I’ve written a lot about field building and read even more. Nowadays, the word “industry” is often substituted for field. I suppose I could take some credit for this—since a chunk of my 2004 book addressed the issue of philanthropy as an industry—and, as an idea that was ahead of its time, I have some battle scars to show for that work. First problem is, I’m not so sure some of the fields now being called industries actually fit the definition1 or that I want credit, and two, what we call them is not my point for this post, rather my point is how they get built.

Here’s what I’ve noticed from reading some really good reports on fields/industries/sectors/ecosystems as diverse as women’s studies, microfinance, impact investing, conflict resolution, digital media and learning, philanthropy, and social entreprenuership: the recommendations for building the field, or taking it from a phase of entreprenuerial fragmentation—what Katherine Fulton aptly calls uncoordinated innovation—to organized markets are almost always the same:

  1. Infrastructure
  2. Intermediaries
  3. Networks
  4. Standards

Sometimes, the recommendations make a mention of the potential role that regulations can play in transformation (though its usually couched in the philanthropically more polite term—policy change). Sometimes they include a focus on evidence, though usually by the time the “field building” discussion starts there is already a body of evidence.

Now, like I’ve said, I’ve contributed to this body of thinking. And I rely on it. I’m asking the following questions because I’m steeping myself in this question of transformation from disconnected experiments to organized market/system/ecosystem/industry/sector yet again. So here are the questions:

  • Do all transitions really require the same actions?
  • Are these actions too separate from the content of the market/system/industry to be consistent across so many disciplines?
  • Are these actions too separate from the content of the market/system/industry to be consistent across so many time frames? (women’s studies in the 1960s, social entrepreneurs in the 2000s, for example)
  • If the same set of actions for transformation are known to be necessary, why do we keep studying them? Why don’t we just “do” them?
  • How do we adjust our thinking to account for changes in external conditions?—technology, policy, resources, etc?
  • Why do we continue to shy away from the role that rules and regulation can play in each of these transitions?

Am I correct that we know more about building fields than we think we know? And is it really possible that the same basic interventions that worked in the 1960s will work now—is it simply a matter of where, how, with what technology?

These are real questions for me—they will shape or be part of at least two chapters/article I write in 2009. Please help me out here if you can. Thanks.


1. I cribbed (with attribution) the definition that I used in the book, as well as the examples of an industry’s components and the stages of development and the possible interventions from Michael Porter‘s, Competitive Strategy.

imageLucy Bernholz is the Founder and President of Blueprint Research & Design, Inc, a strategy consulting firm that helps philanthropic individuals and institutions achieve their missions. She is the publisher of Philanthropy2173, an award winning blog about the business of giving and serves as Executive Producer of The Giving Channel on Fora.tv.