Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together

Jerry M. Calton (University of Hawaii at Hilo, Hilo, Hawaii, USA)

Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal

ISSN: 2040-8021

Article publication date: 30 August 2011



Calton, J.M. (2011), "Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together", Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 175-180.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Global social activist and inter‐organisational change consultant, Steve Waddell, offers an important and fascinating perspective on the recent emergence of multi‐sector “Global Action Networks” (GANs) in response to a proliferation of pressing global problems. Waddell (2011, p. 204) leverages Albert Einstein's insight that “solutions to a problem cannot be resolved at the level that they have been created”. Complex, messy, interdependent “system” problems, such as global warming and other threats to ecological sustainability, global financial instability, escalating world poverty and health concerns, rampant corruption in business‐government relations, and deteriorating water quality (and quantity), among others do not lend themselves to straightforward, linear solutions by governmental, corporate, or civil society (NGO) actors. Indeed, many of these problems have arisen or festered because these sector actors have failed to work together or understand each other. They have not acknowledged the unintended consequences of a single‐minded pursuit of narrow policy agendas. Business leaders focus on delivering strong corporate financial performance while minimising the relevance of social or environmental performance measures (i.e. single vs triple‐bottom line accountability). NGO leaders seek distributional social justice or environmental sustainability while slighting the need for economic development to support social systems. National or international public sector agencies engage in bureaucratic turf battles or invite capture by private interests, reducing pursuit of the public good to dissemination of unenforceable “to do” lists. Adversarial carping about who is to blame for inaction or who is “right” can deflect even sincere sector agents from engaging in a dialogic, co‐learning response to address a shared messy problem.

Waddell (2011, p. xv) asserts that GANs “represent a critical organising innovation – that they are as different from business, NGOs, and governments as each of those are from each other”. GANs belong to a different “tribe” dedicated to addressing “messy” system problems by bringing together a diverse multi‐stakeholder community that is bounded by their contested interactions within a shared problem domain. Waddell (2011, p. xvi) portrays the core work of GANs as “creating processes that bring together diverse people to be productive as a network that spurs development and implementation of solutions”. He identifies the following characteristics of GANs:

  • They are global and multi‐level in scope. Waddell provides tantalisingly brief accounts of the history, organisation, and work of GANs, such as Transparency International, the Global Compact, Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Principles for Responsible Investment, Forest Stewardship Council, Fair Labor Association, Marine Stewardship Council, and World Water Council, among others. Their global reach is driven by the scope of the system problem, demanding concerted action. Their regional, national, and local dimensions are defined by the diverse stakeholders who must be engaged to grapple with the shared problem. Given the diversity of problem manifestations, as well as of stakeholders involved, the GAN approach to problem solving is necessarily “glocal,” drawing local initiatives under a global action learning umbrella, or “community of practice” (Wenger, 2000).

  • Coping with such diversity requires the embrace of boundary spanning roles, processes, and structures. Linguistic, geographic, cultural, demographic, and income diversity challenge the search for common ground. Central to the GAN strategy and structure is a multi‐stakeholder approach to convening an on‐going “community conversation” that brings together diverse voices caught up in the shared problem domain. This conversation must be open and inclusive, while cutting across the boundaries of business, government, and civil society. While the conversation may begin at the global level, it must span multiple boundaries to make a difference glocally.

  • GANs are inter‐organisational networks. Waddell (2011, p. 21‐3) draws upon Powell's (1991) classic definition of a network as a coordinating mechanism “typified by reciprocal patterns of communication and exchange”. Since network forms of exchange “entail indefinite, sequential transactions within the context of a general pattern of interaction,” enforcement of obligations relies on the creation of trust and recognition of mutual interest in pooling resources to achieve complementary ends within a pattern of trust‐based interactions. Sanctions arise from peer pressure grounded in a normative social contract, rather than legal contractual compliance mechanisms. Networks accommodate diversity, while promoting a search for common ground to address a shared problem.

