Generating ideas, connections, and action

Internalizing “The Network Way”

Shortly after I woke up on the morning of Saturday February 27th, as usual, I proceeded to check my Facebook profile. While going through the newsfeed, an alarming update caught my attention; it read something like “Huge earthquake in Chile. I hope the tsunami alarm for the U.S. West Coast is only a preliminary alarm.” I immediately thought of three things: one, I hope my friend in Chile is OK; two, I also hope the tsunami alarm for California is nothing serious; and three, what can I do to help? I was getting ready to email my friend, check out the local news and visit the Red Cross website…but I didn’t have to. As I continued to read down the page, I saw a message from my friend in Chile saying ‘we are OK…’, immediately followed by another friend’s message summarizing the local news around the tsunami alert, and a big red button for the Red Cross on the left connecting me directly to the donations page for the Chile earthquake.

In a matter of minutes, I went from shocked, to worried, and then moved to action. This was just another simple reminder of how networks have changed the way we communicate, opening up the access of information, the ways in which we consume and promote it. It also reminds me that to a certain extent, I have internalized this way of thinking and behaving. I did not question any of the information I was presented with because I was relying on a trusted network I have built over the years. I am no longer shocked by the rapidity and effectiveness by which I am able to communicate with people, wherever they are; but what continues to amaze me is the power of networks to help troubleshoot problems and address situations almost immediately. I am sure younger generations and other early adopters have internalized these network approaches and tools far more deeply, and it is a trend that seems to be here for the long run.

I bring this up because I think the social sector has an unprecedented opportunity to truly internalize this network mindset to reach the scale needed to address some of the most complex social and environmental issues we face, as a society, today. As Roberto Cremonini from the Barr Foundation said, “the next generation will intuitively understand networks and these new tools...Real change will come from people who have already internalized the new ways of behaving.” We need to leverage the power of networks to connect the resources, ideas and people that we have available across organizations and sectors to reach true change. At the Leadership Learning Community, we are exploring how the fields of leadership and networks intersect. We believe many of the principles championed by networks can be used by stakeholders in the leadership field to boost effectiveness and impact, such as distributed power, multi-level partnerships, relationship building, and accountability.

There is still a lot to learn about networks and how they can be leveraged to improve our collective efforts, but here are some initial ideas of network characteristics we should understand, and ultimately, try to internalize:

  • People who interact in smaller groups around specific issues establish deeper connections.
    • “If you want to know how new interesting useful ideas are going to come from, don’t look at crowds and don’t look at individuals, look at small groups of smart people arguing with each other.” (Clay Shirky in Wilcox, D., 2009)
    • “When it is time to mobilize the network it may need to get smaller, leaving behind outliers who have a hard time functioning in a network.” (Michael Quinn Patton in McAuliffe, S., 2009)
  • Incorporating human elements helps to move the network forward. For instance, one of the reasons Kiva is so successful is because lenders can see where the money goes so they are able to connect on a human level. (Premal Shah in Ewalt, D., 2009)
  • Let members manage their participation in the network and how much information they want to receive.
  • Make conversations a priority.
    • Open, honest, ongoing conversations are the critical linchpin binding the hopes of the organization to its results. (Fine, A. 2006)
  • As the network evolves, the focus shifts from volume (recruiting new members and maintaining the engagement of all members) to strengthening the core of the network.
    • “While newly established networks should be gaining members, mature networks may have a rate of network entry that only modestly exceeds the rate of exit, as peripheral agencies drop out as part of the process of network refinement, particularly as core members work to enhance service quality and become more efficient.” (Keith Provan and H. Brinton Milward, University of Arizona, 2001)
  • Shrink or contract routine and recurring actions to their simplest and most efficient forms. Build only the forms (e.g., committees, teams, processes) that are flexible, informal, have provisional leadership, and are always open to new people. Where an environment is flexible, adaptable, and informal, it is also more productive and feels better to most people.
    • Form follows function. Build only the level of structure and formality to do the job – no more and no less. Overbuilding requires more resources to support and is that much harder to deconstruct. (Bill Traynor, 2009)
  • Exponential growth in the network does not mean exponential growth in the paid capacity to manage the network. Create leadership opportunities for members to be network weavers.
  • Building partnerships can help the network achieve greater impact. An example of this is Habitat for Humanity Egypt. By establishing partnerships they were able to significantly scale the average production in a shorter period of time, becoming the best-performing program of all Habit for Humanity programs. (Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano, 2008)
    • “Networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts. And unlike traditional nonprofit leaders who think of their organizations as hubs and their partners as spokes, networked nonprofit leaders think of their organizations as nodes within a broad constellation that revolves around shared missions and values.” (Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano, 2008)

While there is still much to understand about networks, what is undeniable is that early experiments are already generating extraordinary results. For instance, one of the most interesting examples is the work of The Lawrence Community Works (LCW), a CDC in Lawrence Massachusetts. For over 10 years, LCW has been leveraging a network organizing approach to revitalize the deteriorated city of Lawrence. After speaking with community members and hearing their concerns, the LCW team realized that in order to change the dynamics of the city and reactivate its economic and physical growth, they needed something more than a traditional organizing approach – they needed an organizing strategy that would allow them to create opportunities for community involvement; increase the access to those opportunities and make them available to the entire community; connect people, resources and engagement projects; streamline efforts by focusing on those core issues that have greater resonance within the group; disseminate information that benefits the larger community; and engage other institutions and organizations to distribute the power and action across multiple ‘hubs’. While the team is still learning and improving the network strategy, their efforts have been incredibly successful:

  • 900 network members (400 active on a monthly basis)
  • Development of 25 new affordable housing units, two new playgrounds, and a community center
  • Collaborative initiative that seeks to guide the redevelopment of the city’s downtown and other areas
  • Effort to create a participatory budget process

(Source: National Housing Institute, “Network Organizing: A Strategy for Building Community Engagement”, William J. Traynor and Jessica Andors, 2005)

What other network characteristics should we consider? What other results are you seeing? We welcome you to join the conversation and collectively explore what we are learning from network experiments and how we can leverage those learning’s for our social change efforts. Please join the conversation at the Leadership for a New Era website.