9 May 2012 zichtbaarzijn

By Piet van Ommeren

Piet van Ommeren worked as interim manager in decentralized structures of a Dutch NGO for more than a year, both in a country office and a regional office. Earlier he worked as Country Director of a Dutch Personnel Sending Agency in Zambia for 3 years.
 
 
 
Major Experience
The big challenge that managers of decentralized structures face is usually not the operational management (often experienced as ‘nicely managing one’s own shop’) but ‘the connection’ between decentralized managers themselves and between the management in the headquarters and the decentralized offices. 
 
It is the incongruence of the management- and policy-structures between HQ and decentralized structures that usually complicates this connection. 
 
An inappropriate connection creates risks if not addressed and managed well; complex and dragging communication structures/processes (with a high risk of ‘bureaucracy reactions’ as solution) create new delays and frustration; it becomes a vicious circle, a downward spiral in communication. Immediate effects are: 
  • New policies and strategies are not adequately communicated and explained and the follow up is not monitored and steered consistently and timely.
  • Solo management; de-central managers turn away from the HQ.
  • Lack of mutual learning and sharing of experiences.
  • Lack of uniformity of the organization in policies, processes and procedures.
The interim manager in a decentralized position is not the person to address these issues immediately but should be well aware of them.
 
My did’s and didnt’s 
  • Be a local manager
    I started finding out what local staff finds ready for change / improvement, rather than immediately launching my own management analysis process. It made that I could build up a good initial relationship with the team. It is a good learning opportunity as well, e.g. of local practices and rules and regulations. It also created balance in the new relation between manager and staff (which might not be very happy with a new or interim manager) a good basis for the changes the interim manager will want to implement later. 
  • Be an integral manager
    The offices I managed were ‘small’ enough (10-15 staff, € 3-6 million co-funding, external funding targets of not more than € 1 million) to allow adherence to the ‘integral management’ principle and be responsible for both policy-and strategy-development and -implementation, for programme management and for the operational management (finances, HR, external relations and marketing, security, etc.). This is an advantage for the ‘connection’ between HQ and the local office but it does require the local manager to be able to manage integrally.
  • Learn from your sisters and cooperate
    National or regional offices of foreign NGO’s constitute a group in itself; they face comparable (start-up) challenges and therefore can be of great assistance to the de-central manager. I established contacts with international sister-NGO’s (European, from the same network) and shared experiences in logistics, registration/legal issues, recruitment of personnel etc. It was also possible to use each others networks for security info and programmatic learning.
  • Initially limit the involvement in corporate issues
    I refrained (although experienced with the client organization, and therefore sometimes tempted to..) from proactively involving in corporate policy issues. It created time to focus on the quality and necessary adaptations in national management and in communication (the ‘connection’) with HQ. Herewith I was able to focus on building up local relations both in and outside the office, which was appreciated by local staff. Of course I participated in corporate policy issues as the local office representative and when requested so. 
Suggestions for Clients
  • Build and maintain one skeleton organisation model
    Decide on the minimum congruency and uniformity in policy development and implementation, in strategic processes and in operational processes and procedures for the entire organisation (HQ and de-central offices). A realistic aim is: flexibility but not at the cost of a minimum corporate uniform visibility, necessary for marketing and ‘sales’ (fundraising and programme implementation)
  • One is never alone as decentralized NGO
    Explore the possibilities for, and extent of cooperation with ‘sisters’ before the start of the de-central office. Be prepared to develop combined offices from the start, exercise flexibility but define and secure a minimum of uniformly applicable operational rules, procedures and regulations. Consider a Business Service Centre approach in NGO-cooperation from the beginning. 
  • Apply what you preach to your partners
    Work with business plans for your local office, within which the local manager has freedom to operate and is being monitored. 
My Idea
Decentralized (country or regional) offices of international NGO’s have many similarities (if not overlaps) in both organisational requirements and the way programmes are being supported or implemented. Combined operations are of great advantage in terms of cost efficiency and programme effectiveness, provided the unique visibility of participating NGO’s (necessary for marketing and fundraising) can be maintained. International NGO’s should set hard cooperation targets in decentralised structures. 
 
Next Blog
‘The advisor in Public Private Partnerships, an initial experience’
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