  • GANs are systemic change agents. Patterns of change range from incremental (changing parts) to reform (changing the way parts interact) to transformation (changing the system). This is equivalent to engaging in single, double, and triple loop learning. The ultimate intent of GANs is transformational change based on Einstein's insight that problems created by one level of organisation (corporations, nations, markets, and hierarchies) must be addressed by network strategies, structures, and processes at the higher level of system interactions. This (still contestable) insight is grounded in the open systems thinking of Capra (1996), Maturana and Varela (1980), Senge (1990) and Wilber (1996), among others. Open systems are adaptive learning processes bounded by shared issues or problems. They enable diverse participants (co‐learners) to grapple with different framings of a shared problem, reflect on the limitations of preconceptions brought to the table, and potentially to enter a co‐creative space of “generative dialogue” where co‐learners can come to appreciate the “primacy of the whole.” One of the most intriguing and useful parts of Waddell's book is Chapter 4, where new tools for visualising the whole are discussed. Among these are: semantic clouds, issue crawl mapping, systems archetypes, concept mapping, geo‐mapping, social network mapping, value network analysis, and managing for clarity mapping. Co‐creative framing of issues enables co‐learners to consider new ways to interact within the system to address the shared problem. System‐based learning is emergent and self‐organising in that it unfolds in often unanticipated ways (the “butterfly effect”) as the pattern of interaction evolves. GAN leaders look forward to the approach of a “tipping point” (Gladwell, 2000) when an emergent network system for addressing “messes” will supplant or overlay national, sectoral, market, or hierarchical approaches to coordination and control.

  • GANs engage in entrepreneurial action learning. Among the most interesting aspects of Waddell's book are his interviews with entrepreneurial founders of GANs, such as Peter Eigen of Transparency International. Eigen developed a glocal network to draw public attention to the pervasive problem of public corruption, particularly with regard to extractive industries seeking privileged access to natural resources in developing countries. Such social entrepreneurs seek not so much private profit from new organisational forms as improved access to global “public goods”. Public goods, such as social justice, clean air or water, a public/private interface free of corrupt bargaining, or a sustainable food supply, cannot be rationed by price or privilege. Market transactions or bureaucratic interventions may impair or deny access to global public goods. GANs are entrepreneurial in that they work to better articulate the need for global public goods while seeking to develop innovative glocal, cross‐sector, and multi‐stakeholder means to expand access to global public goods. Waddell points to the role of “action learning” as the preferred methodology of institutional change. He observes that many GAN leaders are more focused on action than on learning. One of the primary goals of his book is to highlight the need to apply action learning methods, such as the hands‐on planning>experiencing>reviewing> concluding cycle (pp. 47‐9). In this way, GAN leaders can take advantage of feedback loops to learn from their mistakes as well as their successes, share developmental insights, augment their collective memory, and stop reinventing the wheel. Waddell points to the need for GANs to advance through developmental stages from exploration, initiation, infrastructure development, to realising the potential for system change. Many of his practical suggestions and summaries of theoretical insights are integrated in handy tables and checklists throughout the book. These should prove invaluable to activist GAN entrepreneurial practitioners, though the academic may look at times for more theoretical development or for a more extended narrative of how particular GANs, such as Transparency International or the GRI, have moved through the stages of development.

  • Another important GAN characteristic is the voluntary basis of their leadership. As issue or problem‐based networks, they lack the coercive sovereign jurisdiction and taxing power of state agencies and the financial clout of market‐based corporate hierarchies. GAN values and purposes are most closely aligned to NGOs in civil society, even though GANs are typically not as well funded – often with a budget limited to a few million dollars a year. GAN development depends on their success in forging voluntary cross‐sector linkages with governmental, corporate, and NGO actors. GAN leaders indicate that a capability for dealing with power and politics is one of their greatest developmental challenges. They lack coercive power and remunerative power, so they must depend primarily on normative power to persuade multiple stakeholders across national and sectoral boundaries to come together in response to the urgency and legitimacy of their global cause. Waddell (2011, p. 191) argues that effective GAN mobilisation of normative power will require “a fundamental change in power and political arrangements“. He makes some intriguing suggestions as to how this transformational change in institutions of network governance might unfold, although his assumption of emergent co‐learning from a self‐organising system allows him to assume (perhaps too conveniently) that the new network governance institutions will arise from an unfolding action learning process. One controversial proposal is for a global tax to be paid by governments or other sector stakeholders to support GAN preservation or production of global public goods.

