Plastrik & Taylor talk with network maven Beth Kanter (and her video camera and blog.)
This blog post is a republished version of one written by Beth Kanter, whose blog on non-profit operations and technology is one of the more respected resources on the subject. You can also watch the video of our discussion – Net Gains Authors talk about Networks
Last week at the Packard Foundation, I finally had an opportunity to meet Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor face-to-face.
I first came across their thinking and work on building social networks for social change via the resources section on the Barr Foundation web site back in 2006. Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor co-wrote “Net Gains,” one of the first practical handbooks on building and working in networks for social change. Whether it is a network of organizations or individuals, this handbook provides a wealth of theory and practice on build, manage, and fine tune a network.
Peter is a president and co-founder of nuPOLIS, the Internet presence of the Innovation Network for Communities (INC), a national non-profit helping to develop and spread scalable innovations that transform the performance of community systems such as education, energy, land use, transportation and workforce development. Madeleine is co-founder and principal of Arbor Consulting Partners, a research and consulting group led by senior social scientists. We talked a lot about network practices. It was a fantastic opportunity to identify similarities and differences between building networks of organizations as well as individuals – and of course how to weave together the two.
There are many parallels to the use of social networks like Facebook. I was particularly interested in hearing their views on how to ignite a network – how it to get it started. For those who are working on social networks and looking at how to catalyze their crowds on places like Facebook or Twitter – the advice resonated. Do you know what the group’s value proposition is? Do you know what the individual value propositions are? (What’s the pork chop factor?) It’s all about building trust and relationships. It reminds me of Eugene Eric Kim’s point about networks – everybody is people. Peter and Madeleine describe networks as “platforms for relationships.” And the goal of those relationships can be learning, collaboration, policy, service delivery, advocacy, mobilizing or action.
Peter is one of those people who likes to draw his ideas and at one point he got up and drew a grid on the whiteboard about the different types of networks and what interventions are needed for success. Later, I found the chart in Net Gains. We also discussed the whole issue of network evaluation and the difficulty of measuring those relationships versus a specific impact. Also, the idea of faster tools like social network analysis that give us real time information and the need for someone who is embedded in the network as a real time evaluator. And, of course, what metrics to use.
Madeleine shared a copy of the network health scorecard, a diagnostic tool that networks can use to reflect on how to improve. She also discusses it in the video above. During lunch, we discussed the field of network building for social change – what’s needed to build this field? This is the drawing on the napkin that is described by Peter in the video. Peter and Madeleine raised some interesting questions about the use of social media and support of network’s work in a brief outline and I’ve pulled a couple of questions to chew on:
• What are the hypotheses about the differences social media can make for achieving a network’s goals – learning goals, policy advocacy goals, innovation goals, and others?
• What patterns can social media use reveal that provide strategic insight for network?
• How can social media be used to build high-quality connections, a motivating relationship between members and build trust and reciprocity?
One of the topics we discussed was about the skills and practices of network weavers – whether they are working with networks of organizations or supporting an organization’s network of supporters on Facebook. As Madeleine points out in the video above, a network weaver is looking at how people are connected and what value they are getting from being connected. A key skill of the network weaver is to pull out threads and pull people together. As Madeleine notes, “it isn’t about everyone being connected to everybody all the time.” A big part of the network weaver’s job is pattern recognition and that requires a sort of scanning and watching – that takes time. I also pointed out that it uses a different part of your brain and there is a need to shift mindsets to get other types of work done. I tend to map my “working the clouds” work in short, time boxed bursts. I tend to do it when my concentration is at a lower point. But, when I have to write or blog or think about something, I find more and more that I need to stop being social – not do Twitter, Facebook, or email. I also need to put classical music on my Ipod and concentrate in a different way. I’ve also found that I need to do something physical to transition between the two – like take a walk or simply walk around my desk. Peter described an interesting framework for thinking about this use of time:
- Activities that can be done while doing multiple tasks
- Activities that require quiet and doing that one task
- Activities that require several days of concentrating, creative immersion, and laser focus on that task
All in all, a great discussion about networks.
Building an Internet platform that links rural networks into a force for public policy change.
When the Kellogg Foundation started investing in getting grassroots networks in rural areas to work together to develop and advocate for rural-friendly government policies, it envisioned the creation of “a shared platform that helps coordinate research, learning, tool and resource development, expertise, and communication.” In other words, using the Internet to build a new collective capacity by connecting, learning, and aligning thousands of rural-based organizations, and helping them to collaborate and organize at vast scale.
To help turn that vision into reality, the Innovation Network for Communities developed a concept paper about what such a user-driven digital platform might look like and how it might be built. Although the idea focused on the particulars of supporting rural policy networks, we suspect that it has application to other network building situations.
