Draft Case Example for Roffey Park Research into Alliances and New Forms of Organisation
New Intermediaries: A learning alliance
A virtual beginning
New Intermediaries is an alliance with a difference – the brainchild of two independent organisation development consultants, Fiona Coffey and Tony Page, who wanted to find a new way of working with each other and a wider network. The idea has evolved gradually since 1999. As if symbolic of the determination to be different, this alliance started in the most virtual form possible – as a website - in 1999.
The two founder members of New Intermediaries, both with a strong interest in change management, have their own businesses, and have worked together on consultancy projects. Previously employed in large organisations, they now enjoy the freedom of self-employment, but remain aware of benefits enjoyed by larger organisations including impact, and the buzz of people, information and events. The challenge was to multiply their impact and energy without having to grow a large, conventional consultancy business with all the overheads, administrative workload and inflexibility which that would bring.
The initial idea was to try and ‘connect people in new ways.’ Aware of thousands of others working independently like them or in change agent roles inside organisations, and railing against the insularity and arrogance often associated with consultants, they questioned what might happen if they began to collaborate more closely with people who would usually be labelled "competitors" and "clients". Their answer was that a new form of learning alliance with competitors and clients might yield benefits for everyone, perhaps not immediately in terms of business growth, but indirectly in quality of work, reputation, wider impact and satisfaction. They would do this by seeking to pool experience and build a shared understanding of the complex organisational change issues they were involved in, inspiring new ideas and practices, amplifying their voice, and generating the kind of work that they most wanted to deliver.
So a name was coined ("New Intermediaries" - which aimed to reflect the important emerging role for leaders and facilitators in a changing world), a website launched and a journey begun.
The need to meet….. not to control or to sell…. but to learn
By November 1999, after an initial enthusiastic reception, it was apparent that a website has its limitations in bringing people together. So around 70 invitations went out and 40 people met in person for a kind of launch event – a breakfast party.
Out of this has grown a pattern of varied monthly meetings for a smaller community (usually 10 to 14 people) who seem seriously interested in networking together, plus a larger pool of 50-70 who may join in from time to time. Typically meetings include time for unstructured conversation, plus a task that requires the group to work and learn together. Each meeting has a different theme or flavour such as "future event planning", "improvisation and theatre games", "therapy and consulting" and "insider-outsider dialogue".
Initially those who came together were people who already knew the founder members, but since then the word is spreading both through visitors to the website and through existing members, and each meeting has included some new faces.
The model of meeting with like-minded people could easily turn into a kind of cosy club. The founders see the need to avoid this ‘to create instability as well as stability.’ In February 2000, a meeting brought together those who worked on change issues inside companies with others who worked as external consultants. This was not to provide a selling opportunity, but an opportunity to share and learn. At this point there was a need to deal with some individuals who were out of step with the spirit of the endeavour and either saw such a meeting as an opportunity to get new clients or projects, or felt concerned that their clients might be poached by other consultants.
Coaxing this network into existence has required leadership of a ‘behind the scenes’, facilitating type, although the two founders have clearly made most of the running so far. ‘The challenge is provide structure but not be too controlling.’ However, having invested a lot of time and emotional energy in creating this new network, the key players anticipate challenges ahead in terms of letting go enough to enable other members to take the lead. The founder members don’t want to ‘own’ or ‘manage’ the group, although they obviously have strong commitment to it. All the early development was done in their own time and at their own expense. As time passes, they would like this to evolve into a loose organisation in which many people take initiatives and share the lead. Already members have begun to offer venues, helped to design meetings and to share the cost (mainly food!).
The need to work…… and to reach out
Meetings, usually lasting half a day, do not always allow for a group to form and achieve a deep exploration of shared ideas, which happens naturally when people undertake challenging joint projects. Nor can meetings on their own achieve the aim of wider impact on the outside world. So new activities are developing. For example articles are being written jointly by members of the network and published under the New Intermediaries name. A research project is underway which involves interviewing senior level change sponsors in a variety of organisations to understand their point of view and feed this into the dialogues. Writing and research, in addition to the original website, can give the network a wider voice and reach. The website is kept updated with a ‘story’ of New Intermediaries and remains a vehicle for expanding its potential influence.
Events of different kinds will also be a way of reaching out and involving a continuously changing population. Some full day meetings are being held. A large group search conference is planned for later in the year to involve a group of possibly 50-100 people in developing a rich understanding of the changes in the wider world and the implications of these for the role of the "new intermediary".
Networks inevitably face the limitations of geography once face-to-face meetings become the dominant activity. The network is really London based, and some people in the north of England have started their own New Intermediary meetings as a more practical alternative than coming to London on a frequent basis. This is seen as a positive sign that the idea can take on a life of its own.
An evolving vision
New Intermediaries in some ways started with a vision of what it wasn’t: a conventional network for doing or getting consultancy business; an organisation with an office and staff; or a cosy mutual support group for friends.
As this alliance begins to take form, the vision seems to be focusing on a number of ideas:
From the initial meetings there is an emerging sense of purpose or common interest, which is to make a positive difference to the world through the change work that members do, helping to create organisations that people want to work in, through holding conversations that transform organisational performance. Members, aware of the maxim "change starts with you", seek to enact this purpose in their own meetings and conversations with one another, as well as in their work in the wider world.
The journey is still in its early stages, but having already clocked some significant successes, the idea of this kind of alliance without a specific business bottom line is an interesting one to explore.
Key learning points