Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Field building - does the field matter?

I've written a lot about field building and read even more. Nowadays, the word "industry" is often substituted for field. I suppose I could take some credit for this - since a chunk of my 2004 book addressed the issue of philanthropy as an industry - and, as an idea that was ahead of its time, I have some battle scars to show for that contribution. First problem is, I'm not so sure some of the fields now being called industries actually fit the definition* or that I want credit, and two, what we call them is not my point for this post, rather my point is how they get built.

Here's what I've noticed from reading some really good reports on fields/industries/sectors/ecosystems as diverse as women's studies, microfinance, impact investing, conflict resolution, digital media and learning, philanthropy, community philanthropy, and social entreprenuership - the recommendations for building the field, or taking it from a phase of entreprenuerial fragmentation - what Katherine Fulton aptly calls uncoordinated innovation - to organized markets - are almost always the same:
  1. Infrastructure,
  2. Intermediaries,
  3. Networks,
  4. Standards.
Sometimes, the recommendations make a mention of the potential role that regulations can play in transformation (though its usually couched in the philanthropically more polite term - policy change). Sometimes they include a focus on evidence, though usually by the time the "field building" discussion starts there is already a body of evidence.

Now, like I've said, I've contributed to this body of thinking. And I rely on it. I'm asking the following questions because I'm steeping myself in this question of transformation from disconnected experiments to organized market/system/ecosystem/industry/sector yet again. So here are the questions:
  • Do all transitions really require the same actions?
  • Are these actions so separate from the content of the market/system/industry that they are consistent across any area?
  • Are these actions so separate from the content of the market/system/industry that they are consistent across any timeframe? (women's studies in the 1960s, social entrepreneurs in the 2000s, for example)
  • If the same set of actions for transformation are known to be necessary, why do we keep studying them? Why don't we just "do" them?
  • How do we adjust our thinking to account for changes in external conditions? - technology, policy, resources, etc?
  • Why do we continue to shy away from the role that rules and regulation can play in each of these transitions?
Am I correct that we know more about building fields than we think we know? And is it really possible that the same basic interventions that worked in the 1960s will work now - is it simply a a matter of where, how, with whom and with what technology?

These are real questions for me - they will shape or be part of at least two chapters/articles I write in 2009. Please help me out here if you can. Thanks.

*I cribbed (with attribution) the definition that I used in the book, as well as the examples of an industry's components and the stages of development and the possible interventions from Michael Porter's, Competitive Strategy.


Aaron Stiner said...

Lucy, I really don't know the answers to any of your questions, although they are good questions! And in that spirit, I pose more questions: who's responsibility is it to build a field? how do people interested in building a field connect with others interested in building the same field? why should a field be built and who decides if it is built? What role does gov't have in those decisions?

Lots of good questions =)

Tony Wang said...

Hey Lucy,

I've been thinking more about the field vs industry question and wonder if the distinction may be along business lines. i.e. While we could say that philanthropy help built the industry of women's studies, it seems more intuitive to say that philanthropy help built the field of women's studies.

It might also be that field is an umbrella term that includes industry (it seems accurate to say that foundations help built the field of venture capital in the same way that you could say foundations help built the industry of venture capital) - but perhaps there's a subtle distinction between the commercial and noncommercial aspects of venture capital associated with the phrases "industry of" and "field of," suggesting that the two terms are complementary.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lucy,

These are important questions. I'm inclined to think that the processes for field/industry building will not be the same now as they were in the 60s. The immediate analogy that springs to mind is with markets. The very idea of "the free market" - singular, everywhere the same - is problematic because what actually exist are all different kinds of markets - plural, everywhere distinctive if not unique. Market *dynamics* - incentives, strategies, forms of competition - may be similar in different places and at different times, but each market is embedded in an institutional context that shapes market dynamics in fundamental ways - by authorizing some market actors and not others, by structuring the terms of competition, by providing greater or lesser levels of security that thereby affect incentives and strategies. I think something similar goes on with fields and industries. The great irony of free-market fundamentalism that seeks to eliminate practically all government intervention in markets is that you need governments to establish the ground on which markets can emerge in the frist place. Similarly, I think the institutional context is critically important for understanding the ways in which the four recommendations you cite (which sound good to me) play out in practice.

This is an important conversation, please keep it going.

Anonymous said...


Great questions. And I always appreciate efforts to find common patterns in disparate environments. Therein lies the useful stuff.

It strikes me, even more broadly, that the four strategies/stages you define are also deeply connected to the 'adaptive cycle' found in natural and social systems. Most such systems continually move through a cycle of rapid growth (entrepreneurial risk-taking), and conservation (storing energy, building tighter connections and control). But then comes the release phase (the system is pushed past its capacity to retain those controls), and the reorganization (moving back to risk-taking and resource grabbing).

I wonder if ''fields'' or ''industries'' also experience the ''back loop'' or if they only move forward toward more structure and control. If that were true, they would be DIFFERENT than most other social systems.

Some of my own thoughts on the subject here:

Thanks again for both leading and continuing the conversation!

Lucy Bernholz said...

Wow - one of the wonderful and funny things about putting ideas out into the world is you can never really tell what is going to resonate with people. Thank you all Chris, Tony, Andrew and Aaron for commenting - and to all of you who have sent emails - .

This is clearly a key interest of many people. I'm in the process of working on a more thoughtful "next post" about this - building off of comments and emails and also sharing some more insights from our work at BRD.

As an historian I can't help but look for lessons from the past. Of course, bringing those insights into the current context is what matters from a practical sense.

On the level of language "field" "industry" etc I can only share the same thinking that I used to frame this in the 2004 book - industries share the characteristics that I drew from Michael Porter's book and that allowed me to use financial services et al as analogs. Fields are ... much less well defined. Some might describe a field as a non-commercial industry...but I'm not sure I find that all that helpful, since competition, vendors, supply chain, etc may or may not apply and may vary significantly (though still exist) depending on the context in which the field is defined (social services, intellectual discipline, academic department, etc). In same way terms like "networks" or "infrastructure" may morph over time and content area, but be different terms that mean same things....

How's that for a mind dump :) Will try to circle back soon. Keep the ideas coming!