Our starting point for the concept was what the platform is supposed to help people do. We imagined that “RuralUS.net” (a working name for the Web site) would help individuals, organizations, and networks interested in and engaging in rural policy change to:
• Find, learn about, and connect with each other, and then strengthen links.
• Align and organize in digital communities of varying size, shapes, and duration around shared characteristics (e.g., geography, age), interests, and identities.
• Access expert resources (digital modules, news feeds, webinar training, etc.) for developing policy change capacities and efforts.
• Collaborate in the production of policy change (e.g., identify opportunities; develop policy agendas; develop policy proposals; generate advocacy; etc.)
• Evaluate ideas and information by assembling collective points of view digitally (based on voting, Web page rankings, member- or user-community recommendation “engines” like Amazon.com’s “others like you have purchased…,” etc.)
The platform, we proposed, ”will combine the functions of a more traditional ‘trusted source’ Web site that provides users with reliable information, tools, and expertise with those of a ‘user-sourced’ site that engages users in peer-to-peer accessing, generating, sharing, using, and archiving of information.” Users would be able to:
• Build online personal social networks nationwide relevant to their concerns.
• Engage in “rapid learning communities” focused on learning about rural policy issues of immediate importance to them.
• Search for and access a wide range of expert materials, tools, and advice concerning specific rural policies; how to build policy change networks; and other topics;
• Generate peer-to-peer knowledge about and tools for policy-change processes and specific policy issues.
• Archive and share their experiences as rural policy change makers.
• Digitally access relevant meetings and conferences (e.g., regional planning meetings).
• Readily access and share news from the rural policy frontlines: news feeds, blogs.
• Build their policy-change capacities, such as in communications for policy advocacy.
• Create a user-generated “early warning” system that identifies and alerts others about changes in local, state, regional, tribal, federal policy opportunities.
Of course, what capabilities should be built into the platform depends on what the potential users say they need and would use. To get some sense of the potential look and functions of the user-driven dimension of RuralUS.net, we looked closely at a number of Web sites, including:
www.govloop.com– online community for government employees created by Steve Ressler, a federal IT employee, about 5 years ago. “I wanted an online forum to connect all my various groups and to connect with government employees across agencies. I wanted an informal place where people could gather, share their ideas, and ask other questions. A place that could serve as a repository for both current and future government employees as they start and grow in their career.”
www.techsoup.com – technology resources for nonprofit organizations. “TechSoup.org offers nonprofits a one-stop resource for technology needs by providing free information, resources, and support. In addition to online information and resources, we offer a product philanthropy service called TechSoup Stock. Here, nonprofits can access donated and discounted technology products, generously provided by corporate and nonprofit technology partners.” (Site is 10 years old; unique monthly visitors: 109,880.)
www.changemakers.net — Supported by Ashoka Foundation. “Changemakers is an initiative of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public that focuses on the rapidly growing world of social innovation. It provides solutions and resources needed to help everyone become a changemaker and presents compelling stories that explore the fundamental principles of successful social innovation around the world. Changemakers is building the world’s first global online “open source” community that competes to surface the best social solutions, and then collaborates to refine, enrich, and implement those solutions. Changemakers begins by providing an overarching intellectual framework for collaborative competitions that bring together individual social change initiatives into a more powerful whole.” (Unique visitors monthly: 25,797)
www.socialedge.org – supported by Skoll Foundation. “Check what our expert bloggers have to say about social entrepreneurship: practical advice, inspirational stories, name dropping… Every week is a new story on Social Edge.” (Unique visits monthly: 21,662)
Point us to other examples that you know about. Let us know your thoughts about designing digital media to promote social change.
In our new “Web 2.0″ social-networking world, what’s the real promise of networks?
The three prevailing points of view toward the idea that networks offer an exciting new way of effecting social change both overstate and understate the potential social impact of connectivity.
• Analysts say that networks are an underlying structure for practically everything, and we can learn something from this for how we run society. As noted in Net Gains: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change, “The power of networks is drawing increasing attention in mass media headlines as well as in specialized scientific literatures.” Physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, in his book Linked, exemplified this point of view:
“Today we increasingly recognize that nothing happens in isolation. Most events and phenomena are connected, caused by, and interacting with a huge number of other pieces of a complex universal puzzle. We have come to see that we live in a small world, where everything is linked to everything else… We have come to grasp the importance of networks.”
