Networks as systems: A case study of the World Health Organisation’s Global Health Workforce Alliance
Best A., Berland A., Greenhalgh T., Bourgeault IL., Saul JE., Barker B.
© 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited. Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to present a case study of the World Health Organization’s Global Healthcare Workforce Alliance (GHWA). Based on a commissioned evaluation of GHWA, it applies network theory and key concepts from systems thinking to explore network emergence, effectiveness, and evolution to over a ten-year period. The research was designed to provide high-level strategic guidance for further evolution of global governance in human resources for health (HRH). Design/methodology/approach: Methods included a review of published literature on HRH governance and current practice in the field and an in-depth case study whose main data sources were relevant GHWA background documents and key informant interviews with GHWA leaders, staff, and stakeholders. Sampling was purposive and at a senior level, focusing on board members, executive directors, funders, and academics. Data were analyzed thematically with reference to systems theory and Shiffman’s theory of network development. Findings: Five key lessons emerged: effective management and leadership are critical; networks need to balance “tight” and “loose” approaches to their structure and processes; an active communication strategy is key to create and maintain support; the goals, priorities, and membership must be carefully focused; and the network needs to support shared measurement of progress on agreed-upon goals. Shiffman’s middle-range network theory is a useful tool when guided by the principles of complex systems that illuminate dynamic situations and shifting interests as global alliances evolve. Research limitations/implications: This study was implemented at the end of the ten-year funding cycle. A more continuous evaluation throughout the term would have provided richer understanding of issues. Experience and perspectives at the country level were not assessed. Practical implications: Design and management of large, complex networks requires ongoing attention to key issues like leadership, and flexible structures and processes to accommodate the dynamic reality of these networks. Originality/value: This case study builds on growing interest in the role of networks to foster large-scale change. The particular value rests on the longitudinal perspective on the evolution of a large, complex global network, and the use of theory to guide understanding.