Tough times typically result in reduced resources and employees working flat out. As a result, it seems anything falling into the nice-but-not-essential category is dropped from our never ending to-do lists. Although networking often falls into that category, trends are suggesting it should be moved up on our list of priorities.
This week I experienced the advantage of being part of a network when a potential duplication of efforts in a draft proposal from a member was flagged. We were able to identify the overlap only because we had spent time getting to know more about one another’s organizations. In this case it was especially important to have identified the similarities as financial assistance was being sought from the same funder. I’m confident that when we do sort it out, the outcome will be a revised and more collaborative project that will be far stronger than the one originally proposed. And, it will have a far greater chance of being funded without the duplication of services.
These days it’s becoming more common for those of us working for social change to see the synergy of working with, or within, networks. Often it seems these networks are outperforming the traditional model of stand-alone organizations. While historically my work has been within a business or organization where a CEO or Executive Director is at the helm, it seems that as the complexity of our environment increases, these separate organizations are more at-risk for losing ground. And, the more ambitious or complex the challenges, the more we will have to let go of our traditional organization-centric thinking to get to more innovative solutions and better performance.
Yet despite this growing need for investing in collaboration, innovation, and the synergy that results, government and charitable funders are still more willing to invest in institutional operations, overhead and traditional project quantifiable outcomes. Gideon Rosenblatt (http://groundwire.org) suggests it is essential to “un-bundle” and rebuild the environmental organizational structure using network approaches if organizations are to focus on being outcome-driven, strategic and entrepreneurial.
The simplest definition of a network is that it is a set of “nodes and links,” of things that are connected to each other. While it is a social organization, it is not one that relies on top-down delegation to get things done. Instead its leadership is more widely distributed and sometimes challenging to access as there’s no clear organization chart. Typically there isn’t a board of directors, president, or CEO.
A network can focus on working together to (1) address a specific need i.e. poverty, strengthen leadership, (2) advocate for change or justice, (3) innovate to solve social problems, (4) share promising practices, or (5) build organizational or community capacity.
Experts suggest that if networks are to be effective, those involved will need to ensure there are players in place to carry out a variety of roles. While these roles can and often are carried out by the same person, it’s important to understand the necessity of each.
Every network needs an organizer to establish the purpose and value of the network, create the first links, and attract the initial resources for the network. A funder is needed to provide the initial resources for organizing and coordinating the network as is a weaver who will be responsible for increasing the connections among the nodes and to connect to new nodes. A facilitator will help network members establish a collective value proposition and negotiate collective action plans; a coordinator will ensure the flow of information, resources, and development, and a coach will advise organizers, weavers, facilitators, and coordinators about how best to perform their roles in building networks. There may also be a need for a steward who informally helps to build the network.
Still not sure networks are important? Think about it this way. We know some things need to change. Each of us is bombarded every single day with information and practices about change that we choose to either ignore or implement. Technology has meant its no longer about getting information. What is of increasing importance is who we get that information from. We don’t always pay attention to information when it comes from a stranger. We do pay attention when it comes from a trusted source. Networks are about building trusting relationships. When trusting relationships are in place, there’s a greater chance that we will be more receptive to implementing the kind of change that will result in innovative and meaningful outcomes. It’s a critical formula for change….
networks + trust = innovation.
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