Saturday, October 5, 2013

No Glamour in Being a Backbone

The popularity of the Collective Impact framework for sustained positive community change championed by FSG has generated considerable interest in the notion of "backbone organizations."

In short, backbones coordinate the actions of diverse stakeholders that participate in a collaboration organized around the Collecitve Impact framework. Because of the growing popularity of the "Collective Impact" approach, many non-profit leaders are under the impression that becoming a backbone is a sure-fire path to funding and recognition. Some are clamoring to position themselves as the "backbone" for whatever cause their organization is addressing. Some communities are swimming in wannabe backbones.

However, being a backbone is not a role for those interested in attention or glamour. The role of the backbone is very much like the role of the IT department back in the early days of networking.

In the early days of corporate computer networks -- WANs and LANs -- and the early 1990s version of the internet, poorly designed networks that lacked adequate capacity could bring all activity within an organization to a halt. I worked for corporation that tried for a year to get by with only enough bandwidth that email was delivered intermittently. "E-mail is not intended for instant communication," the head of IT responded to my complaints. IT departments were frustrated that there never seemed to be enough bandwidth -- or backbone -- to keep folks happy. Every time more bandwidth was added users found new things to do with it -- increasing their productivity and effectiveness. Creating demand for even more bandwidth.

Such is the case, as well, for civic networks that are using the Collective Impact framework. The backbone is what enables the stakeholders to communicate with each other, align their actions and assess their collective progress. If there isn't sufficient backbone capacity the collaboration slows down, if more capacity is added more collaboration can occur, creating demand for more capacity.

Of course the analogy isn't perfect as a computer network is much easier to coordinate -- data can be directed via basic protocols. The protocols of a civic network need to be much more sophisticated to enable quality interactions among diverse individuals and organizations.

Being a backbone is a behind-the-scenes role; often under appreciated by leaders (and funders) focused on the delivery services rather than how that delivery was made possible. But just as the IT department is critical to the success of any business of substance, backbones are essential to any collaboration interested in achieving sustained positive change.

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