those who are demanding evaluations. 

Significant development issues are associated with this Cynefin model.  For example:  does a GAN aim to shift the issue it is working on, into the realm of scientific management?  Is that possible? 


What’s In A Social Media Policy?

Use of social media by change networks is absolutely essential.  Rather than the traditional media that focuses on “telling” people things, social media strategies are about creating a platform for sharing and generating information.  This is a blog by Beth Kanter that recently appeared on her site Beth’s Blog.  Beth is a social media maven who is Visiting Scholar at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

The tone and philosophy in a social media policy depends on the risk appetite of the organization.   As this was explained in the discussion on Facebook,  organizations with a stronger risk appetite/tolerance for their activities might have a more “permissive” social media policy.  More conservative organizations and fields, might have a more restrictive social media policies.   It’s the all about organizational culture as well as the depth of  senior leadership’s understanding and knowledge of social media.  All these factors come into lay in the writing of policy and how it is enforced.

Structurally, a social media policy has two sections:

(1) Guidelines: This section should be one or pages that summarizes how your organization can be more effective at using social media. It should not be about control, but more on how to use the tools effectively. It should lay out parameters around organizational and personal use.    See Ford Social Media Guidelines for an example.

(2) Manual: This section refers to your social media plan, and includes best practices on using social media with specific examples. Many organizations use it as part of their training.   Take a look at the Red Cross Social Media Policy for a good nonprofit example of the operational side of the policy.

What’s the Process?

Your social media policy should be developed in tandem with your strategy.   Discussing the results of the strategy along with the guidelines is valuable.   It is also helpful  to look at what other organizations are doing and pick out the elements relevant to your org and goals

There are many examples out there, so there is no reason to start from scratch.  There is also the Social Media Policy Tool that allows you to answer a couple of questions and it spits out some boiler plate to get you started.   But, if you want the policy to truly work, you need a process, especially if your organization is still grappling with fears and concerns. 

If your nonprofit is a large organization with many staff, you’ll want to consult with HR, Legal, IT, and other key departments. You may need a couple of meetings to discuss and review the following

  • Who should be involved writing the policy?
  • Who will vet the policy?

Virtual Tools for Participation

“Public participation…is (a) realm in which other countries are advancing beyond the United States, turning us from a leader to a follower in democratic innovation.”  Thus begins an information-ladden short response to the White House’s request for “thoughts” about the US Government’s Open Government Initiative.  It contains good information to develop participatory networks.

I’ve cringed as I followed Obama’s unskilled moves with major initiatives such as responses to the financial crisis and his health care plan. This is a man who is called a community organizer??? He has so bought into “representative government” as “inner beltway” (Washington DC) discussion (polite way to describe the volleys between camps). I have been astonished at the contrast with his engaging campaign. Wouldn’t a few million dollars have gone a long way to enhance innovation and support for change, by creating a national, locally-based conversation on critical issues and get them out of the clutches of entrenched politicians?

The paper is the product of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDD) and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  The DDD is an alliance of organizations and scholar working in participatory engagement.  The NCDD is a great network that promotes participative learning and collaboration.  It is pushing the boundaries of practice and building capacity;  see its impressive resource center

A few years ago I went to the meeting of the Canadian counterpart of the NCDD, the Canadian Community for Dialogue and Deliberation.  Canada has a long history of community consultation, most notably through “commissions” that roam the country to collect citizens’ thoughts and spur action.  At the meeting I was very impressed by both the large number of participants from government, and the sophistication of their participation strategies.  (Confession:  I hold Canadian and American passports.)

So what’s happening in the United States?  The Open Government Initiative is a modest step forward “…to make government more transparent and more accessible, to provide people with information that they can use in their daily lives, to solicit public participation in government decision-making, and to collaborate with all sectors of the economy on new and innovative solutions.”

The steps in this National Action Plan (September, 2011) are rather modest, but represent progress.  Most action listed to date falls into the pre-web 2.0 world – the world of one-way communication.  It’s about making information more available and eliminating unnecessary reporting.  The next steps are more in the same direction, enhancing transparency, improving access to information, and putting a toe into 2.0 world with:  on-line petitioning, participation metrics, improved public participation in development of regulations, better web-sites and promoting virtual communities.  It really makes me realize that it’s not that the virtual sphere in the US is uninteresting – but it sure lacks an engaged government presence.  It also makes me wonder how “open government” became equated with “virtual government”.  Surely virtual communications have to be integrated with face-to-face if they are going to be at all robust.  One of the documents referenced in the NCDD response comments:

“While this report focuses on online engagement, it is important to note that working productively with the public also requires face-to-face engagement. The two forms of communication have unique strengths and limitations: nothing can beat the convenience and choice of online tools, and nothing can beat the emotional impact of a face-to-face conversation.” – Using Online Tools to Engage the Public

In any case, you should look at the DDD-NCDD submission if you’re interested in getting ideas about participation metrics, and virtual participation tools and strategies.  It is a great summary of the latest and best in America – and there is a tremendous amount of innovation, even if the federal government is behind times.  I like Use “serious games” to generate interest, understanding, and input, found in “Using Online Tools to Engage the Public”.  It is part of a 10-step stage approach to tools.

