“JBD.6.13.1277” by Jenny E. Balisle/

Editors’ note: This article was first published in “Managing Wicked Problems in Agribusiness: The Role of Multi-Stakeholder Engagement in Value Creation, Part Two,” special issue, International Food and Agribusiness Management Review 16A (2013): 23–31.

This essay raises the following broad questions: (1) What role can learning networks play in addressing wicked problems? (2) How can leaders of organizations in the food and agricultural sector facilitate and accelerate the development of such networks? (3) What is the value proposition for existing multi-stakeholder initiatives to participate in learning networks such as GOLDEN?

Networks offer many benefits for tackling wicked problems, in contrast to traditional hierarchal organizational approaches. Perhaps foremost, they can be formed as a “co-owned” space by stakeholders in the system—in this case, the food and agriculture system. This includes agri-businesses and supply chain actors, governments, non-governmental organizations, civil society representatives, and universities. By being “co-owned,” there is an important shift in power relationships and mutual accountability that creates an innovative environment. This environment can act as a “skunk works,” in change agent parlance: a space where the normal rules that support and limit action can be suspended and new ones developed, based on the specific needs of addressing the wicked problem.1 After all, wicked problems are often the result of entanglements of structures, rules, and power relationships.2 Rather than participants simply being accountable to their organizations, these networks create a space for making the organizations accountable for the system’s health—and that involves addressing wicked problems.

One example of this type of network are Global Action Networks (GANs).3 GANs are learning and transformative networks that build the will, organize the necessary competencies and resources, and implement activities to address their particular wicked problem. Examples are: Transparency International and the wicked problem of corruption; the Principles for Responsible Investment and the wicked problem of integrating sustainability concerns into the logic of global finance; and the Sustainable Food Lab.4 A new emerging example is GOLDEN, a global network of academics partnering with business and others to accelerate the transformation of business to sustainable enterprise. It aspires to support development of a food and agriculture “industry” ecosystem strategy.

These GANs are a new type of organization—as different as government is from business and as civil society organizations are from both of those. They are about weaving together new ways that build accountability and action for a system’s health among its stakeholders. The concept of “GANs” has seven definitional characteristics, identified with great concern for parsimony, and “necessary and sufficient” to address wicked problems through their large system-change aspirations. They build on the three characteristics of multi-stakeholder engagements (MSEs):5

  1. Combination of formal and informal relationships. GANs are inter-organizational networks with three layers of organizing: layer one is the “organization” as nodes with traditional hierarchical staffing; layer two is “partnerships” as a modest number of organizations working on a particular task; and layer three is all of the partnerships that together form the network.
  2. “Multi-stakeholder.” GANs are defined as “diversity embracing,” a term that emphasizes a proactive stance that includes multi-sectoral (business-government-civil society), multicultural, gender, and other forms of diversity.
  3. “Community Action Research” programs. A defining quality of GANs involves “entrepreneurial action learners”—that is, people who develop new knowledge and capacity through action.

Other GAN definitional characteristics are: 4) “Multilevel,” that is, local, regional, and global; 5) “Public goods providers,” that is, aiming to create value for society; 6) “Systemic change agents,” that is, working on transformation, reform, and scaling up; and 7) “Voluntary leaders,” that is, participants making commitments to push the boundaries of enhancing environmental, social, and economic outcomes.

MSEs here focus on the organization as the key unit of analysis; the GAN approach instead emphasizes a “systems” perspective. This is liberating in several ways. First, it builds accountability for a system’s health and the public good rather than for that of an organization or even a particular stakeholder group. Second, it greatly enhances the space for experimentation by freeing people from the assumption that “an organization’s interests” are key to a system’s success (the way “organizations” are defined and work is often part of the source of wicked problems). Also notable is that GANs are comprised of organizations that are committed to transformation (rather than incremental change or reform) as described in a GAN’s vision; this includes many large companies, although popular caricatures would suggest otherwise. Finally, the essential element of GANs is process, not structure. Rather than thinking in terms of “permanent” or “formal,” thinking in terms of renewal and emergence is important. Rather than design based on structural theory, focus on the work and how it gets done effectively, and build from there. This is the experimental spirit.

Learning with the Southern Africa Food Lab

The Southern Africa Food Lab (SAFL), created in 2009, can be considered a fledgling regional GAN. Academic research on food security and in-depth interviews with role players from the private, public, and civil society sectors in the South African food system confirmed that transformation was urgently needed to address the interrelated problems of social and environmental sustainability, given persistent hunger and declining resources. There was energy among stakeholders to try a different approach to understanding and addressing the multiple interrelated challenges in the system. Since its inception, the Lab has focused on giving voice to different perspectives on food system challenges, creating “safe spaces” for leaders from different parts of the system to learn together, and working with other organizations to pursue specific innovations in the system. A major focus of current activities is to work with smallholder farmers and agribusiness leaders to better understand the opportunities and challenges of integrating smallholders into the supply chain.

It is clear that the