Networks are proliferating in all organizational communities. This is particularly true in the non-profit sector. Non-profit and governmental organizations experiencing the pinch of scarce resources – and yet still striving to accomplish mandates with broad impact and deep social relevance – increasingly realize that they can only do so in concert with like-minded others. Therefore, we are currently witnessing a significant growth in the number of networks being formed by small to large non-profit institutions, nationally and across nations. Networks bring together organizations that strive for an overarching vision and mission. On this basis, partners can agree to pool resources, knowledge and expertise so that each can draw nearer to its own goals, all the while approaching the coalition’s common interests. The promise of these networks is huge. The costs are sizeable as well. For reason of their vast potential, ongoing vigilance of the partners is necessary.
This blog argues for the ongoing assessment of networks by the partners themselves. Self-assessment through monitoring is seen as critical to networks, particularly for fostering ongoing learning, knowledge creation and capacity building, in addition to nurturing systemic trust.
More often than not, networks are born through some form of self-reflection. Organization leaders or members reach out to others, having taken stock of their internal capacities vis-à-vis their goals. In other words, some assessment has occurred, and a need or gap has been identified. Based on this self-knowledge, potential partners negotiate their possible collaboration. Thus, at the time they enter into some form of association, members of organizations have already identified some pieces critical to their own performance assessment within the context of their relationship.
Two types of self-assessment monitoring are required in networks. The first involves the individual partners. Each enters into the relationship with a set of expectations regarding what their organizational contribution (read “investment or cost”) should be and the benefits that should accrue to them, in turn. Systematically tracking (i.e. self-assessing) the individual partners’ contributions and the benefits they derive provides a foundation upon which the partners can judge whether or not their expectations are being met. In the absence of a systematic assessment of the relationship, misperceptions are likely to emerge. Without data to the contrary, it is all too simple for preconceived biases to lead each partner to over-estimate his or her own contribution and under-estimate the contribution of others. Perceived inequities deriving from these and other misperceptions readily undermine personal collaborations, let alone complex inter-organizational ones. Therefore, at the partner level, it is vital that some systematic tracking of targeted and actual inputs and outputs be conducted.
The second level involves the network or partnership as an entity, separate from the individual partners. The relationship itself involves a set of expectations. Here again, there is a need to identify targets, measure dedicated network resources and track returns on the network’s investments so that progress can be assessed. Monitoring at the level of the network, however, is considerably more complex: it is highly likely that, while partners may agree on the overall mission of a network, they will not see eye-to-eye on its short- or even medium-term objectives and the allocation of resources. As a result, the ongoing monitoring of the network’s activity will serve as a much needed talking point. The monitoring process and dissemination of progress reports provide a focus for the clarification and revision of expectations. This forms the basis of learning, which is explored in the following section.
Learning through Self-Assessment
As indicated above, monitoring is linked to learning. Through the assessment of activities and progress, partners gain insight into changes that they might make to improve their partnership. For one, while attempting to ascertain the extent to which they have met their original expectations, the partners are faced with judging the expectations themselves. Unmet expectations suggest many explanations; one of which being that the initial expectations were unrealistic. Therefore, the assessment process enables partners to reflect on the original terms of their collaboration. It provides them with food for discussion and through this discussion, the opportunity to better align expectations with their own realities and with those of the context around them.
The learning benefits of self-assessment are apparent over the life of the network. In the early stages, assessment and reflection enable partners to clarify and negotiate expectations. They help partnerships that have become stalled to move forward. It is often the case that partners are drawn together by the prospect of accomplishing great things, but become bogged down in talks about what concrete steps they should take. Networks that set targets and assess their progress are more likely to make the transition from planning to the production of real outputs, and have some impetus to continue doing so. As the network matures, reporting requirements and communication demands become increasingly onerous. At this stage, assessment and reflection enable the partners to erect network systems and structures that permit them to meet the demands of outside stakeholders (such as donors) and to satisfy their needs to coordinate joint activities, while protecting their singular activities from being impinged upon by the network. Note that the demands upon the network to strike a balance between the needs of the stakeholders and those of the network while accomplishing these tasks are so great that the value of ongoing assessment in this respect cannot be overstated. Assessment continues to be valuable even as networks wind down or fragment. Ongoing self-assessment can lead partners to recognize amicably that their joint purpose has been served as best as possible by the collaboration, so that they can dismantle the network without souring future relations.
