A Key Expertise for Multi-Stakeholder Change Network’s Success

Most multi-stakeholder networks need capacity development support. But I’ve always been highly skeptical of the value of workshops as a capacity development or even learning strategy, when they are not embedded in some sort of real activity. A great article in the latest issue of writes about the need for action capacity-development…a take-off on the term action research.  (The whole issue is on Multi-Actor Change) It should help people engaged in developing multi-stakeholder networks frame their work in a more powerful way.   

The article Multi-actor systems as entry points for capacity development[1] draws from three cases from the “development” world:  transforming livestock marketing in Kenya, developing the oil-seed value chain in Uganda and boosting the honey trade in Ethiopia. 

Multi-actor development faces a particular challenge, since even more than in other situations as the article states “their capacity exists largely in the relationships between actors and grow through interaction rather than from training or organizational development.”  All of these cases needed help over a period of time, to take the stakeholders through a process where they could see the system and take effective action to develop it.  

In such a situation what is needed is what I usually call “stewarding” of the network’s development that is context-specific.  In such a situation, something more than training or consulting approaches are needed.  Rather, there must be an entrepreneurial strategy that combines those approaches grounded in strong knowledge about, and experience with, multi-stakeholder processes.   The authors identify a list of “elements” (I’d call them “roles) that is needed:

Brokering new contacts Brokering information and knowledge to understand context Hosting, chairing or facilitating meetings, trips, visits, etc. Facilitating negotiation and deal-making between actors Participating in innovation between actors, ‘cultivating’ their commitment Giving individual advice or coaching to actors to strengthen their roles/capacities Mediating in conflicts or difficult situations Facilitating multi-stakeholder processes or platforms that extend over time Being an administrative agent for financial arrangements between actors Promoting issues or perspectives that others can not take on

This list describes what I’ve done with networks, although without such a good list and that’s created confusion about my role. I would add something about the need to have access to substantial tools and frameworks, so these roles can be played effectively.

Three Multi-Stakeholder Change Network Expertise

The article also describes the shift from “expert” roles to “facilitation” roles. I don’t like that language, although I agree with the meaning. There is no particular need to have a high degree of what I call “substantive” expertise; rather, then need is for process and relationship-building expertise….in short, community development. I find useful distinguishing between three different types of expertise:

  1. Expertise in the problem…honey, oil-seed, livestock production, marketing etc.
  2. Expertise in tools and methods…this refers to a particular strategy to address an issue, such as the development of an index, creating a certification process, or applying a technology like integrated water resource management;
  3. Expertise in processes:  this refers to knowledge and skill in bringing people together so they have effective exchanges and interactions to realize their distinct and shared goals.

Of course any successful multi-actor change strategy needs all of these expertise.  However, the last is usually under-defined and that’s what this article makes a useful contribution to addressing. 

Authors are Naa-Aku Acquaye-Baddoo, Julia Ekong, Duncan Mwesige, Lucia Nass, Rem Neefjes, Jan Ubels, Piet Visser, Kencho Wangdi and Thomas Were; all of whom work at SNV’s offices worldwide, and  Jan Brouwers, senior consultant at Context, international cooperation.


Regulators, Learning, Governance and Networks

A conference for people concerned with regulation was surprisingly interesting.  I went there only because I was invited to speak.  Organized with the European Consortium for Political Research, it was a great example of learning from beyond my usual network.

The very title of the event pushed my stereotypes:  Regulation and Governance Conference:  New perspectives on learning, regulation and governance.  I just wouldn’t have expected people concerned with regulation to put all those things together.

The speakers weren’t talking about regulation simply in terms of regulatory bodies like ones for the finance industry.  They have a much broader range of interests that concern the very relationship between law and people:  what arrangements/actions succeed in stimulating observance of it?  This encompasses both “hard” and “soft” law.

