I want to pick up the theme of the last post in this series and explore the relationship between public policy consensus building for purposes of conflict resolution and the formation and growth of self-organizing networks. Although there are many differences, both have similar long-term goals and can complement each other effectively. In the earlier post, I summarized a project that Valdis Krebs and June Holley worked on in southeastern Ohio. Their assignment was to facilitate the formation of a regional collaborative network with the aim of advancing economic development and so reverse many years of decline.
The potential members of this network – local governments, business communities, nonprofit development organizations, school districts and community organizations – had a great diversity of skills, experience and influence to contribute. They also realized, in differing degrees, that they needed each other to achieve regional goals. What they lacked was an effective set of working relationships and communication pathways that could pull the entire region together to attract federal and private investment. This was the problem Krebs and Holley were asked to address. They approached the situation by applying their version of a model of network formation formulated through recent research into the nature of self-organizing complex systems. They refer to this as “network weaving.”
The basic dynamic of this approach, as diagrammed in the previous post, moves through several phases. A facilitator – or network “weaver” works with scattered individuals and groups to draw them together into working relationships as effective local networks. With training from the facilitator, those groups take over the facilitator’s role and form new, larger networks that link with each other in collaborative ways. After a while individuals within the networks reach out to others and build a much more complex set of relationships that are no longer bounded by the original network affiliations.
The mature structure of the large-scale network consists of a core group of individuals who take on the largest share of work while the rest of the members, much more numerous than the core, contribute in different ways as they choose. The larger group is the source of the greatest creativity while the core group takes on the role of shaping those contributions into specific strategies.
Many collaborative public policy efforts apply consensus building techniques to solve problems exactly like those in southeast Ohio. But the process unfolds differently. A convening agency typically draws together a leadership group that broadly represents all the local communities and interests. They rely on a series of structured meetings to reach consensus on policies and strategies. A facilitator/mediator takes an active role in guiding the process from beginning to end. The group develops new working relationships as they resolve differences and come to trust each other.
The major emphasis is on getting an agreement, and relationship building is one aspect of that process. While practitioners point to the value of the social capital represented by these new working ties, the great majority of stakeholders and conveners, believe that success consists of the agreement and the specific on-the-ground results that come out of it. Relationships are considered as a less tangible, though desirable, side benefit rather than a primary measure of success.
Network emergence, much more so than an agreement-focused process, is all about relationships. These are the cooperative bonds that are the basic element of the self-organized network. Through those relationships diverse members can unite their skills and influence to reach their goal. To start the development of those relationships, the network “weaver” goes directly to individuals and organizations, rather than work primarily through structured meetings with representatives. This approach is closer to that of community organizing in which the organizer trains people collaboration associations on their own. The focus is not on a written agreement but on the development of a dynamic process that sustains itself over time to benefit its members in many ways.
Combining Two Approaches
These contrasting methods, however, can dovetail as two dimensions of the same process. For example, huge networks of volunteers may self-organize to help respond to large scale emergencies, like natural disasters. At the same time, a formal consensus building process may be required to achieve collaborative guidance for their work among the multi-jurisdictional array of public agencies who guide and coordinate the volunteers. These agencies organize teams for specific roles, train them through trial-run exercises and coordinate communication. Without that guidance the contributions of individuals would be completely haphazard.
Inevitably, though, the core agency group has its own conflicts over such things as turf, funding and policy and may well need a structured consensus building process to eliminate those barriers to coordination. The result is the type of effective network Krebs and Holley depict – with the most active members at the core and a large number of volunteers contributing their varied skills and talents. Tying them all together is a complex set of interactions and cooperative relationships.
A couple of summary ideas occur to me in thinking about network emergence and consensus building.
Conflict: Conflict might be reframed as one aspect of learning how to adapt to changing conditions, such as economic decline in the Ohio case. The openness and collaborative relationships of a network arise specifically for this purpose. Conflict can occur as individual network members, especially in the core group, resist the effects of modifying their operations because of their concern about losing power and influence. Rather than a costly problem that needs to be eliminated or prevented, this sort of conflict presents a learning opportunity. It puts into sharp relief exactly the issues that have to be resolved to maintain the health of the network. Without resolution of those issues, resistance to change will begin to lessen the adaptive capability of the network as a whole. It becomes more rigid, inflexible and closed to exactly the information that is needed for successful adaptation.
Communication: Network capability depends on effective information flows. Communication among members needs to be as rapid and direct as possible to facilitate learning and maintain creativity and responsiveness. One contrast between facilitating network emergence and policy consensus building relates to the control of these essential flows. There is a tendency for agreement-focused consensus building to centralize the dissemination of information to restrict it to the carefully defined purposes of reaching agreement. If the process is to result in an adaptive structure for successful implementation, however, that centralization has to give way to completely open flows. Otherwise, the group’s ability to learn will be limited to one member’s interpretation and selection of new data.
This is a complicated subject, especially since research into self-organizing adaptive systems and networks is still in its early phases. But the concept of facilitating network emergence presents a significant opportunity for reframing many aspects of agreement-focused consensus building. Practitioners as well as theorists should be part of this exploration. There is still a long way to go in translating academic research and theory building to the level of practical action.