Businesses, nonprofits, policy makers, and others frequently find it helpful to come together in networks of organizations to tackle large-scale challenges, such as COVID-19, extreme weather events, humanitarian disasters, or supply chain disruptions. But devising strategy in such meta-organizations is far different from strategizing within a single organization — and much more difficult. A new approach to collaborative strategy can help leaders in individual organizations work with others to achieve both shared and individual strategic priorities.
Meta-organizations (a term coined by Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson) can range from tightly organized and well-established trade groups like the International Air Transport Association to loosely structured, short-lived groups like the U.K.’s Brexit Business Taskforce.
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One example of a meta-organization is the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), which comprises more than 250 partner organizations. It works to ensure that resources rapidly reach those who request support during international public health crises. GOARN’s operations are based at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, where it is governed by a 21-member steering committee. In late 2021, the committee was facing uncertainty about the outcome of the pandemic and the future that GOARN would face. GOARN’s partners — which include United Nations bodies, international humanitarian organizations, government public health agencies, and technical networks — were calling for it to expand its mission. These diverse organizations have expertise in logistics, emergency medical care, incident response training, operational research, epidemiological investigation, and other domains, which they bring to bear on many different public-health emergencies every year. GOARN’s leadership realized that the network needed to evolve, which would require the development of a new long-term strategy that would meet the needs of both the collective as a whole and each partner.
Leaders working to set strategy in meta-organizational collectives like GOARN will encounter several challenges. Even well-established meta-organizations often lack a well-defined hierarchy, which means that decisions can’t simply be handed down from the top; negotiation, voting, and nonbinding rules are needed to coordinate action. Leaders have to manage tensions between the collective and its members, who can jealously guard their identities and autonomy. There is also a risk of inertia and complacency if member organizations feel they have little or no stake in the direction of the group as a whole.
We have developed a methodology to help guide meta-organizations through the process of devising strategies collectively.
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