Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Field building part two

[First posted around 5:43 pm. Typos fixed and edited around 9:30 pm]

My post a few weeks back on field building brought on some great comments. Some of these questioned the possibility that lessons learned from building academic fields in the 1960s (Women's studies, ethnic studies) could have any bearing on foundation efforts to influence new areas of work in today's markets (digital media and learning, social enterprise). Others wanted more clarification of terms - what is a field? what is an industry? (Hey - I'd like more clarity on this also!*)

I've been thinking about this for a lot of reasons - including the recent opportunity to participate in planning discussions for a new global federation of social investment exchanges, the ongoing work we** are doing on digital media and learning for the MacArthur Foundation, and an upcoming panel discussion I'll be moderating on the emergence and maturation of social enterprise.

Understanding something often requires an analog - that is actually how and why I went looking for and found Porter's work on industries. If I wanted to understand the history, development and future of philanthropy I needed something to compare it to. Porter's definition of an industry fit philanthropy pretty well (exception noted in the book and always - particularly the voluntary nature of philanthropy and the role of individual passion or interest as a driving force over market rationality).

As I think about this question of field building - or industry evolution - now, I'm struck by two possible analogs. First, ongoing debates about the nature and future of the Internet. A much-debated article by John Markoff in Sunday's New York Times discussed the work of engineers now working on a "new internet." The "old" Internet was created to facilitate sharing among scientists, privacy was paramount and security an afterthought (argues Markoff). Since no one predicted that the Internet would "one day bear the burden of carrying all the world's communications and commerce," security was not a priority, anonymity was. Since then, hackers have shown the perils inherent in the system as we know it. Efforts to add security features to this system have been "immense," yet, many experts think we may be worse off now than we were before these investments. This is because of all the money and time and expertise that have gone into trying to "patch" holes instead of "investing in the redesign of our infrastructure."

Which led me to the second, hotly-debated topic du jour - "shovel ready" versus "green" infrastructure - as another analog for thinking about field building, industry evolution and the role of philanthropy. This analog draws from the daily discussions of the financial stimulus package being put forth by President Obama and Congress. The oversimplified difference between the two points of view is that putting government money to work fast to restart the economy means getting it out into needed infrastructure (i.e. "shovel ready") ASAP. Many of those projects in the USA involve bridge building, road repair, and other investments that, some argue, only extend our collective dependence on automobiles, petroleum and "yesterday's economy." Putting the stimulus money into "green" projects - those that will jump start the economy and position the US for a future of solar and wind power, public transportation, and inner city jobs, housing and schooling improvement is a better prospect in the short and long term, this side argues.

So, when you think about "field building" how do we know which (if any) of these analogs matter? Is it enough to "patch holes" and "add-on" features? Do we need to start all over again, and figure out how to migrate from the current version to a new version of the Internet (or whatever field we're talking about?) Should we invest in rebuilding the infrastructure that got us here (roads) or re-direct money to whole new systems (high speed rail)?

And, as we do this, do the same interventions that most analyses of philanthropic field building efforts recommend, still matter? This is the original question motivating my first post - the interventions I've identified from reading many such analyses are:
  1. Infrastructure,
  2. Intermediaries,
  3. Networks,
  4. Standards
My sense is that the answer to the above question is "yes." What we need, however, are stress tests for each of these four interventions that take into account a couple of well-considered assumptions about each case at hand.

First, what is the time frame for the field/industry to be built? The longer the time frame, I would argue, the more flexible the infrastructure that will need to be built - as it will be subject to a greater number of completely unpredictable technological and organizational changes. Is the biggest challenge at hand getting start ups and new brains into the field? Is it scaling small enterprises into larger ones? Is is encouraging mergers or joint ventures? Is it breaking up monoliths and sparking spin-offs? Knowing what the current state is and a better future state would be is the first part of stress-testing this idea of infrastructure.

Second, what intermediaries exist now? The answer to this question is valuable not for the picture of intermediaries that it produces, but for the secondary image that can be revealed by that picture - what are those intermediaries doing? It may not be that the field needs a trade association and an annual conference, for example. What it actually may need is some organizing node or event that regularly brings together key players, competitors, and knowledgeable outsiders. Once that set of activities can be seen it can be "overlaid" against an informed hypothesis of what activities are actually needed - to scale, to connect, to influence, to stabilize, or to migrate - the existing enterprises toward a vision of a "built field" (maturing industry) This "stress test" needs to be all about key activities and functions - once those are identified then the forms to be built or adapted or migrated should be more visible.

