Managing Change in NGO Networks

21/01/2011 at 7:42 pm 3 comments

Managing Change in NGO Networks

By Hans Zomer

This is the first of a series of blog posts on the particular challenges, and opportunities, of managing an NGO network.

(Read the second article and third article in the series)

Dóchas is the network of Ireland’s development NGOs. ( The purpose of Dóchas is to enhance Ireland’s contribution to world development, by leading the Development sector towards high standards of practice and by being an independent representative voice of Ireland’s Development sector, in order to influence public debate and decision-making in Ireland and the European Union.

In some ways the realities and challenges that networks such as Dóchas face put them at the forefront of management thinking. In contrast to the popular myth of strong, charismatic (often autocratic) leaders that singlehandedly bring about change, a network like Dóchas embodies the type of leadership that contemporary management theories promote and describe: leadership among equals, in a non-hierarchical, inter-dependent collaborative structure.

The traditional popularity of hierarchical models of organisations and leadership stems from their apparent ability to reduce the complexities of intra-organisational (and inter-organisational) decision making to manageable proportions: Change comes about through the mythical figure of the entrepeneurial, hands-on CEO who through sheer will-power, charisma and determination cajoles, inspires and drives his organisation to its goals.

Reviewing Management Theory

Modern management theory, in contrast, highlights the complexity of organisations’ working environments, in which managers have only limited steering capacity of large, multinational enterprises with diverse markets, complex production lines, differing cultures and many more stakeholders to satisfy than shareholders alone. (see this very useful book on the topic)

In many ways, modern companies are like networks: instead of uniform, hierarchical structures, they are composed of relatively autonomous units, each with their own interests and culture, but inter-dependent and working towards the same overall goals. Units coalesce around shared projects, borrowing staff and resources from eachother when needed, and forming new alliances and networks when new projects come along.

These organisations’ internal structures resembles a network, and they are also part of external networks of external parties on which they depend. The same goes for Government organisations and Departments. The old DAD model of management (“Decide, Announce, Defend”) makes way for a new DDD model (“Dialogue, Decide, Deliver”) where collaboration and mutual dependence are the norm, and where influence and power are diffuse.

In networks, decision-making is not a matter of course: Change only comes if there is sufficient cooperation and buy-in across the network. To a manager, decision-making in such settings often resembles “herding cats”, where it is easier for a minority to obstruct change than for a manager to affect it. In networks, decision-making is rarely the linear process described in management text books; more often it seems unstructured and chaotic.

At the same time, those involved in networks tend to believe firmly that the capacity of a network is somehow greater than the sum of its parts and that networks are better suited than hierarchies for facilitating innovation, because of their diversity,and freeflowing exchange of information and experiences

among participants with a shared commitment.

Bringing About Change through Effective Networks

In 2008, Dóchas tried to formulate the lessons it had learned over the 30+ years of its existence. It found that there are many different types of networks, and that their form and modus operandi vary because, in essence, networks are more of a process than an organisational form: Networking is a process resulting from conscious efforts to build relationships with each other, and networks are relational patterns that emerge as a result of such efforts.

Building effective networks then becomes a function of its accountability and the quality of the services it provides to participants, and trust among its members becomes a network’s greatest asset.

An effective network is one that, first and foremost, has a clear focus and a clear strategy. Its role, what it does (and what it doesn’t do) are clear to all involved.

Secondly, people involved in the network have the right skills, and know what they are doing. And thirdly, an effective network is accountable, and predictable to its stakeholders. It is clear who is in, who is not, and how that came to be the case. Members understand how the network functions, how decisions are made, who decides and who in the end is accountable for decisions made.

And that is precisely the topic of the next instalment in this series.

In this series:

Managing Change in NGO networks

Managing NGO networks

Funding NGO networks


Entry filed under: Development Effectiveness, NGOs. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

Irish NGOs adopt Istanbul Principles to raise the bar on development effectiveness Managing NGO Networks

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