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

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

Kiran Karnik

[Image by Goran Horvat 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?  


India is a classic case of “graveyard of successful pilots”. There are countless examples of pilot projects or micro-level efforts which work very well, but fail to scale. In some cases, the world of business seems to have mastered the art of scaling: for example startups that become billion-dollar companies. Can lessons be drawn from that for the development sector? Certainly, there is some learning we can do—but there is a large difference: business is typically about solving one problem or meeting one need. It is not concerned with other effects, intended or unintentional.

Societal issues, on the other hand, cannot be dealt with piecemeal or by putting them into silos.  Very early in my work-life, I learned the importance of IoT—not today’s Internet of Things, but the Inter-connectedness of Things. Dealing with health problems in villages, one quickly understood the links between underweight children, on the one hand, and public safety, gender issues and caste discrimination, on the other. They led from poor nutrition caused by stomach infections due to unsafe water from polluted sources: all because “lower” castes were barred from drawing comparatively safer water from the village well; or to the need to go far to fetch water, exposing women to human predators (hence the link to safety); or to boys getting more nutritious and less stale food than girls (gender discrimination); or to barring traditional access to forest wood to use as fuel for boiling water (forest rights). There are myriad other examples, all pointing to the need to look at problems holistically, or—as Arun Maira has put it in his excellent essay—taking a systems view.

A systems view also means focusing on “purpose” and sustainability. In the case of societal issues, there is also the challenge of scale. An example is climate change: a global-scale problem. Conventionally, as Maira points out, the thinking—in business, government and NGOs—is: “large-scale solutions require large organisations”. However, there is now a widespread view that large organisations, with their centralised systems, working in a command and control mode, are not an appropriate form. The “networking and paralleling” mode is now a good alternative to large, central supercomputers, and offer a lesson for organisational structure. “Movements” offer such an alternative; however, though successful, they seem to lack sustainability.

In recent years, “people’s movements” have erupted in various countries around the world. While some were undoubtedly seeded in a planned manner by interested parties, many have been spontaneous. In the initial phase, they are akin to self-organising organisms, driven by a cause, but with no clear leader. Examples abound: the Arab Spring and Colour Revolutions, in their initial phases (most seem to have been captured later by outside parties), the Nirbhaya protests in Delhi, the stone-pelting crowds in Srinagar, and—yet on-going—the street protests in Hong Kong. In all these cases, even the authorities were hard pressed to find the “leader” or organiser. Occasionally, there have been leaders (generally, charismatic ones): Gandhi and the freedom movement, JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) and the eponymous movement, Anna Hazare and the anti-corruption movement.

In all cases, with the arguable exception of India’s freedom movement (Hong Kong is yet playing out), sustenance was a challenge, and the movements generally dissipated before achieving their end-goal. Yet, all succeeded in getting their cause on the agenda, by establishing their power. I would, therefore, contest the assertion in Maira’s first question.

In my view, purpose-driven networks are not too difficult to form. Mobilising through on-ground work is tough, but not impossible. Technology now provides a quicker and easier way: recent movements have been organising through messages that go viral. Social media provide opportunities for amplification on a massive scale (not always for good), making the creation of networks so much easier.

The more difficult part, it seems, is to position a cause so that it appeals to large numbers and motivates them to act. Once a certain threshold or critical mass is crossed, the amplification and snow-balling effect takes off. Like a nuclear reaction, it can run amok unless there is a “moderator”—the difference between a bomb and a power reactor. This means organising or structuring, seemingly antithetical to the spontaneity of a movement. But as Maira has said, we need to think of organisations with “more structure than a movement, but less rigidity than conventional organisations”. This may well be an answer to his second question: the formation and strengthening of networks.

Movements, then, seem to need embedded “moderators” who are not leaders, but connect and guide (not direct) the flow of the movement—people who promote a dialogue among the participants and help to create a consensus on action. They would be similar to the facilitators (now popular in the corporate realm) in a discussion. In the developmental arena, there could well be organisations that trigger a movement, and others that act as facilitators: this would assure robust people’s movements, and ensure their sustenance.

This yet requires much thinking, design and experimentation. Arun Maira has triggered this process; may a thousand flowers now bloom!  

More on this

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

In the next few days, we will publish more essays by thought leaders on the third theme  in this learning package: Building Purpose-Driven Networks: Why Their Time Has Come.

You can see all the articles in this package here.

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About the author

Kiran Karnik
Kiran Karnik

Former President, NASSCOM

Kiran Karnik has had such a diverse professional career that it's difficult to box him into a single category. He worked for 20 years at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), launched Discovery Channel and Animal Planet in India and, as president of Nasscom between 2001 and 2008, helped promote India's IT capabilities worldwide. And then there's the consulting assignments he has done for the United Nations, Ford Foundation and the World Health Organisation. But Karnik's toughest assignment came in 2009 when Satyam Technologies's corporate fraud – the biggest in India – stood exposed. The government appointed him as head of a six-member committee to restore the firm's credibility. A self-described "public non-intellectual" and a graduate of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, Karnik is currently a member of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. His website is: http://kirankarnik.wordpress.com

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