Support the DDD-NCDD submission with a comment on their site.  Tell us below what resources might you like to tell others about? 

Comment from Matt Leighninger,  Executive Director –Deliberative Democracy Consortium

I don’t think the Canadians, unfortunately, have been too far ahead of the US in public engagement–with the current government, things are pretty quiet up here right now on the participation front. I think Brazil and India are the leading democratic innovators these days – John Gaventa’s pieces (like Reversing the Flow and the big report he wrote with Gregory Barrett So What Difference Does it Make?  Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement).
I agree with you about the limits of transparency, and the sad contrast between the Obama Campaign and the Obama Administration. I’m attaching a couple other things you might like – There’s More to Engagement than Transparency, and Vitalizing Democracy Through Participation


Virtual Collaboration Tools for Networks, Participation, Transparency

A survey of a half dozen global networks revealed that their use of virtual collaboration tools is amazingly rudimentary.  A couple of colleagues and I discovered that when identifying tools for GOLDEN to use.  We wanted virtual platforms to support three functions:  contact management, document collaboration, and project planning.  And we had to think how this would impact our current web-site, which includes a community portal.  

I find astonishing the low level of collaboration software use in global networks.  Email and google docs are okay for simple or adhoc 

engagements, but how can valuing “transparency” and “participation” not lead networks to use something more sophisticated?  Our survey revealed only use of google docs and email  is common, plus some central office use of Sharepoint and Salesforce – proprietary, expensive and quite complex programs.  Are people just overwhelmed by the options?  Don’t they appreciate what’s possible?  Is it simple inertia?  Are the network leaders simply too old of fuddie duddies that they are afraid of it (thinking of the old days when executives had their secretaries write their emails)? 

We went through three stages of exploration.  First I wanted to bring myself up to speed on how to “think” and “talk” about the options – mental frameworks and language are so important for asking the right questions!  Although I wanted professional advice, I first wanted to be able to understand the basic concepts and important questions.  I went through web searches…Wikipedia has great pages on some of the overall concepts, and lists of actual options (donate to Wikipedia!);  there’s also a useful comparison matrix

This is when overload and confusion set in, as I knew it would.  So I started looking at some specific options that either I previously had used with others, or that turned up with positive reviews.  I discovered some are designed with a central organization in mind – where people can be forced to use them in a hierarchical situation as their only electronic communications infrastructure.  For the open networks I work with like GOLDEN, that won’t work.  Something intuitive and easily accessible is needed – something that is an easy addition that fits within a daily worklife where the network might take 10 percent or less of a person’s time. 

I identified three different options to look into more closely:  ActiveCollab, HyperOffice, and Huddle.  These were chosen to include two key options:  one is to buy a license to a software and to place that software on a GOLDEN’s server (ActiveCollab);  the other is to buy into a hosted service on a per user basis (Huddle, HyperOffice).  Table 1 presents a comparison of these options.    

I identified some key questions such as:  price?  What’s the structure?  How are documents organized?  Is the “search” function robust?  is there a good “help” function? And then I tried out the three options to answer the questions and create a matrix with the answers.

Now I felt prepared to have intelligent conversations.  I brought together to help me a GOLDEN colleague at Aarhus University in Denmark, Nina Hejlskov, and Brandon Johnson of Spadewerk who helps with GOLDEN’s web development.  We did some further investigation – including the dismal survey of networks – and ended up with two choices:  Podio, a new offering coming out of Denmark, and HyperOffice which has been around for quite a few years.  One reason these two stood out is because they combine all three functions – most options are just for one of the three such as document collaboration. 

You can read our short report with four recommendations, including selecting HyperOffice.  Major considerations are the ease of access of HyperOffice for document collaboration.  Of course this isn’t to say that is the right choice for others – everyone has particular needs!

This also led us to rethink our community portal, which is the part of our web-site restricted to community members.  GOLDEN is a young network, and this compounds issues that most networks find with portals that are not actively managed:  people don’t use them.  Consequently, we decided to discontinue it and put our effort into HyperOffice development, promoting registration for a blog and newsletter, and a more modest discussion forum.   

Comment from Nina Hejlskov

I like your blog entry a lot – I think it sums up at lot of good things. One thing that came into mind for me is the “cultural” aspect, meaning how familiar are the users with this kind of software, the web and how willing are they to use it. The theory of cognitive surplus by Clay Shirky was one of my first thoughts. (See:  Cognitive Surplus:  How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators)

I agree that support from leaders are extremely important, but being able to engage (not demand) members to use these tools are just as important and maybe even the biggest hurdle.