Shaping organisations into institutions
The sentiment behind setting up SSF remains that certain professionals, gifted with favourable factors of education, experience and financial stability, have an unspoken obligation to contribute back to society directly, and as early a stage in life as possible. In doing so, they have to work within established principles and norms of the sector. SSF actively discourages a professional from imposing her opinions and views before first spending time to get acquainted with the most basic questions behind the idea of development and seeing them played out in real time.
There are many means by which professionals can engage. Their engagement is driven foremost by a perspective towards development sector organisations. In the case of SSF, this perspective has emerged from a surprising location: the theory and practice of ‘Value Investing’ in the field of business investments, as articulated by Prof. Benjamin Graham and expressed in the letters of Warren Buffett to shareholders of Berkshire Hathway. There are two broad ways of investing: by looking at the share price of a company, and by looking within the company itself to assess its intrinsic merit and worth. Value Investing is about adopting the latter mindset which makes a potential investor ask a simple question: what if I were an owner of this company? How would I really think about it? What would I really focus on: its share price or the quality of its management, its inherent strengths, its ability to earn, nature of its governance, etc.?
The analogy crosses over to development sector organisations. It is possible to look at a development sector organisation in two ways: it exists as a means to an end (for example, to fulfil a theory of change), or as possessing an intrinsic worth of its own (as an end in itself). In the first case, the observer is outside the organisation; in the second she stands at the very edge of it.
The general practice and mind-set amongst what are called ‘eco-system enablers’ is to take the former position. On the other hand, standing very close to the edge makes one ask how does an organisation generate value? What kind of value does it create? What should my relation be to this organisation: simply an arms-length professional or a donor, or someone who has a stake in the continuity, stability, sustenance and nourishment of the organisation?
In the field of finance and investments, creation and sustenance of value is driven by assets. This is also a useful way of looking at organisations in general. It is, therefore, quite natural to ask what kind of assets lie behind the ability of a development sector organisation to generate value in line with its purpose? Now assets are of two kinds: tangible (e.g. factory, building) and intangible (e.g. brand). When an inquiry is conducted along these lines of an organisation in the development sector, most of the assets of any worth found are intangible in nature: goodwill and reputation, relationships with government and communities, a tacit understanding of context, loyalty of the second-line and their attachment, the easy or uneasy relationship between the organisation and its field workers, co-existence of apparently unrelated jumble of interventions in perfect harmony, the simple beauty of some of its most basic ideas, etc..
This, then, is the point of entry into the work of SSF. It is the act of viewing organisations as vital beings, a natural conclusion for anything which is animated by its intangibles: living things that have feelings, character, moral qualities, personality, innate strengths and inherent weaknesses like any person. This personification of an organisation then presents another paradigm of viewing organisations, unlike viewing them through a theory of change lens, or that of a production system driven singularly by concerns of efficiency, effectiveness and scale.
It then follows that if one wishes to really move a living being forward, it demands first and foremost, care and compassion for its own lived history and realising the importance of the smallest of its parts however trivial they may otherwise seem. Hence, any attempt at intervening on them demands a conservative outlook: slow and steady steps that add up to the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. This process is best carried out through what is called organisational development.
SSF does not adopt a stance that other forms of non-consulting engagements are less valuable: it does, however, adopt a stance that professionals, in whatever way they choose to engage, do so with a sense of deep responsibility and care for the context in which they offer their advice and skills. SSF has found from its experience that it is this singular attitude that enables professionals to motivate and sustain themselves for long-stretches in this kind of work.
The aim of Social Synergy Foundation, then, is to support an organisation in the development sector to make decisions in line with its character. Its (Social Synergy Foundation's) own mission is to practice, master and promote this approach to decision-making as a distinctive craft within the field of management of development sector organisations.
Our interest in this area of management in general, and management consulting in particular, stems from our conviction that the difference between organisations and institutions is only one: the gap between what is practised and what is preached. Hence, our ultimate passion is to help organisations in the sector themselves into institutions by ensuring this gap stays within as narrow a bound as possible.