Purpose-Driven Networks: Creating solutions to social problems, at scale

Complex societal issues require diverse set of capabilities—which reside in a variety of business and civil society organisations. When they come together as a self-coordinating network, they can create collective impact

Ravi Venkatesan

[Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]

This article explores the theme, Building Purpose-Driven Networked Organisations: Why Their Time Has Come, as part of our learning project, MasterClass on TransformingSystems with Arun Maira. The project is based on Maira’s book ‘Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit’. The other two themes are: A New Model of Change: Why Complex Global Problems Need Local Systems Solutions, and Creating Ethical Leaders of Tomorrow.

A note on the theme by Arun Maira: Large-scale solutions to complex social, economic, and environmental problems are necessary to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The deeply embedded theory-in-use in business, government, and even NGOs, is that large-scale solutions require large organisations. A large, unitary organisation can produce economies of scale by standardising products and production methods. However, most SDG challenges are complex issues that require customised, local solutions. One size does not fit all in such issues.  

Social and political movements of change also concentrate energies. In fact, large-scale movements of change have toppled pyramids of established power throughout history. However, after they have achieved their goal, movements dissipate: their energy is not sustained.

What is required to achieve large-scale transformation, without having to scale up the organisation itself, is a form of organisation with more structure than a movement, but less rigidity than conventional organisations. The concept of a ‘networked’ organisation seems to fit well into this space.

Platforms and networks of change are not the same. A platform enables multiple parties to transact with each other efficiently. The internet has provided a large-scale global platform to carry out a large variety of digitisable transactions among people and organisations. However, the platform itself is neutral to what its users intend to do with it. It does not care if a collection of people use it to run a terror network or a movement to save the planet. Networks and movements use platforms for their collective purposes: what bonds them, however, is their voluntary commitment to a common cause.

If networks, and not large organisations, are necessary to solve multifaceted systemic problems, the moot point is: Why are effective, purpose-driven, networks hard to form? How will networks be formed and strengthened?  


“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it does.” This powerful statement by the late Donella Meadows, an environmental scientist and author of Thinking in Systems: A Primer, is both insightful and profound. It underscores the idea that societal problems such as poverty, climate change, health, nutrition, education, jobs, etc. are deeply systemic. Not only are they complex in that you cannot predict the behaviour of the whole system from the behaviour of the parts, they are also adaptive, which means that the system’s behaviour mutates to adapt to several micro-events and interventions. Improving the performance of such systems is therefore incredibly hard. It invariably requires many diverse stakeholders to learn together and then to cooperate often against prevailing incentives and interests. This is why simple solutions have limited impact and solutions are notoriously hard to replicate or scale.

Over the past decade, I have been involved with a number of initiatives that aimed to make a dent in some burning problem. Many of them were through impact investor Unitus Ventures and Social Venture Partners, a network of nearly 200 business leaders and active citizens across six cities committed to solving complex social issues through personal philanthropy. Our implicit theory of change was “scale what works”, i.e. find an organisation or a social entrepreneur with a reasonable solution to some problem—improve incomes of farmers or create livelihoods for people with disabilities or manage garbage—and then do everything possible to help them scale impact. Usually this meant management consulting, capacity building, and making connections to markets or capital. Sometimes we saw success working with organisations such as Vrutti, Swasti, Mitti Café, and Youth4Jobs. But it became quickly obvious that these approaches rarely hit anything close to population scale, especially in a country as large as India. 

This is why the idea of collective impact is so appealing. Collective impact involves organisations from private, public and social sectors forming coalitions to make meaningful and sustainable progress on social issues. The 17th goal of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is partnerships. Partnerships among diverse actors are essential for achieving all the other 16 SDGs, which are targeted at complex, systemic issues of environmental degradation and climate change, and persistent poverty and societal inequities.

As articulated by consulting firm FSG’s John Kania and Mark Kramer, collective impact is the idea that in order for organisations to create lasting solutions to social problems on a large scale, they need to coordinate their efforts and work together around clearly defined collective goals, strategic partnerships, collective and independent action aligned with those goals, shared accountability, with a backbone secretariat to provide coordination and support. Useful analogies have also been drawn with technology companies such as Microsoft, Google or Facebook who have used platform thinking to allow various members of an ‘ecosystem’ to specialise and collaborate to create value. Nandan Nilekani in particular has articulated the idea of societal platforms and is building technology infrastructure to enable such collaboration.

Useful and appealing as this thinking is, it is not easy to operationalise. A year ago, we founded a mission called the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME) to try to inspire and assist 10 million job seekers into becoming entrepreneurs who are job creators. GAME is an instance of collective action which seeks to get a variety of organisations to collaborate locally and globally to ignite an entrepreneurial movement across India. GAME’s journey illustrates the many practical challenges in making such networked organisations really work. For instance, who is the logical initiator of a coalition or a societal platform for X? Why should a diverse set of actors ranging from government, NGOs, funders, and businesses who are used to working in silos, rally together and collaborate to solve a set of problems? Who can be part of the coalition and what must they contribute? How do you get funders who are most comfortable funding specific programmes with defined outcomes to support the activities of a network and a learning agenda that has many uncertainties? How do you get volunteers to solve specific problems and drive breakthroughs? Why should diverse actors embrace new ideas and solutions from elsewhere, sometimes abandoning their own creations? Where does the leadership for all this come from? 