From Command and Control to Multi-stakeholder Engagement

This perspective makes governance and regulation as a big trend topic.  In a new book I learned about, Oxford Handbook of Governance, Orly Lobel writes:  “The development of new governance theory marks a paradigm shift from the old regulation by Command & Control to…a vision of law and policy that draws on the comparative strengths of both private and public stakeholders and highlights the multiple ways in which the various actors in a society contribute to the acts of ordering social fields.”

This seems to me a very valuable shift to encompass Global Action Networks involved in certification such as the Forest Stewardship Council, those influencing standards more broadly like the Global Reporting Initiative, and those supporting implementation of intergovernmental agreements such as The Access Initiative.

There are actually some good historic examples of a multi-stakeholder governance approach, such as with Labor Boards and Occupational Health and Safety.  The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (a GAN) was presented at the conference as a case.

However, the degree of this multi-stakeholder approach actual sinking into core formal regulatory arrangements seems disappointing.  Financial regulation, for example, seems stuck in the government regulator versus the industry model, rather than engaging customers, investors and others.  Aside from some interesting modest examples in the usual Nordic countries and The Netherlands, I didn’t really learn about much movement.  Usually stakeholders get caught in a distant “advisory” or “legal plaintiff” roles, with regulators supposedly all-powerful and knowledgeable.  Of course such a movement raises big questions about how to address power and resource differences amongst stakeholders.

Regulation and Learning

This all leads to a second trend with regulatory approaches that I learned about:  integration of learning and questions about adaptability to changing circumstances.  Changing, from an “object of regulation” to a multi-stakeholder collaborative approach with government as key facilitator, vastly enhances the opportunities for learning and adaptability around the goal of creating a healthy multi-stakeholder “system”.   Learning raises big questions about how to generate the needed data (hence whistleblower legislation, which the conference paid some attention to), and also about capacity for “emergence” of a regulatory system from a multi-stakeholder (change) process perspective.

I was delighted to read the work of conference host Claudio Raedelli and the Oxford Handbook Governance and Learning chapter he put out with Fabrizio Gilardi.  They bring forth core critical concepts such as emergence, complexity and four types of learning (see Table).  This draws very particularly from policy-making associated inquiry.  Totally unknown to me, this tradition has developed its own interpretation of Argyris and Schon’s work on first- and second-and third-order change (incremental, reform, transformation) based on learning, starting with a 1993 article by Peter Hall titled Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State.  It uses “social learning” rather like I use “societal learning” to describe increased societal-level capacity to realize its aspirations.  (In my world, “social learning” refers to how people learn from one another.)

Further integration of this political science approach with other learning traditions, such as those of organizational learning, societal learning and change would further strengthen both approaches.   In particular, I think that public policy-making and regulation can benefit from the growing field of dynamic change knowledge.  What I learned suggests that the regulation field remains too static and does not access new change methodologies that are focused on “emerging the future”, such as with Otto Scharmer’s work.

Networks and Regulation

Governance as “networks” was an additional perspective that led to my invitation from Axel Marx and Kazuki Kitaoka, among the authors of their UNIDO report on networks that was the topic of an earlier blogNetworks for Prosperity:  Achieving Development Goals through Knowledge Sharing.

Needing More Attention: Globalization, Sustainability

All three of these trends – governance, learning and networks – reflect the observation by Jacob Torfing that “…institutionalized negotiations between interdependent actors contribute to the production of public regulation”  (bold added).  I see two huge challenges for regulation.

One is the changing role of the nation state, given globalization.  It seemed a basic assumption was that the nation state is the enduring platform for effective regulation.  Although mention was made of its comparative shrinking role in the context of globalization, this was never taken up in any meaningful way I heard.  Multi-lateral organizations, like the OECD, are themselves based in the nation-state assumption.  Europe, through the EU, is where the most intense and interesting experiment is going on with supra-national regulatory approaches.  The proliferation of GANs and their global voluntary standards is being propelled by a global governance gap.  Surely these types of arrangements (and others) to address this gap deserve urgent attention.

