What We Learned Through ONA... and What We Learned About ONA

As part of its 2016 Year of Entrepreneurship, the government of Serbia will invest €130 million in 33 public initiatives aimed at growing the MSME sector. These programs, plus others supported by donors or implemented locally, represent an investment in what is hoped to be a coordinated strategy to innovate and grow the MSME sector. The actors implementing these initiatives represent a diverse collection of public, private, education and civil society connected through networks of sectors, donors and locale. Recently, USAID/Serbia asked the Leveraging Economic Opportunities (LEO) activity to utilize organizational network analysis (ONA) to explore the effectiveness of these networks and to inform their strategic development efforts to improve these relationships. As the team leader of this effort, here are some of my key takeaways from that experience. You can read the full ONA here

Using ONA to Assess MSME-Support in Serbia

The ONA was part of a broader Political Economy Analysis (PEA) to help inform the Mission’s understanding of what drives innovation and the competitiveness of MSMEs. The Mission wanted to better understand how those support actors – including public institutions, donors, Chambers of Commerce, associations and others –  interact, with whom MSMEs look to for support, and how USAID/Serbia can improve the interactions and relationships between the actors for the benefit of MSMEs. The LEO team interviewed 149 actors across Serbia, collecting ONA data for them and the 650 other actors they named in their network.

What We Learned: Understanding Serbia's MSME-Support Sector

  • Revealing trends regarding the use of support services by MSMEs: Many surveyed MSMEs indicated stronger connections to public institutions and development programs than from voluntary membership groups like sector-based associations and clusters. This ties into one of the findings of the PEA, that MSMEs stated that these voluntary associations often serve their own needs and interests over those of their members.
  • Identifying potential areas for program interventions: While “ecosystem” tools like hubs, incubators, and coworking spaces attract donor funding to support MSME development in their communities, they are not always viewed by MSMEs as support instruments to which they turn.
  • Recognizing successes on which to build: Actors experienced in development programs and accessing donor funds are often highly networked. How can we replicate innovative partnerships for MSMEs and support actors outside the development space as well as utilize the strongest existing networks to better support MSMEs?

What We Learned: Applying ONA to MSME Support

Conducting our ONA in conjunction with a comprehensive PEA was informing but challenging.

  • Notably, the process of collecting and analyzing ONA data while conducting PEA interviews proved efficient – it provided ready access to 149 support actors and an opportunity to discuss first-hand their networks and organizational relationships. At the same time, our gains in logistical efficiency were challenged by interviewees' time constraints, creating challenges for team members to collect ONA data uniformly and consistently. Data collected and assessed over time, such as over the course of a project, could provide valuable insight into the impact of a donor or implementing partner’s work.
  • ONA arose as a means to analyze web-based social networks like Facebook and Twitter. As development practitioners, we work with networks whose connections are more difficult to measure than “friends” or “likes.” This raises the issue of how we collect our data; lacking other means we turn to interviews and surveys, introducing human elements and other error-inducing parameters. As we continue to apply ONA to new cases we should continue to improve our data collection and understanding of all that we can gain through ONA. In fact, stay tuned for an upcoming publication later this month from LEO that further explores the utility of network analysis for market development practitioners!  
  • Reviewing a basic ONA can be perplexing for novice or lay readers, one that requires the learning of a new lexicon. As practitioners continue to push the academic edge of ONA, the analysis potential and lexicon grow, providing a whole new set of indicators to augment traditional indicators like jobs created or water pumped. We as development practitioners should engage learning communities and seek forums to share our works and best practices, in order to demystify ONAs and highlight their importance to understanding systems dynamics by mainstream development practitioners. The above referenced forthcoming set of resources from LEO will also explore other tools useful for understanding systems dynamics and tracking changes in those dynamics over time. This is also the focus of a workshop at LEO’s closing conference on September 27, so check it out.

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