• Embracers say that decentralized, highly autonomous structures–networks–are the revolutionary structures that will make society more effective and democratic. This view comes from a wide range of sources: “Web 2.0” Millenials promoting the “distributive power” of the Internet’s online networks; social movement builders opposing centralized power; and theoreticians who see a stark choice in how society organizes itself. Writing about the effort to halt the spread of swine flu, NY Times columnist David Brooks captured this either/or view:
“We face a series of decentralized, transnational threats: jihadi terrorism, a global financial crisis, global warming, energy scarcity, nuclear proliferation and, as we’re reminded today, possible health pandemics like swine flu… So how do we deal with these situations? Do we build centralized global institutions that are strong enough to respond to transnational threats? Or do we rely on diverse and decentralized communities and nation-states?… The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself.”
Information and communications technologies drive this revolution, note the authors of Working Wikily: How Networks Are Changing Social Change, a Packard Foundation report:
“New tools and technologies… are changing the way we communicate and connect… The changes can be seen in the way people are working together to create and disseminate knowledge through platforms like Wikipedia; in how people solve complex mathematical problems or write very stable software, as with Linux; and even in purely social activities, like sharing photos on Flickr and meeting new friends on MySpace… Wikis and other social media are engendering new, networked ways of behaving–ways of working wikily–that are characterized by principles of openness, transparency, decentralized decision-making and distributed action… People are beginning to use these same tools and approaches to create social change too–organizing new forms of political expression, social action, and community building.”
• Skeptics say that, sure, networks are a different way of organizing work, but do they really do better than organizations? This comes from founders and managers of the many existing social-change organizations, as well as from philanthropic funders looking for more impact. “How do we know whether networks really work?” ask the authors of Working Wikily. Does the strength of networks “translate into real social impact in communities.” This is not just a reflexive fear of the new or the jarring implications of shifting to decentralized organizing; it is a serious concern about the effectiveness of network models and the not-insignificant challenges of designing, building, and managing networks.
At Network Impact, our point of view includes each of these—analysis, embrace, and skepticism—within an overarching framework. Yes, networks are real and omnipresent. Yes, they create impressive effects. And yes they can deliver better results—but only in some, certainly not all, situations.
More importantly, we believe that the development of networks to achieve certain effects and benefits in certain situations is an emerging practice of specialized knowledge, skills, tools, and activities that can be learned, applied, and improved. This network-building practice benefits from knowledge about how networks work “in nature.” It can have large-scale, transformative effects of the sort claimed by Web 2.0 visionaries and decentralization advocates. It can offer comparative advantages to the organization-centric approach—but whether it does depends on many factors that have to be understood. In some cases, networks can replace an organization-centric approach; but in others, networks link organizations together, rather than replacing them; and in still others, especially when using standardized processes in a stable environment, organizations continue to rule. (As nuPOLIS partner John Cleveland says: “You don’t want to rely on a network to produce your weekly paycheck.”)
We’ve been working with networks–policy networks, advocacy networks, learning networks, production networks–for about five years, while also reading and learning about network theory. And we work as a network: nuPOLIS is a creation of the Innovation Network for Communities, designed with a small core and far-flung networks that produce social innovations. In the process, we’ve learned that:
• Networks are emergent, but can be designed and planned.
• Networks are decentralized and complex, but can be managed.
• Networks are dynamic, but can be assessed.
Now, with Madeleine Taylor as the lead entrepreneur, we’re developing Network Impact to develop a comprehensive network-building practice for social change. NI will provide tools, such as the network assessment scorecard already posted. It will conduct a learning agenda, offer network planning, assessment, and building services. Stay tuned.
Answering some basic questions about the network can yield a useful diagnosis.
As I’ve designed networks and coached network builders, the question always comes up: How can we know how the network is doing? In some ways, the answer is complicated. There are different types of networks and networks evolve through different stages–factors that should be taken into account. But it’s also true that some things about networks hold for any network at any stage of life.
Working with colleagues at Cause Communications and nuPOLIS, and testing ideas with the marvelous networks of Rural People Rural Policy, an initiative of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we’ve developed a handy Network Health Scorecard. With just 22 questions and a 1-5 scoring system, it focuses on key aspects of any network: purpose, performance, operations, and capacity. It’s designed for group use–network members answer each question and then discuss their answers–or on your own.
Try it and post comments to let us know how it worked for you so we can improve this tool for network builders.
Madeleine Taylor is the lead entrepreneur at Network Impact and a principal in Arbor Consulting.
Launched with support from the Innovation Network for Communities, the Detroit net is one of the nation’s few place-based networks for social innovators. Under the leadership of nuPOLIS partner John Heiss, a compulsive “connector” and innovation broker, it has gathered members, launched many projects, and started to establish a presence in the Detroit metro region. Go to www.detroitsocialinnovators.com .