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Smart trisectoral networks
BY J. PHANG. Thursday March 11, 2004. The Star, Malaysia

THE term “Future Shock” was coined by futurist Alvin Toffler over 30 years ago to describe a state where the future arrives so fast that we are unable to adapt to it. 

Our global environment is undergoing profound and continuous change, socially, politically, and economically. These changes have far reaching impact on individuals, organisations and government. Many are already feeling the impact. 

The two forces of change are 1) economic and political liberalisation which bring about globalisation; and 2) technological innovations. 

Already cracks are beginning to appear in the system. 

Globalisation, which appears to provide opportunities to all nations, now invokes massive demonstrations as suspicions grow of a “sinister agenda.” Technological changes have also made social, cultural, and economic relations more intertwined and complex, and inherently more difficult to predict or stabilise. 

Decisions addressing the borderless world are very much more complicated than the ones needed to address traditional local settings. 

Businesses have to cope with foreign competition, mass customisation, and short product life cycles. 

Individuals face a work environment that favours knowledge workers, increased employment stress and the “death of traditional jobs,” with contract letters replacing employment contracts. 

Governments are also facing issues that cut across ministerial portfolios, often involving consultation with their foreign counterparts, global labour standards, disease outbreaks, and a more knowledgeable and informed public. 

Organisations face a series of critical choices in responding to these fundamental challenges. Creative new arrangements are needed urgently to allow governments, organisations both public and private, and individuals around the world, to work together to address these pressing global problems. 

It's about governance
The negative effects of these two sweeping forces on institutions of governance (both global and national) may be characterised in terms of two governance gaps. 

First, an operational gap has opened up where policymakers and public institutions have simply found themselves lacking the information, knowledge, and tools they need to respond to the daunting complexity of policy issues in a liberalising, technological, globalising world. 

Second, related to the first, a participatory gap has manifested itself as this same increasing complexity thwarts common understanding of, and therefore agreement on, critical policy issues. 

This has sometimes led policymakers, intentionally or not, to exclude the general public or particular stakeholders from their deliberations. 

Biologically adaptive
These new problems confronting organisations, governments and communities contain many dimensions, and have their own stakeholders. Satisfying one group may upset the stakeholders in another. 

When governments, businesses and communities work together in a trisectoral partnership they are effectively forming a trisectoral network. 

These networks are “smart” and “biologically” adaptive. Their structures evolve and mutate to address differing and unique issues, and they are difficult to define. 

This is precisely so, because they have grown up largely independent of each other, to serve widely differing purposes. 

They do, however, have a few things in common. 

One common denominator is that they link together interested individuals and institutions not only from diverse countries but also from diverse sectors of activity: Local, national and regional governments; transnational corporations and local businesses; and social communities. 

They thus cut cleanly across the fault lines between various sectors, existing organisations and sovereign territories. 

Another commonality is that all these networks have made intense and often ingenious use of the new information technologies that have for several decades been transforming our workplaces, our markets, and many of our other social institutions. 

These “trisectoral” networks have already proven to be effective, often remarkably so, in bringing together diverse and sometimes opposing groups to discuss common problems that none of them can resolve by themselves; and in gathering resources – intellectual, financial, physical – to bring to bear on those problems. 

Trisectoral networks are in effect learning organisations. 

Their broad membership allows them to tap information and expertise from a variety of backgrounds, thus providing a more complete picture of particular policy issues and giving voice to previously unheard groups. 

These networks are meant to complement public-policy institutions, not replace them. They help governments and multilateral agencies manage risks, take advantage of opportunities presented by technological change, be more responsive to their constituents, and promote change within bureaucracies. 

UN takes the lead
The leadership of the United Nations has begun to place the idea of trisectoral networks at the forefront of its vision and strategy. 

In his 1999 address to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: “The United Nations once dealt only with governments. By now we know that peace and prosperity cannot be achieved without partnerships involving governments, international organisations, the business community, and civil society.” 

This statement indicates a clear recognition that for the United Nations to succeed in its mission in the new millennium, it needs to develop a systematic and reliable approach to working with all sectors. 

Trisectoral networks address governance gaps by performing a variety of diverse functions. Six of the most important of these functions are: 

1) Advocacy
Trisectoral networks get involved in placing new issues on the global agenda or raising the prominence of issues that have been neglected. 

All such networks do this to some degree, but one type of network – what has been called a transnational advocacy network – makes global consciousness-raising its primary objective. 

2) Global standards
Trisectoral networks facilitate the negotiating and setting of global standards. This is happening in areas as diverse as financial regulation and environmental management. 

While agenda-setting can often be accomplished by a relatively few dedicated individuals, the complexity of negotiating and setting standards, as well as concerns of fairness and equity, typically requires the involvement of stakeholders from all sectors on a representative basis. 

3) Knowledge sharing
Trisectoral networks gather and share information. The information technology revolution allows all kinds of knowledge, technical and non-technical, to be shared without regard for distance or borders, and at ever-lower cost. 

Networks that focus on this kind of activity tend to be especially successful when they link participants with access to various knowledge bases and when all participants are willing to rethink their own ideas and practices – to learn and relearn as well as to teach. 

4) New markets
Trisectoral networks also have a commercial dimension – making new markets where they are lacking and deepening markets that are failing to fulfil their potential. 

George Soros, in his new book entitled Open Society said: “The free market mechanism of supply and demand satisfies personal interest but not common interest.” 

Left to their own devices, markets sometimes fail to produce certain goods – public goods – that the broader public interest demands. Trisectoral networks can help bridge this gap between demand and supply. 

5) Innovative implementation mechanisms
Trisectoral networks can be designed specifically as innovative implementation mechanisms for traditional intergovernmental treaties. 

The Global Environment Facility has increasingly turned to trisectoral networking to achieve its mission of funding and implementing worthy projects in the area of environmental protection. 

6) Greater trust
The intangible outcomes of networks – such as greater trust between participants and the creation of a forum for raising and discussing other new issues – are often as important as the tangible ones, and they may endure even longer. 

Transparency International, for example, has not only scored significant successes in the fight against official corruption but also built coalitions of trust between very diverse actors in this sensitive issue area. 

Coming together
Malaysia, like all the other nations of the world, is facing a political and business environment that has a set of new and emerging paradigms. 

It is urgent that the three sectors of government, business and community (civil society) learn to work closely together to solve new problems which they would be unable to solve alone. 

Trisectoral networks embrace the very forces of globalisation that have confounded and complicated traditional governance structures, challenging the operational capacity and democratic responsiveness of governments. They are distinctive in their ability to bring people and institutions from diverse backgrounds together, often when they have been working against one another for years. 

Making use of the strength of weak ties, networks can handle this diversity of actors precisely because of the productive tensions on which they rest. 

Trisectoral networks do not offer an easy ride, but the difficulties are well worth the risk, given the daunting challenges of a complex world with an ever-expanding multiplicity of actors, interests, and issues to be resolved.


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