“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
– Buckminster Fuller
Today’s social and environmental challenges seem to be more complex and intractable than ever before. Will we be able to resolve critical global issues such as climate change, human rights abuses, corruption, economic inequality and a multitude of other issues using the same structures, processes and tools that have served us in the past?
In the past, each sector of our society had a clear role. Businesses were meant to be the engine for our economic livelihood and to earn a profit to survive and grow. Government, in its democratic form, established and enforced the laws of our society as determined by a majority of the population. Lastly, the social sector (Non-Profit / Non-Governmental Organizations) provided the social services not provided by the government and sometimes acted as a watchdog over the actions of Business and Government.
Of course, this is a great simplification, but essentially the dividing line between each sector was clear. This is less the case today. Today, businesses are becoming social enterprises. Non-profits are acting more like businesses to survive financially. Governments are outsourcing services to businesses and non-profits more than ever. Resilience and adaptability are becoming more important than rigid structures with clearly defined roles.
As information and communication technologies continue to improve, more organizations are realizing significant benefits from networking with other organizations across sectors and beyond organizational boundaries. The benefits of this collaboration have included:
- Better understanding of complex issues by tapping into the collective intelligence of more people
- Cost savings by sharing of knowledge and resources
- Better buy-in and more effective outcomes by engaging diverse stakeholders at an early stage
However, along with the benefits, there have also been significant challenges to working within a networked environment as opposed to more traditional hierarchical organizational structures:
- Organizations are not usually structured in a way to accommodate working within a network
- Building trust across organizational boundaries can be a challenge (it’s challenging enough within organizational boundaries!)
- Technology firewalls often prohibit or limit collaboration outside the organization
- Tools for effective collaboration can be prohibitively expensive and so-called ‘freemium’ tools can compromise organizational privacy & security
The Techné Verde project of the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) is currently undertaking a research project called ‘Strengthening Networks for Greater Impact’. The purpose of this research is to find out what kind of tools and processes are currently being used by non-profits and social enterprises for effective collaboration. The project will also explore the successes of and challenges to effective collaboration across sectors and beyond organizational boundaries. A major part of this research will be a survey that will be sent to over 500 non-profit, non-governmental organizations and social enterprises. The survey will be conducted during the autumn of 2014 and we expect to able to share initial findings by January 2015.
In early 2015, we will engage a representative group of survey participants for more in-depth meetings to better understand the survey findings. From these meetings, we hope to develop a deeper understanding of what is needed to support more effective collaboration among and between organizations that are working on complex social and environmental issues and then to co-create solutions to address these needs.
The Monitor Institute and the Foundation Center conducted a similar study in 2013 for the philanthropic sector. The project focused on the tools and processes for effective collaboration that are used by grantmakers. The full report and executive summary can be found here: Harnessing Collaborative Technologies – Helping Funders Work Together Better
Lisa Philp, Vice President for Strategic Philanthropy at the Foundation Center also wrote an excellent blog post for Markets for Good summarizing the findings of their research. The blog post can be found here: Technology & Tools for Funder Collaboration.
It is my opinion that many of the findings from the 2013 research for the philanthropic sector are also be relevant for the social sector in general. Our hope is that the BFI research findings will help to improve existing technological tools and processes for more effective collaboration in the social sector and lead to more impactful outcomes. The overarching goal of the ‘Strengthening Networks for Greater Impact’ research project can best be summarized by the vision and words of Buckminster Fuller:
“[My vision is] To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”
― Buckminster Fuller
Many thanks to Thomas for sharing his insights – we hope the research leads to real progress. Be sure to follow the Buckminster Fuller Institute on Twitter to learn more about their work.