The second huge challenge received inferential attention through the learning focus:  the vastly increasing pace of change and crises, such as in the finance industry (chronic crisis?) and with the natural environment (climate change is creating hugely increased scale/pace of disaster;  bio-diversity is collapsing).  These are vastly outstripping the ability of the traditional regulatory approaches.  This received some modest attention through the climate change and resilience lenses.

Finding ways to greatly speed the development of soft and hard law approaches to handle these challenges is an absolute necessity.  Aggressive pursuing multi-stakeholder governance, learning and networks provides a good foundation to adequately address the challenges.


Inter-Organizational Network Learning: Assessment strategies webinars

For inter-organizational networks, learning is usually a key activity.  This is true for in particular for Global Action Networks (GANs), which are global, multi-stakeholder change networks.  Even activities usually not associated with formal learning, such as meetings, often have learning as a key motivation.

Development of learning capacity has been identified as one of the key competencies for GAN success.   In August, 2012 a small group of practitioners and academics have been investigating how to assess GANs’ capacity as learning systems.  This has produced a list of characteristics of tools for best assessing the presence of competencies.  To further advance development of such tools, the study group focussed on development of tools for the learning systems competency.  As part of this work, it is hosting webinars with leading experts on the topic to identify the state of the art and how to advance it.  Others are invited to participate in these webinars.  So far, the following are scheduled:

Dec. 13 – 7am PT, 10am ET, 4pm CET  View the recording  Get the Notes

Fred Carden:  Fred is Director of the Evaluation Unit of The International Development Research Centre in Canada. He has written in the areas of evaluation, international cooperation, and environmental management. Current work includes assessment of the influence of research on public policy, and the development of use-oriented evaluation tools and methods. Recent co-publications include ” Outcome Mapping”, “Organizational Assessment”, and “Evaluating Capacity Development”(see

Dec. 18 – 8am PT, 11am ET, 5pm CET  View the recording   Get the Notes

Etienne Wenger-Trayner:  Etienne is a globally recognized thought leader in the field of social learning and communities of practice. He has authored and co-authored seminal articles and books on the topic, including Situated Learning, where the term “community of practice” was coined.

Jan. 15 (Tuesday) – 8am PT, 11am ET, 5pm CET View the recording  Get the Notes

Haille Preskill:  For more than 25 years, Hallie has provided evaluation, organizational learning, and  training workshops and services for healthcare, nonprofit, education, foundation, government, and corporate organizations.  Currently, Hallie leads FSG’s Strategic Evaluation: an approach for designing systems of collecting and sharing data which lead to actionable change, improved organizational effectiveness, and ultimately, social impact.approach area.  She leads a team of experienced consultants who provide evaluation expertise over a wide range of topic areas, including healthcare, economic development, youth and education, substance abuse prevention and treatment, community engagement, and human rights.

Jan. 22 (Tuesday) – 8am PT, 11am ET, 5pm CET  View the recording  Get the Notes

Michael Quinn Patton is an independent evaluation consultant with 40 years experience conducting evaluations, training evaluators, and writing about ways to make evaluation useful. He is former President of the American Evaluation Association and recipient of both the Alva and Gunnar Myrdal Award for “outstanding contributions to evaluation use and practice” and the Paul F. Lazarsfeld Award for lifetime contributions to evaluation theory, both from the American Evaluation Association. The Society for Applied Sociology honored him with the Lester F. Ward Award for Outstanding Contributions to Applied Sociology.  His most recent book is Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use.

Feb. 20 (Wednesday) – 8am PT, 11am ET, 5pm CET  View recording  Get the Notes

A summary of the previous webinars will be presented for discussion. The goal was to identify themes and key issues, to set an agenda for further developing the learning competency and ways to assess it.


