Sunday, January 03, 2010

What kind of network?

Jack, Valdis and I had a wonderful lively discussion about networks and innovation diffusion a few weeks ago and I’d like to capture some of what we talked about here.

First, we continue to try to clarify the different kinds of networks. We three often use the term networks in the social network analysis sense of sets of relationships and the patterns they generate. However, most people use networks to describe intentional networks -- networks that have some awareness of the set of relationships and incorporate that awareness into their strategies. But there are considerable differences in the nature of that intentionality.

Jack came up with a nice way to represent some of those differences, see the chart above.

Some networks actually look like and function like organizations, or an organization of organizations. These tend to be intentionally focused on a particular goal or purpose, i.e. a housing network committed to increasing housing units available to low-income residents. Such networks are often structured like organizations in that they have membership and rules about how decisions are made. They tend to spend considerable time arriving at consensus and developing plans of action. These networks have had considerable success working on specific initiatives, such as advocating a specific piece of legislation but are often expensive to maintain over long periods of time.

This is in contrast to networks that are self-organized. In self-organized networks, the organizations or individuals may never all meet in one room and don’t decide on anything as a group. They move forward when individuals identify others with similar or overlapping interests and do something together. Generally, many small joint actions are generated and fewer large actions. The many groups involved in Regional Flavor initiatives are an example of self-organized networks. Meet-ups is another example.

Another quality of networks is their ideological stance. For some networks a specific ideology shapes the boundaries of the network, determining who is in and who is out. Such networks can generate tremendous energy (for example, the Right to Life network or some environmental networks). However, their homogeneity can sometimes limit their reach and innovativeness.

Networks that are driven by pragmatism and experimentation tend to shun specific ideologies. Individuals and organizations in such networks are looking for solutions to intractable problems that require massive innovation; or, they are trying to figure out new ways of organizing economic activity. Such networks tend to have many opportunities that encourage people to move out of silos and meet people different than them. They encourage lots of reflection about what has worked and what hasn’t. Scrum software development teams and hospital networks working to eliminate MRSA are an example of this type of network.

Where would your networks fit on this chart? Is this chart useful?


Tim Kastelle said...

I defintely think that these are useful ways to dilineate networks. I agree that both dimensions exist, and that it is good be clear about what kind of nework you're talking about. I wouldn't present it as a matrix though, since you're really talking about two different spectrums. So each could be a dimension along the axis of a matrix if you really want it in matrix format.
One other spectrum that might be useful to think about is metaphoric networks v. actual (or measured) networks.
Thanks for the interesting post!

Amber said...

The organization I work for, Africa Rising, is a self-organized, pragmatic network. We network with and on behalf of grassroots organizations in East Africa ( Our 14 partner organizations work across the topics of poverty, health, governmental integrity, protecting the environment, and ethnic reconciliation.

The role of Africa Rising is to serve as a catalyst in forming connections within the self-organized group of partners and also expand the network of each organization to create new opportunities for fulfilling their mission.

We are pragmatic rather than idealogical because each organization is testing different theories of social change. Our goal as an organization is to help our partners evaluate their own work and share results to introduce the solutions they have discovered to a wider audience.

June Holley said...

Tim, Would love to hear more about metaphoric networks...

Amber, Thanks for sharing this example!

Christine Egger said...

This *is* useful -- helping me frame my intention for crowdcrafting network weavers' presence at conferences like Wisdom 2.0. In a way, I can see that I've been thinking of the people who'd be attracted to the concept -- and who'd contribute funds or ideas or structure or feedback -- as a kind of "pragmatic experimentation network" of its own. Thanks for the structure, here, June. Such a joy, learning from the three of you :)