Finally, partnerships aspire to produce synergistic outputs, both from and in concert with this ongoing learning. While it is relatively easy for the partners to appreciate that these results surpass the sum of those that they could produce on their own, it is considerably more challenging for the partners to work together to interactively produce such results. Synergy is not a product of the numbers at work, but rather of how effectively they work together. Hence, producing synergy often requires learning. This learning is grounded in an understanding of past performance. As such, the partners’ commitment to an ongoing assessment of their participation is invaluable to maximizing their joint productivity.
However, learning and joint productivity are not the only outcomes of these relationships. A key component for the long-term survival of organizations today is not simply learning, but generating knowledge to support future action. This is discussed in the next section.
Knowledge Generation and Capacity Development
Ongoing assessment by partners in any network has the potential to significantly contribute to self-knowledge as well as public knowledge about this increasingly popular organizational form. While popular, much about the processes and management of networks remains a mystery. For partners who would continue within their present arrangement or participate in other networks at a later date, accumulating knowledge about the processes, systems and challenges of networks is advised.
In particular, self-assessment and knowledge generation seem valuable for their potential contribution to the capacity development of the existing network as well as the organizations that compose it. Organizations join together to form networks because they judge their individual capacity to meet their goals and objectives to be inadequate. In other words, the underlying rationale for much of the collaboration between and amongst organizations is capacity development. Often, the difficulty that arises for networks is to identify what type of capacity the partners expect to build. Answers to this – and the related question of what type of capacity they need to develop – can be found largely through self-study. For, while capacity objectives can be set and opportunities for learning provided, it is only those networks whose members engage in self-assessment that will benefit from these opportunities to learn and implement that learning. Hence, what is learned, the level of competency that is reached and the sustainability of that learning are ultimately in the control of the object of study. In such complex organizations, investigator and object of study are one.
Further, sharing this knowledge would clearly benefit future participants in other networks. Insight into the origins and magnitudes of the hidden costs of networks is one area that would interest many. Since networks are inevitably political fields, insight into the political processes of networks – such as the art of balancing the needs and demands of partners who differ in size, resources and other sources of power – is another piece of the puzzle that begs for understanding.
Building Trust through Self-Assessment
This leads us to our next issue – trust. At the heart of networks lies trust. Networks are alliances of huge promise and the utmost fragility. They spark when institutional leaders reach out to one another. They are sustained by trust. This trust is important from the start and continues to be so over the network’s life, due to the voluntary nature of these arrangements. They depend on the goodwill of the members. A process for the ongoing review of these inter-relationships supports the building of trust, since trust is contingent on there being transparency about the expectations, behaviors and outcomes enjoyed by the partners. In order to share such things, the partners need the information, and they need to feel comfortable sharing it. Ongoing assessment provides the information that they need for their own purposes and to share. In giving out this information, each partner gains the respect and trust of others. In receiving this information, each partner gains a greater insight into the workings of the network. At the same time, the system – marked by transparency and reciprocity – becomes stronger. Thus, ongoing assessment and disclosure fuels the systemic trust necessary to sustain partnerships.
Through this post, we have highlighted some of the many justifications for the partners in networks to engage in ongoing assessment of their own activities within the network, and of the network as a whole. The reasons advanced focus on the monitoring and informing benefits that arise from organizational assessment. As well, we have identified advantages that appear particularly relevant, both in terms of building trust among partners and generating knowledge about this peculiar form of organization. In closing, we would urge the partners and stakeholders in any network to consider the advantages of systematic assessment, to put in place the mechanisms for the network’s assessment from the earliest stages and to support these mechanisms over the lifetime of the collaboration.
 This is often an informal process and is sometimes reliant on just one person’s perception of needs.
 Our review indicates that levels of self-assessment vary considerably. Some partnerships emerge from thorough and formal reviews, while others are born from very informal assessments.
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For over 30 years, Dr. Charles Lusthaus was a Professor in the Department of Administration and Policy Studies in Education at McGill University. During that time, he taught Educational Management courses in organizational theory and behaviour, strategic management, organizational development, planning, and monitoring and evaluation to over a thousand graduate students.
Dr. Lusthaus is also a founding partner of the Universalia Management Group and is reputed for having pioneered an approach to institutional and organizational assessment (IOA). Today, the framework is used by a variety of international bodies including CIDA, IDRC, IDB, IUCN, and ILO. Dr. Lusthaus’ work on IOA is published in three books, one of which (Enhancing Organizational Performance) has been a bestseller for its publisher, the International Development Research Centre, for the past five years.