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Learning About Networks

November 13, 2014 by Deborah Gilburg

Lately, we’ve been working on a number of projects that involve networks. Such an interesting and flexible organizational form, networks are proving valuable, not only to affiliate groups but also within bureaucratic organizations that need the reach and rapid effects that networks can bring.

So different from more traditional organizational forms, there is a lot to know about networks. Here are a few basics…

What exactly is a network? Networks are simply a collection of connected nodes –individuals, groups, or organizations. Having emerged on the scene largely during the information/technology age, networks are a response to the growing complexity and interdependency of many challenges, and the call for greater flexibility, rapid communication and broader reach.

What are networks good for? Networks are great for building relationships, enhancing innovation, increasing communication flow, and getting things done fast. They promote rapid growth and diffusion of ideas, are resilient, create multi-way communication conduits, and have a “small world” reach—the ability to spread into corners and hard-to-access areas of our world/organizations. Networks can bring knowledge to and from these areas and create diverse connections that cut across traditional communication boundaries (I.E. silos, disciplines, interests, geographical locations, cultures, etc.). And, they can generate engagement.

How are networks different than hierarchies and bureaucracies? Most notable, networks are self-governed. They use distributed vs. top-down authority to get things done. Even internal networks in top-down organizations need to be given the autonomy of self-governance, although authorities can set sideboards and limitations to where and how networks will operate.

What kinds of networks are there? Basically there are three types of networks, and appropriately, these three types are intimately connected:

  1. Connection Networks: Not only are these a type of network, but also the essential base or platform for the other two network types. Connection networks primarily focus on the flow of information and transactions between members, where ties are generally strong enough to open lines of communication, but too weak to build cooperation or collaborative efforts among members (i.e. professional networks).
  2. Alignment/Affinity Networks: These networks build off the connectivity among members to generate and spread a “collective value proposition,” or shared reason for members to care about one another. Members of Alignment Networks have greater connectivity and trust of one another, and also tend to share certain values and/or affinities (i.e. alumni networks, umbrella networks).
  3. Action/Production Networks: The most complex type of network, Action Networks require both high connectivity and clear alignment to foster joint action, or pursue a specialized outcome (i.e. political advocacy networks). Actions can be collective, or can be decentralized and occur in smaller network hubs, or at the periphery of the network. Action Networks are more challenging to maintain, as they involve more structured coordination and clear agreements about purpose, roles, decision-making, and actions.

How do networks form? Networks can and do emerge organically, and they can be built. There are many resources available, but regardless of whether a network forms organically or by intentional efforts, there are a few key imperatives worth keeping in mind:

  • Networks are guided by individual purpose aligned with collective purpose — meaning members are connected because their respective purposes need each other. There is mutual value given and received from being connected. The collective purpose varies from network to network, but when that collective purpose has expired, or alignment with membership no longer exists, network connections will lapse.
  • It all comes down to connectivity – relationship building, trust, transparency and communication. This is the baseline for any network. When trying to form a new network, or reform a lapsed one, builders always have to start with and maintain connection, and build up from there to alignment, and if appropriate to action. There are no shortcuts to action, no ways to “enforce” network connections. It starts with relationships.

I am hoping to share stories and insights from our work with networks, so stay tuned. And if you are part of a network, tell us what you know – how do you connect to your network?