Defining what and how to change is never easy. Lately, it seems particularly challenging. This difficulty arises because social processes are very dynamic, and events around the world have never been more interconnected, geographically, thematically, economically, politically, and in many other ways. These are turbulent times; changes happen quickly and are often unexpected. It’s hard, almost impossible, to predict events, even in the near future, let alone the distant future. However, it’s necessary to act, to strive to achieve goals for improvement in various areas. Improvements in the field of economics are often the focus of public policies and interventions, which address this area in different ways. But it’s not at all easy to define what needs to be done.
An intervention that leads to change is often executed as a project. A project begins by identifying a problem. Then, a solution is defined, which also forms the initial goal setting; activities are developed and scheduled, and the necessary resources are determined. Clearly, well-defined problem identification is a very important step in project preparation, as the problem definition affects the definition of project elements, goals, activities, and resources. It’s also important in implementation, as a well-defined problem significantly reduces the effort needed to present the project to target groups and ensure their active participation. And most importantly, a well-defined problem means solving a real issue, i.e., achieving real, truly necessary improvement.
In today’s conditions, it’s necessary to thoroughly investigate the identified problem and avoid the danger of addressing symptoms rather than causes. Only after exhausting all the “why” questions can we consider that we are close to identifying and defining the problem. And these “why” questions should cover numerous subjects and relations, not just from the immediate environment of the observed phenomenon but also the broader context. For example, when discussing businesses that primarily operate in the domestic market, it’s necessary to consider the international environment, as they already face competition from other countries in the local market, not just when they try to export and enter foreign markets. Moreover, equipment, knowledge, and even ideas in business often come from the international environment. Therefore, local companies are integrated into international value chains in various ways, affecting their operations and results. Thus, the problems they face should be viewed in this context.
A project approach based on linear processes, assumptions of predictability, and the assumption that the causes are truly identified, with clearly defined cause-and-effect relationships, can show serious weaknesses in practice. However, this does not mean that methods like project cycle management are not applicable. They are, but only when conditions are sufficiently known, the problem is well-researched and defined, and there is a good understanding of the context. Even in such cases, unexpected changes that affect implementation and outcomes can occur. Simply, some things cannot be predicted. But it’s necessary to react when they happen. What we can do is be aware that such possibility exists, prepare as much as possible for different scenarios, and incorporate mechanisms and resources into the project design that allow a certain degree of flexibility and adaptation to achieve defined results and desired change even under changed conditions. For example, we can plan resources that can timely notice and respond to possible negative impacts from the environment. For instance, a project team that includes people with knowledge and experience in various fields will likely notice changes in the environment that can negatively affect the project results sooner. Such team can find alternative solutions to achieve defined goals. Also, we don’t give up on goals; we just find other ways to achieve them if such need arises. The approach should also include perspectives from the point of view of complexity, where we are not sure of causal links, but there is a need for action. Even in the project’s preparation, we can consider whether we are facing a complex situation or not. The Cynefin framework (About – Cynefin Framework – The Cynefin Co) is very useful in helping to determine in which area the problem lies, and based on that, we can better plan further actions.
It should also be borne in mind that complicated, and in many cases complex, situation implies the possibility that different entities from different points of view will address the same problem. For example, an insufficient level of enterprise competitiveness can be addressed by improving the training level of the workforce, enhancing technology, developing new products, and in many other ways. And this is what happens in practice. Different projects address economic development from different angles. This is necessary and good. At the same time, communication between them is often insufficient to achieve synergistic effects. There are never enough resources, which is another reason for better focusing and directing efforts towards a specific problem. And so, we come to the importance of networking. There have been initiatives aimed at networking businesses, consultants, institutions, and organizations that support businesses, and so on. Some of them have produced more results, some less, but certain insights can be formulated that can help in preparing and executing these activities in the future. Namely, networking initiatives are often launched within a specific project, where the project, by nature, has a beginning and an end. Activities are adjusted according to the project’s goals and from the perspective of implementing a specific project, which is fine. However, when the project ends, the focus and initiative for the network’s operation also fade. Such network usually gradually diminishes, reduces activity intensity, or completely ceases activities. And this happens in an environment where the network could greatly contribute to further solving a specific problem. For example, a network focused on supporting innovations in industrial companies, consisting of companies, relevant institutions, service providers such as designers and consultants, and other relevant entities, is initiated. The network carries out activities planned by the project, the project’s results are achieved, and the project ends. From the project’s perspective, this is fine. It’s useful for enteprises, too. But from the perspective of striving to ensure continuous progress of industrial companies, there is a huge space for further action. In this, both projects and other entities whose actions relate to innovations in industrial companies can participate. Over time, interactions between individual network entities should become more frequent and comprehensive, and communication flows should increasingly occur directly between individual entities, without the participation of the central network entity as an initiator, facilitator, and intermediary. Although this role is necessary initially, it’s desirable to develop the network so that this role becomes less needed over time, so that the network becomes truly sustainable, with entities in mutual interaction defining the focuses of further action and developing cooperation modalities, adjusting the network itself in terms of participants and interactions. It can be said that a sustainable network is one where a central point cannot be determined.
To achieve this, more intense communication between entities dealing with a particular topic or problem is required, especially in the initial stages of networking. Such communication would allow better focusing of resources, achieving synergistic effects, and over time, the described way of achieving continuity in the operation of established networks and similar structures, and their further development. For example, projects that follow one another over time can take over the support of already established networks and further strengthen them, improving the structure and adapting the role to new challenges. This way, trust in established structures is also built.
Interactions are simply necessary to achieve full results. Capacity building is needed, but not sufficient. For example, a very well-equipped laboratory within a faculty will not achieve its full effect if there are no mechanisms for enterprises to use these capacities.
The challenges are numerous, changes are dynamic and often unpredictable, and action must be taken. Much is not under our control. But investing the necessary effort in properly understanding and defining problems, designing a project that allows a certain degree of flexibility and resilience to unexpected situations, focusing resources through cooperation and networking, and ensuring continuity of improvement – that’s what we can do.