  • The final characteristic of GANs is that they are global public goods producers. Public goods are non‐excludable and non‐rivalrous, in that they are available to all: consumption of air or police protection by one party should not reduce the amount available to others. However, the nature of public goods invites a system failure that biologist Garrett Hardin characterised as the “tragedy of the commons.” Public goods occupy a commons which lacks clearly defined and enforceable property rights. Therefore, selfishly rational market participants (like goat herders or corporate executives) will utilise the common resource until the grass (or fish, or atmosphere) has been seriously depleted. The 2009 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Ostrom (1990), has proposed an alternative to government regulation or privatisation to govern the commons: She would prevent the tragedy of the commons by “bringing together stakeholders in a resource or issue to establish rules through mutual agreement and collective enforcement” (Waddell, 2011, p. 27). Thus, GANs have emerged as an institutional response to the need to govern an ever more threatened and chaotic commons.

Waddell's new book has called attention to an emergent, but poorly understood, institutional phenomenon that has important global policy implications. His practical suggestions on how GAN leaders can organise and fund their outreach activities and spur co‐learning through action learning feedback and dialogic reflection will be put to good use. As an academic, I wish he had delved a little deeper into the normative ground rules for effective governance of pluralist networks (Calton and Payne, 2003; Scherer and Palazzo, 2007). Also, helpful would have been discussion of the related “global corporate citizenship” movement (Waddock, 2006), which calls upon “mindful” corporate leaders to engage with government and NGO stakeholders to develop voluntary international standards that address shared concerns, such as environmental sustainability and social justice. Also needed was a more fully developed discussion of the GRI campaign for common global standards to measure triple bottom line (financial, social, and environmental) corporate accountability standards. Waddell stresses the need for a strong outcome assessment capability to guide and justify GAN development. He summarised several different approaches to assessment (pp. 159‐66). Perhaps, his most important insight about outcomes assessment was the need to recognise and embrace paradox inherent in the governance of pluralist networks. Achievement of diverse stakeholder values and goals must be balanced against the need to move toward realisation of a global network goal defined by the common problem domain. As the problem unfolds and the GAN develops, goals and objectives can evolve as well. Clearly, there is lots of room here for further theory development and action learning!


Calton, J.M. and Payne, S.L. (2003), “Coping with paradox: multi‐stakeholder learning dialogue as a pluralist sense‐making process for addressing messy problems”, Business & Society, Vol. 42, pp. 742.

Capra, F. (1996), The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Anchor Doubleday, New York, NY.

Gladwell, M. (2000), The Tipping Point: How Little Things can Make a Big Difference, Little Brown & Co., New York, NY.

Maturana, H.R. and Varela, F.J. (1980), Autopoiesis & Cognition, D. Reidel, Dordrecht.

Ostrom, E. (1990), Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Scherer, A.G. and Palazzo, G. (2007), “Toward a political conception of corporate responsibility: business and society seen from a Habermasian perspective”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 32 No. 4, pp. 1096120.

Senge, P.M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Doubleday, New York, NY.

Waddock, S. (2006), Leading Corporate Citizens: Vision, Values, Value Added, McGraw‐Hill, New York, NY.

Wenger, E. (2000), “Communities of practice and social learning systems”, Organization, Vol. 7 No. 2, pp. 22546.

Wilber, K. (1996), A Brief History of Everything, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin.

Related articles