Networks as Learning Systems

Most networks have “learning” as an important activity, but I’ve seen no impressive examples of systemic network learning strategies. The International Land Coalition (ILC) has made a big step forward to develop just that, described as its Systematic Knowledge and Learning Approach (SKLA).

ILC logo

A couple of years ago ILC’s Annalisa Mauro and I were among authors of Inter-organizational learning: A new frontier. As the article’s title suggests, we didn’t find much although it was a good chance to create a framework. Many people, when thinking about such things, jump to technologies such as learning management systems. But what we were interested in is approaching the learning life of networks and their strategies from a systemic perspective. Annalisa, together with Jan Cherlet took on the challenge for ILC and its 152 intergovernmental and civil society organizations. They are working together to promote secure and equitable access to and control over land for poor women and men.

The SKLA follows several needs assessments. “We call it an approach and not a strategy, it’s meant to change mindset, not to provide a rigid framework,” explains Jan. “We’re at the closing of a 5-year strategic framework period and entering into a new 2016-2021 framework . The new approach will influence the operationalization of this new framework.” Core to the approach are five axes of systematization that arose from review of needs and historic work; each is associated with particular tools as the report explains:

1st axis: make effective knowledge connections across levels. Knowledge and skills need not only to be shared between members (horizontally), but also between global, regional and local levels (vertically). Related tools: cross-cluster/cross-level reviewing; database of good practices; online monitoring of knowledge demand; forums; publication series

2nd axis: take advantage of capacities in the network. Firstly, this requires the systematic mapping of knowledge resources and needs of members; secondly, understanding the information and knowledge they are willing to share; and thirdly, the skills they can put at the disposal of the coalition. Related tools: network book ‘Connecting the Dots’; horizontal mentoring through the ‘Talent Map’

3rd axis: orient knowledge and learning activities towards change. ILC needs to ensure that members actually adopt and embody the knowledge so that they can apply it in order to generate actual change within the policy arena. Related tools: learning routes; trainings on knowledge for advocacy/action

4th axis: learn from monitoring. Moving towards the change ILC wants to achieve is complex. As a result, ILC needs to continuously learn from its own experiences, such as projects and partnerships, in order to fine-tune its day-to-day activities, and in order to find new ways towards the envisaged change. This internal learning needs to build on the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system. Related tools: internal learning notes; thematic reports

5th axis: make the roles of ILC entities complementary. ILC is a knowledge broker and this brokering requires complementarity of roles for the different entities that compose the Coalition: single member organisations, subgroups of members such as thematic working groups, regional platforms (RCUs), national platforms (NES), and the global secretariat.

These axes provide a valuable distinction between systemic strategic elements of a learning system, and the content/issues or learning events/platforms that usually are as far as people organize around. The former are critical to develop coherence amongst the latter – otherwise there are simply many poorly connected activities with undeveloped synergies, gaps and duplications. A current activity is to understand what other international organizations are doing, to help address this.

Of course people in the ILC network are particularly interested in issues represented by the 10 commitments of the ILC on People-centered land governance , How to integrate the commitments into the axes is still being developed. Given that people and organizations usually organize around the issues, one approach might be a matrix structure that would raise good questions from a systems viewpoint. For example: is knowledge flowing across levels (axis 1) in each commitment?

The next task is to integrate this framework into the operationalization of the new ILC strategic framework, which will be approved by ILC members during the forthcoming Assembly in May 2015. To date, the biggest contribution of the SKLA is to support staff and members to think systemically and enhance their awareness of the activity of others. Not all axes are at the same level of implementation and some will require more attention than others. As well, there will be more attention to the current and new tools for each axis and their alignment with specific axes to sharpen their application.

Of course the big challenge will be implementing this approach and mainstreaming it throughout the entire network. The SKLA support capacity is limited: there are essentially just two staff at the Secretariat who are leading the implementation, and its effectiveness will depend on how the members will be engaged in its implementation.

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?