SDC Networks – In the Shaping

April 17, 2012 | LND | SDC Networks |


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Manuel FluryIn 2008 SDC has introduced networks as “caretakers” of knowledge and competence. Networks imply a particular mode of work, less hierarchical and self-managed. In what ways have the networks led to a changed way of learning? Could SDC secure its competence and operational quality? There are no final answers yet. The networks are developing their particular shapes and modes of sharing and learning. The key challenge remains for SDC and its collaborators: To engage in sharing in a trustful environment, both personally and institutionally.

By Manuel Flury

On June 3rd, 2008, all collaborators of SDC were called to meet in the “Theater National”, a classic sandstone end of the 19th century building right in the centre of Berne. This is the place where on Saturdays Salsa fanatics meet and where the conservative Swiss People’s Party held its assemblies. In the huge hall we were informed by the then Federal Minister and the new Head of SDC about the shape of a reorganized SDC. It was at that moment during a light lunch when we learnt, that henceforth SDC will organize its thematic and technical competence in a number of “learning networks”. These networks would include all technical collaborators that will be deployed from the centrally organized Technical and Thematic Department – the “F-Department” – to the bilateral and multilateral operational units. “Network” emerged as the new, magic and in the same time intriguing and disturbing buzzword of SDC’s reorganization. The question as to how SDC will maintain its technical competence with networks was raised by many concerned colleagues still the same day.

Already during the subsequent work of the many Working Groups that were told to “shape the new organization”, the networks got first touches of colour and scent: the role of the network facilitator (later: Focal Point), the time required for network members (5% for members, 15% for core group members), the mode of work as well as the principle of “one line of command”.

Networks are a form of organization. Colleagues working on networks define them as not or less hierarchical, self-managed and adapting to the interests of its members. They do not need a central control and executive unit but may create a hub in order to coordinate and to provide services to members. Diversity of the actors and the flexibility of the network stimulate the innovation. Their core is exchanging information and knowledge. Networks and Communities of Practice (CoPs) are both specific forms of cooperation. Whereas CoPs are more driven by individuals and their personal priorities, networks represent interests, agendas and resources of organizations.

SDC Knowledge Management Tool Kit

Whereas in their operational units, collaborators take care of projects, in their networks collaborators form relationships and develop the knowledge

Networks imply a particular mode of work. Members to a high degree shape the life and work of a network. Their professional practice and striving for quality are at stake. Line managers are supposed to allow their collaborators to participate in networks following a logic of sharing and learning, requiring trust in the collaborators and in the networks as an institution to secure competence and enhance quality.

In her recent blog, Nadia von Holzen talked about living systems, with all their ups and downs as Marylaure Crettaz nicely illustrated. Nadia sees network members as being in conversation, thus circulating knowledge. Moreover, networks are complex adaptive systems and always fluid, moving, learning, adapting. They are dynamic. Networks go beyond institutional walls and have the potential to connect different viewpoints and experience and, thus, they are innovative.

With introducing the networks, the management of SDC made an explicit choice for organisational learning based on sharing knowledge among peers and enhancing the flow of knowledge. This should ultimately lead to improving the technical and methodological quality of the operations as well as to securing the technical competence and the innovation capability of the organization.

Two questions seem crucial to me:

  1. In what ways and to what extent did SDC change its way of learning?
  2. Has SDC secured its technical competence and innovation capability and, ultimately, improved the technical quality of operations?

My experience tells me on one side:

  • Many programme officers both at Head Office and in the Cooperation Offices were confused at the beginning, not knowing or daring exchanging information without an explicit “permission” to do so. There seems to have been an expectation to be told to share and learn.
  • The face-to-face meetings became an issue of concern for being expensive, without clear mandate and objectives, assumingly “talk shops”.
  • The participation in networks was administrated in allocating (little) time, mostly 5% for ordinary and 15% for core group members.
  • The thematic competence was “atomized”, dispersed and losing momentum.

On the other side:

  • DGroups allowed new ways of communication, both for Questions & Answers and for in-depth discussions such as the most recent ones on Training within the Climate Change Network.
  • Face-to-face meetings developed a high dynamic a set the momentum for innovations.
  • The line units in charge provided substantial resources as well for external support both in substance and for facilitation.
  • Step by step, pragmatic fine-tuning in formulating the necessary rules and regulations by the SDC Management (SDC Intraweb Link – restricted).

I do not have final answers to the two questions above. Innovation capabilities and technical quality of operations are subject to a good interplay between networks (and their members) and operational units (and programme officers). The works on Rural Advisory Services of the A&RD network, on fiscal decentralisation of the DLG Network, on political economy assessment by this network and on value chains of the E&I network are good examples.

Being a member of one network (A&RD) and a lurker of dgroup exchanges of a couple of others I realise, that there is a growing reestablishment of technical competence. I do however ignore the effect of the job rotation and to what extent “outgoing” technical colleagues will continuously link with their peers. The newly introduced thematic career is most promising in this respect.

SDC networks are supposed to be the “caretakers” of knowledge and competence. Being anchored in a decentralised manner in different operational units, the networks are developing their own and particular shapes and scents. And this is appropriate! The SDC Direction continues to improve the institutional environment for the networks as demonstrated by its decisions of last November (SDC Intraweb Link – restricted).

The biggest challenge for SDC and its collaborators, however, is to continuously change the mode of work: To engage in sharing in a trustful environment, both personally and institutionally.

By the way: SDC organises a next course on managing networks on June 27 – 28, 2012.

Find further information:

SDC course offering: network management


Comments to“SDC Networks – In the Shaping”

  1. Riff Fullan says:

    Dear Manuel,
    It is interesting to read your thoughts on networks in SDC. Your reflection on their institutional ‘niche’ (and the interplay between organisational structure and network mode of working) made me think about another aspect of the network evolution we are seeing: the opening up of some networks to partners, which means they not only play a strong role in terms of organisational competence, but they increasingly do so in a context of explicit exchange between internal and external actors. It could be fascinating to explore this aspect of networks in SDC and to ask such questions as: What effect does this have on the organisation? Is its ability to keep up with new developments enhanced as a result? Are its relationships with partners deeper and/or more subtle? What impact does it have on the relationships between Head Office and Cooperation Offices in the field?


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