Beyond the sticks and carrots: on network governance and how we get what we want.

Conversations about governance usually revolve around rules and the problem of compliance. But there are alternative, more native forms of social order to rules and hierarchies. One is the market, of course, and we’ve been talking about that for decades now. But the other is the network and we’re only just beginning to understand how we are used by, and can use, that form of order to make things happen.

There is new understanding about how the notion of network governance can be harnessed in developing organisational strategy. But it does requires a provoking shift in thinking — away from the notion of rules and their effects, and towards a street-level interrogation of how people and organisations exert influence to get what they want.

What’s a regulatory network?

A network is a non-hierarchical, interdependent range of organisations, individuals, or other entities with some (even just temporary) institutional form, who compete, cooperate, collaborate and compromise to make things happen in their world. We all are part of many such networks in our private, as well as in our workplace, lives. Each of us is a node in our family network. Our household might be a node in a neighbourhood network. A street gang and a police station might be nodes in another network. Our not-for-profit and its peers, its clients and the funding agency will be nodes in another network. And so on.

Re-visioning regulation

From a network governance perspective, regulation is any action by one of the network actors that is calculated to influence the behaviour of the others in the direction of their own objectives. The technologies engaged to exercise influence to change behaviour might be formal — like issuing a new reporting protocol — or informal — like making my mother feel guilty for going to evening classes instead of cooking me dinner.

But in every single case, regulatory action in a network is a function of strategy. Which places the ball squarely back in all of our courts. How are we being influenced to respond in our own stakeholder networks in accordance with other’s strategies? What is our response? What is our strategy for the exercise of our own expressions of influence? And how’s that going then?

There’s all sorts of interesting aspects of the regulation that occurs in our everyday networks to consider — the relative capacity of the individual network nodes (us!)to influence each other; their published rationalities versus their secret objectives; the spectrum of compliance and resistance behaviours, and the magic that occurs when an actor is responding to, and exercising, influence all at once. Understanding these dynamics makes for stronger and more effective strategies.

Map your network

Just to start though, take five minutes to draw a map of the interdependent stakeholders in at least one of your networks, in the form of a set of circular nodes. Now draw arrows representing the lines of influence between the nodes. Do you really know, understand and intend the content of these lines — especially of the ones that begin or end with you or your organisation?


by Maree Livermore

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