Networks and collective action — hard-truths and top tips

As a new year starts, I along with many others find myself in reflection mode. This year, I have the luxury of riding that bandwagon a little longer than usual, as I ponder my next steps and the learning from my last role at the Cash Learning Partnership, the global network of actors working to increase the scale and quality of cash and voucher assistance in humanitarian aid. In this first independent blog, I’m inspired to focus specifically on the role of networks in driving collective action. Some of the most transformational innovation is taking place within such networks. As the complexity of global challenges and the magnitude of change increases, we must be engaged network participants to better face the future. I hope this piece will resonate with anyone committed to improving and leveraging the power of networks. Think of it as a ‘what I wish I’d known when I first started working for a global network’ or ‘top tips on getting the most out of networks’.

Harnessing the power

Collaboration is hard. But it is worth it. The evidence is finally being documented to prove that it saves money and makes services more effective, and that the most impactful collaboration takes place through networks in which members are actively incentivised to contribute. Networks, and the access economy on which they thrive, are blossoming within and across professional sectors. In the humanitarian sector in particular, networks (at global level, such as NEAR, START, and excitingly at local level) have burgeoned. These bring together the strengths of diverse actors to catalyse change and provide alternatives to the stagnancy of formal systems. When I joined CaLP in late 2015 we were transitioning to a network model, from an original steering committee of 5 organisations. Fast-forward to early 2019, and CaLP is now comprised of more than 80 members. This has provided an exponential increase in the potential to achieve our common goal, by galvanising progress in technical standards, capacity, coordination and policy. Much of the learning I’ve acquired at CaLP is eloquently presented in Steve Waddell’s work on Global Action Networks which I enthusiastically recommend.

Barriers to collective action

The foundations for any successful global action network include a common mission, plenty of policy momentum and the stewardship of a committed secretariat. With these ingredients in place, as in CaLP’s case, the potential for win-win collective action seems unstoppable. But this assumes that the decision to collaborate is driven by rational behaviour. It also oversimplifies the challenge of representing diverse entities who often (a) have wildly different visions of what the right direction of travel is and (b) sometimes see their own success as a zero-sum game. Indeed, my experience of the sharp-elbowed jostling for who will ‘own’ the growing amount of humanitarian funding for cash is that competition, often of the destructive kind (as well documented in Lebanon) takes precedence over collaboration, even when a public good or service is at stake.

Layered into the ‘shared mission’ equals ‘shared goals’ assumption is the idea that collaboration is just an after-hours ‘nice-to-have’. As a result, what I’ve seen is that contributing to shared public goods through a network rarely, if ever, features in organisational or individual performance metrics, and that the individuals that drive collective action have to do so in spite of their organisations rather than because of. Logical arguments (e.g. ‘that organisation is doing exactly the same thing as us, so why duplicate’, or ‘there is no way we’re well positioned to do everything well, so let’s specialise’) can fall on deaf ears when they come head-to-head with institutional growth priorities. Couple this with the trials and tribulations of virtual meetings, and the incidence of drop-outs and free-riding is hardly surprising.

More hard-truths

Tackling these barriers means accepting a few more hard-truths:

· Evidence matters less than we’d like in driving collective change. It is the political nature of decision-making that drives organisational commitments. Only by understanding this landscape can technical specialists use and target evidence effectively and make the case for investing in collective action

· Trust is key, but it can be lost very quickly. The destructive nature of competition needs to be recognised, and harnessed. Think of networks as a boxing ring, as once mused by the chair of CaLP’s Board. The role of the secretariat is to be trusted to referee the boxing match, based on deep knowledge of each contender’s skills and weaknesses. Spending too long on the side-lines with any one of them, let alone entering the fray, can undermine months of trust-building as I have experienced painfully at times.

Getting the incentives right

With a better appreciation of the barriers to collaboration and these hard truths, the next challenge is to get the incentives right:

· Understand heterogenous drivers for participation. In diverse networks, incentives to join and engage vary significantly. Less experienced or less influential actors may be driven by opportunities for learning, funding and/or growth, whilst those packing the punches may see the PR value of collaboration.

· Create the space. Being part of the right conversations, at the right time, truly matters. If one of two of the biggest heavyweights are ‘in the room’ (or boxing ring), you can be confident the rest will follow. And, who knows, this may even start to be valued in organisations

· Remember that knowledge is power. Don’t underestimate how valuable knowledge from others may be, and draw people in by ensuring members/ participants have priority access to particular knowledge and analysis (as CaLP did with some of its cash week events)

· Make some noise. Individuals and organisations love to read about themselves. Panels, blogs, flagship reports, evidence compendiums, are all competitive ways for organisations to increase the visibility of their work, whilst contributing to the public good.

Maintaining the cutting edge

If you fully play to these incentives, is collective progress a given? It depends again on how dynamically you ‘hold the ring’. As an example, CaLP has had to shift its mindset from being at the forefront of all developments on cash assistance to convening the blossoming expertise across its network.

· Firstly, this means raising the stakes to make the ring the locus of knowledge and debate, with the potential to ensure the analysis generated by the network punches above the weight of its constituent parts.

· Being the authoritative knowledge broker then empowers successful networks to lead in setting standards. This role, when combined with endorsement from strong governance structures, has driven significant successes on norms and policies across some of the most influential global action networks.

· It is the combination of the knowledge and insights of membership, and the legitimacy that comes from being a standard-setter that provides the platform for effective networks to distinguish itself with a unique offer. Take the example of ‘future of financial assistance’ analysis which CaLP is launching, to come up with a collective vision of the future that no individual member would otherwise have had access to.

Give your cats all the tools

Even when the incentives and offer are right, organisations — and people — still struggle to work in ways which are genuinely collaborative. In this case, herding cats beats boxing as the most apt analogy. So I will wrap up this blog with a few quick tips to ease the task.

· Get the tools and platforms right. This means making the necessary investment to make it a breeze to solicit, distil and share contributions, and facilitate that all-important visibility.

· Do the leg-work. This could often mean pre-preparing proposals and solutions, and chucking them into the ring for debate and decision.

· Perfect the elevator pitch. Any network member should be equipped with the soundbites on why your network matters.

Herding cats — the art of collaboration

Bringing flawed humans and organisations together to collaborate is no easy task. But faced with the daunting nature of global challenges, I believe networks offer an inspiring vision for collective change and that each of us should seize the opportunity to bring together our respective strengths to tackle multidimensional challenges. As I look ahead, I’m excited to be joining a network of fellows working on the future of humanitarian assistance, and to find new networks in my future home of Port au Prince, Haiti. I hope to collaborate with many of you along the way.