One of Abraham Lincoln’s last acts was to establish The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. The Freedmen’s Bureau, which it was commonly called, was charged with a vast array of social, medical, legal, and educational services for 4 million emancipated slaves1.
Despite the unending demands, unfunded mandates, unwieldy administration, and unrelenting opposition from entrenched interests, the Freedmen’s Bureau racked up great results. Over its seven- year run, the organization treated half a million patients, distributed 21 million rations, made loans for thousands of businesses, built more than 1,000 schools in the South, and educated more than 150,000 children. Perhaps most importantly, the Freedmen’s Bureau paved the way for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Yet it wasn’t the stroke of Lincoln’s pen alone that authorized the Freedmen’s Bureau; conditions were ripe for moving forward. Multiple factors were swiftly and urgently converging: Reconstruction of the South – rife with poverty and social revolution – was on the minds of leaders, freedmen needed bridges into voluntary industry, Congress was in disarray, and the nation’s economic system was upended. Lincoln leveraged this convergence of social and economic factors to gain support for the Freedmen’s Bureau.
For Lincoln, and public leaders today, a critical challenge and opportunity resides in the ability to respond to convergence – a phenomenon in which technological, economic, and social factors are not only changing, but also combining into new forms that fundamentally change an operating environment (such as a public policy area or a market). The resulting dynamics of convergence challenge existing societal institutions, policies, and how organizations provide solutions to problems.
So what’s a public sector leader like you to do in the midst of convergence?
From a strategic view, how you respond to convergence can bring both peril and promise for organizational capacity and public value. The peril is that if leaders can’t (or won’t) respond to convergence, government outcomes decline, public value decreases, and the legitimacy of democratic governance collapses. The promise is that if leaders in government and across sectors can harness convergence and guide the adaptation of policy, systems, organizations, and people, new transformational solutions to problems can arise.
From a tactical view, there are two practical challenges with responding to convergence. First, convergence will likely change your organizational mission and operating model – i.e., what your organization’s outcome and impact goals are and how they are achieved day to day. Second, convergence will probably change your customers’ (clients, constituents, stakeholders, etc.) service demands and expectations – i.e., what they need and/or want, how they consume the service, and how they measure success.
From a readiness view, be ready to work on multiple fronts. Not only will you have to strategically respond to big policy, system, and organizational changes driven by convergence, but you’ll also have to help people in your organization adapt to new roles, gain new competencies, and accept new responsibilities. Essentially, you’ll be moving your organization, people, and stakeholders through a major change in purpose and identity.
Recognize that you’re not alone. Scan the world, and you’ll see convergence happening in many areas. Take the “sharing economy,” which is driven by the convergence of networks, social-based platforms, e-commerce, and location-based data. The sharing economy is fundamentally changing the way consumers buy “portions” of services or products, and has spawned entirely new ways both business and government provide value. If you look to the not-so-distant future, the convergence of nanotechnology, brain science, bioengineering, and robotics will reshape the expectations of human longevity and health. This will in turn blur the boundaries around what “healthcare” is, and create entirely new classes of health and longevity products and services. Get ready for questions such as, “Would you like us to upload more cognitive capacity to your brain while we’re installing your powerful new robotic knee?”
Leaders in human services are facing a major wave of convergence. I’ll be hosting a large group of them at Harvard this month for the Human Services Summit, and we’ll examine five “Dynamics of Convergence” impacting public, private, and non-profit organizations:
As we see, human services leaders are facing multiple areas of convergence, and we’ll need to address an array of questions: What will citizen demands look like as convergence reshapes the environment? How should different systems partner in order to meet new demands? Where should private sector and non-profit partners integrate? What should a human services organization look like in the future?
The world will be able to watch and learn a lot from what happens in human services. Every pressing challenge we have – ensuring economic growth and security, expanding civil rights and justice, mitigating climate change, redesigning education, etc. – requires learning from other leaders, and from other fields, how to respond to convergence in ways that transform our society’s capacity to respond and act.
What are your thoughts on convergence? Where do you see convergence happening in your world? What are you doing to prepare?Originals
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