Such problems have been solved before in other fields. Notably, the open source software movement has been spectacularly successful in creating a global network of contributors and users. There is rising interest in understanding the drivers of success of various social movements including the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage and various independence movements. There are rich lessons in truly understanding these movements.

However, I believe there may also be powerful lessons when you look at the other end of the spectrum—at organisations that are able to take an idea and assemble all that it takes to scale this massively. In technology parlance, such companies are called “full-stack” companies.  Apple, Amazon, Uber, Netflix and Tesla are some full stack companies that take complete ownership for the end-user experience and handle the entre value-chain that produces this experience. There are parallels in the social sector—organisations like Amul, BRAC, and Akshaya Patra come to mind. What can we learn from such organisations? What class of problems are better served by such full-stack organisations?

The world today is facing multiple civilizational challenges. These are well encapsulated in the SDGs. The slow pace of progress against these points to three things. One, the need for fresh and radically innovative approaches to solving tough problems. Two, the need to involve massively larger number of people, particularly young people, in solving these problems. And most importantly, it points to the need for fresh, strong leadership. This leadership is unlikely to come from conventional sources of entrenched interests—business CEOs and government leaders for instance. Leadership for the world’s problems can and will come from anywhere and disproportionately from young people. Our problems cannot be solved by the same mindsets (or people) that created them.

One of the mindsets that must be changed is the prevalent theory that the coordination of many capabilities requires that they be bound together into one centrally directed, and even centrally owned, ‘organisation’. When the capabilities that must be combined are very diverse, as they must be for complex societal and environmental issues, and they reside in a variety of business as well as civil society organisations, they cannot be forced together into a single organisation. They must coordinate with each other as a network, voluntarily. Therefore, the challenge for leaders wishing to make an impact on complex, systemic issues, such as those in the SDGs, is to learn how to combine diverse, independent organisations into a self-coordinating ‘network’, rather than creating larger scale ‘organisations’.


Local Systems Solutions: A framework for solving urban challenges

By Swati Ramanathan | Challenges such as garbage collection are universal, yet deeply local to each city. And they are the result of many aspects of the city system being broken. A systems approach, adapted to the local context, can help find unique solutions.

Local Systems Solutions: A way for India to provide universal healthcare

By Nachiket Mor | Healthcare in India urgently needs locally appropriate but systemically consistent solutions. There’s much to learn from how other countries and sectors have gone about it.

Creating Ethical Leaders: Will management education rethink its role?

By Ajit Rangnekar | Two factors are causing a rethink on value systems: environmental degradation and shifts in political power that reflect the voice of the disenfranchised. This new thinking will have to come from new coalitions of social thinkers, practitioners, academics, politicians and corporates.

Creating Ethical Leaders: Can ethics be taught?

By R Gopalakrishnan | Ethics can be learnt, though it may be considered difficult to teach. What matters is the kind of experiences young managers are exposed to. B-schools and firms play a crucial role in shaping their thinking through such exposures.

Purpose-Driven Networks: Sustaining large-scale movements of change

By Kiran Karnik | Social and political movements of change need to embed “moderators” who can connect and guide the flow of the movement—people who promote a dialogue and help create a consensus on action.

You can see all the articles in this package here.

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About the author

Ravi Venkatesan
Ravi Venkatesan

Unicef’s Special Representative for Young People; Founder, Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship

Ravi is Unicef’s Special Representative for Young People and also the founder of the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME), a multi-stakeholder coalition which aims to create 10 million entrepreneurs in India and Africa by 2030. He is a Trustee of Rockefeller Foundation and a partner at impact investor Unitus Ventures.

Ravi has served as the Chairman of the Bank of Baroda, Microsoft India, Cummins India and board member and Co-Chairman of Infosys Ltd. He has also served on the boards of AB Volvo, Thermax and Harvard Business School.

Ravi is the founder of Social Venture Partners India, a pan-India network of philanthropists. He was instrumental in creating Microsoft India’s Project Shiksha, a computer literacy programme which has trained over 40 million school children in India. He helped establish the Cummins College of Engineering, India’s first engineering college for women.

Ravi has a BTech from IIT Bombay, an MS from Purdue University, and an MBA from Harvard Business School where he was a Baker Scholar. He is a recipient of IIT Bombay’s Distinguished Alumnus Award and Purdue University's Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award. He is the author of an acclaimed book Conquering the Chaos: Win in India, Win Everywhere, published by Harvard Business Review. Ravi was voted as one of India’s best management thinkers by Thinkers50 and is one of LinkedIn’s Global Influencers.

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