Third - what kinds of networks are needed, and for what? The answer to this question will draw from an analysis of the current life stage of the field (industry). Is it nascent and fragmented? Stabilizing and organized? Mature? Depending on this life stage, networks will be needed to do different things (see list above under intermediaries) and will require different constellations of players (like to like, like to unlike). The good news here - network analysis is getting smarter and smarter on these things. A second considerations about networks comes from understanding the real mix of players within which you are working. Do you have/need commercial players, public agencies, and nonprofit players? Some of the above but not all? Knowing who is part of the mix will help make visible the core networks as well as ranges of forces and incentives working on them.

Fourth - standards. Ah, standards. What you need them for may also depend on the life cycle question. Are you trying to set a platform for innovation or keep out impostors? Standards cut both ways. How, when, and for what you need standards will come from your assessment of the earlier three elements infrastructure, intermediaries and networks - as well as an assessment of of where the issues is in its cycle of industry evolution.

All of which leads me to questions of design, iteration, and failure. How much of a "better" field - or Internet or national transportation infrastructure - can we actually design and implement? How much do we build these things in pieces, watch those pieces accrete, identify the gaps, and then wish there were a better whole? Design theory and methods are all the rage these days, and companies such as Google and IDEO regularly demonstrate that some of the best design principles can be deployed by large institutions, quickly, cost-effectively (or benefit-effectively, as the case may be), and without leading the whole entity off of a cliff. This is where design really does help - it is iterative, small step progress, that is inherently contextualized AND focused on creating something to fill a need. Often, what is known is the need, not the solution. Too often, we start with what we have and try to force it into being something better. Learning to think about field building/industry evolving from a design perspective shifts the focus to identifying the vision of better, not just seeing the pieces that are currently at hand.

Being able to identify the benefit you're after, the vision of better, the vision of a "built field" or an "evolved industry" is the hard part. Adapting the principles of intervention identified above, stress-tested for the case you have at hand, and crafted in light of a collective vision of better or built...perhaps that is the process to be deployed.

So...That is as much of a conclusion as I have at this point and they are calling my flight. I'll come back with some more thoughts but I'm interested in your opinions on these issues - please chime in.

*I started referring to philanthropy as an industry in the 1990s when I wrote my dissertation, and refined my thinking and presentation on this in my 2004 book. My reasoning and definition draw from Michael Porter's work on strategy and competition.
** We = Blueprint Research & Design, my employer.


Unknown said...

Hi Lucy,

Thank you for your blog. I always learn from it.

As I finish my MPP at Cal, I’ve been thinking a lot about cross-sector partnerships and the networks that you reference in your post as well as the promise of building something “better”. I am currently doing research around public-private partnerships and their role as intermediaries in society in general and in workforce development specifically. I see much opportunity to use innovation as a catalyst for systems improvement. I wonder what role foundations and other funders have in spurring innovation, and, dare I say, competition. Innovation can lead to effective intermediaries, better systems infrastructure design, and effective intermediaries designing better systems (and implementing them). I’ve seen it, at least in part, in the workforce development realm. But I can’t help but think that there is more opportunity to incentivize innovation across sectors, and to devise strategies to effectively incentivize such innovation.

Anonymous said...

I have a basic sense that what we might have "built" our field upon is so obviously different today than it was even a year or two ago. For example, the $40 trillion transfer of wealth which was such a rallying cry a short time ago, now seems sort of silly--given Madoff and the general economic calamities we now face. So, the forces that move the field (or the forces that are both fixing and disrupting) a field are always in play. Another example: the use of "business" standards (measurement, return on investment, mgt practices, sound fiscal mgt) for philanthropy (and the NP sector) now seem pretty hollow, when just a few years ago, we might have based our field's standards on the notion that we needed to be run more like a business. This doesn't mean the field doesn't exist, it just means a roadmap with a navigable and static destination is not exactly the right frame. Where are we right now? What matters? And why? are more powerful (and political) questions to me, then: By X time, we must get HERE.

Now, what I am still trying to think through, is the ramifications of such instability (but, one might argue, a more creative and politically charged) on an actual field of practice. It would indeed be easier if there was a "field-building roadmap" that we could just plug our variables into and be done with it. But, I just don't think that's how knowledge, innovation and real practice happens

I would also make sure to add, just because our "field" (and all fields) are always in the process of becoming, this does not argue that our efforts to say and do something about the field are useless or "overly professionalized" (as others might argue). To the contrary, the stakes are raised on every move the "field" makes, as meaning and field building are always happening, everywhere.

Ok, so that's what I am thinking about field building.