Open Action and Research Network

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

As local — as well as global — problems become more numerous and more intractable, people and groups of people are working together to take appropriate action to address these urgent problems. Unfortunately, the increasing size and complexity of these problems and the corresponding "appropriate actions" that are required introduce a set of thorny issues that must be addressed for these actions to be effective.


This pattern can be used in situations where a distributed, diverse, dynamic group of people are working towards complementary goals in complex, collaborative efforts.


The ability of people to form effective "Open Action and Research Networks" is critical to the success of any attempt at significant social and environmental amelioration. It is also an approach that is only now being explored. For that reason, the concept — and this pattern — reflect the uncertainty and ambiguity that is inherent in the situation.

As we have said before, most of the daunting problems that we face today are large and complex. Grappling with large and complex problems is invariably best served when addressed by many people working together. Indeed this is often the case as each "stakeholder" in any situation can be said to be "working" on the problem. Yet each person and organization working on the problem has a unique orientation which can be at odds with others. "Orientation" is a broad term that includes reward structures; goals, tactics, and strategies; areas of interests; obligations and allegiances; values and norms, status, legitimacy, and power; and ultimately, the very language that the community uses to discuss the issues. Consider, for example, the wide range of people who are working to minimize the negative effects of global climate change, or what Margaret Keck calls an "ecology of agents." These people include scientists, activists, inventers, “green” business people, educators, politicians, and “ordinary” people among others, and these people are as often as not members of other organizations and networks with diverse goals and varying resources and abilities to influence others.

It is against and within this complex environment that the stakeholder players must act / interact. This diverse group of people — of continually shifting size, shape, orientation and modus operandi — can scarcely be called a "team" since teams (particularly in sports) have a single objective. It is clear that many of the "players" working in these new "open networks" have similar objectives, working for example, for social and environmental ameliorization, and these players will come from a multitude of communities: some are interested in research, some action, some the creation of policy, some physical or material changes right now, while others are interested in abstract goals to be attained in the indeterminate future. In the worst case, the diversity of the players destroys the team. Ideally the diversity is the source of its strength. (Indeed diversity of thinking is essential to effective strategy [See Strategic Capacity pattern].)

According to Ganz, "the task of devising strategy in complex, changing environments may require interaction among team members like the performance of a jazz ensemble. As a kind of distributed cognition, it may require synthesizing skills and information beyond the ken of any one individual, making terms of that interaction particularly important." Nearly opposite to the "ensemble" idea is the impossible vision of "herding cats" in which each "cat" is totally unconcerned about the doings of the other "cats."

The networks that this pattern must address vary tremendously. At one end of the scale there are networks with few members and resources, short duration, and informal procedures. At the other end are networks like the LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) Network that was started in 1980, involves 26 sites in the US, and over 1,800 scientists and students. Although the LTER Network is fairly well financed (by the National Science Foundation) and is more formal and less diverse than some groups, the networks on both ends of the scale do share many points in common befitting their structure as networks of semi-autonomous peers.

Some of the questions that this "network approach" should ultimately address are as follows:

  • How can differences of opinion be "managed" — i.e. encouraged to some degree, while not allowing them to become destructive?
  • How is coordination and cooperation accomplished without coercion?
  • How can we cooperatively evolve useful modes of organization and engagement that are especially suited for these new environments and ensembles?
  • How can people maintain respect for allies who have other perspectives and capitalize effectively on the diversity of the ensemble?
  • How do efforts survive personnel change by ensuring that relevant information, including facts, “lessons learned” and intriguing opportunities are made available to new members?
  • How can environmental scientists and other types of researchers (including social scientists) conduct research that meets the demands of their profession and the needs of the communities they are working with?
  • How are conflicts and misunderstandings over short-term and long-term goal reconciled?

Each organizational type (and each organization!) has its own orientation which encompasses its thinking and acting and it is this orientation which is likely to be challenged when working with others.

Shared concerns and principles help bring people together into groups, organizations and networks. Beyond that, however, other things are also critical. The individuals within the network should be able to work with other people to solve problems collectively and to help maintain cordiality and integrity within the group. Also because the membership of these networks is dynamic, there must be ways to bring in new members easily. Besides shared values and shared ideas about the roles, interests and constraints of the other players, there should be shared goals. Goals and other forms of collective, documented statements or plans, however symbolic they might be can provide coherence over time.

Margaret Keck's work in Brazil provides an excellent example of the power that these documents can have. In 1971, the Soluçãao Integrada (Integrated Solution) was included as the sanitation component of the metropolitan development plan. Although it was abandoned by the following government and replaced by a more expensive, less popular and more environmentally degrading plan called SANEGRAN. According to Keck, the very existence of the plan made it "possible for non-technical social and political actors to challenge public authority on water policy." In fact, in more striking terms, the plan, "Like a shadow government existing in counter point to sitting ones, the plan has functioned as a shadow sanitation plan for Sao Paulo for more than a quarter century, making critical action more possible" (Keck, 2001).

Girard and Stark (2006) point out the importance of agreeing on general philosophical aims among disparate groups without descending into micromanagement or debate. Sharing of ideas, documents and information was the also general aim of the Telecommunications Policy Roundtable, that met monthly in Washington, DC, in the 1990s to help build a general public interest policy for the Internet and other informaiton technologies. The LTER Network, as a body of researchers, places data in a central postion for their work and has developed specific formats to encourage the develop and sharing of data as well as policies for its use in a loosely coupled network configuration (Karasti and Syrjänen, 2004).

Today's phenomenon of creating movies with a team that was assembled for the purpose of making a single movie is instructive. Clearly reputation and "who you know" play some part in the selection of individuals. Once on the set, however, the person's skill-set, role in the enterprise, and ability to work with others in a dynamic milieu where unexpected events ma arise, is put to the test. While the "Open Networks" we discuss here are not identical, the agility, intelligence, and effectiveness that these groups can potentially manifest is huge.


Acknowledge the importance of this pattern and work consciously to identify the inherent dilemmas of the situation as well as the emerging wisdom that is to be learned from the practice. We must take note of the avenues that are likely to yield important and useful insights about working together as we move forward.

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