Weaving Collaborative Networks – 1

Networking450

In an earlier post, I suggested that resolution of public policy conflict by collaborative methods might benefit from applying lessens learned from the emergence of complex networks. Both enhance the ability of individuals and organizations to solve problems they can’t manage on their own.

They also seem, though, to differ sharply in many ways.

  • Conflict resolution groups begin in an atmosphere of clashing interests and goals. Relationships at the start are hostile and, hopefully, improve by means of the consensus building process.

  • Networks, as Clay Shirky describes in Here Comes Everybody, often emerge spontaneously among people who already agree on a goal and want to contribute their differing skills and ideas to achieve it.

  • Consensus building tends to be convened by a lead agency that first has to get agreement of the stakeholders to use a collaborative method to resolve conflict. That step alone, in some cases, can be quite lengthy

  • Networks are self-organizing. They can arise overnight through the instant communication platform of the internet. Shirky cites the example of a school protest and walk-out in Los Angeles involving 50,000 students that was organized over a single weekend. Someone served as lead communicator and coordinator, but the huge group came together by itself.

  • Membership in consensus building projects is quite selective and limited to stakeholders with major interests. As members, they have specific responsibilities and operate under explicit groundrules that they agree to. All members are expected to contribute to solutions with equivalent effort and commitment.

  • Networks are wide open to anyone interested in taking part, and each person can stop contributing at any time. There are few rules to follow, and the level of activity depends entirely on individual choice.

So what am I seeing that offsets differences like these?

One paper that has helped me think about these two processes is Building Smart Communities through Network Weaving by Valdis Krebs and June Holley. (You can download it here.) Krebs and Holley are an organizational consultants who have been applying network concepts in many fields for several years. The paper focuses on the role of collaborative leaders, whom they call “network weavers,” and describes a model of the different stages networks go through to become fully functional.

As this case study makes clear, there are many types of networks, and they do not all follow Shirky’s model of instant empowerment for thousands of people in short periods of time. Charles Leadbeater points out in his new book, We-Think, that effective networks are not only about spontaneity and mass creativity. They require some management in order to ensure that the great diversity of ideas generated by a large network can be organized to produce useful outcomes.

Krebs’ paper looks closely at how communities in the Appalachian region of southeast Ohio came together to deal with a long-term need – economic revitalization. At the start of the process, individuals and organizations, scattered among many communities, were working in isolation from each other to generate new economic activity but were not able to do much on their own. They lacked connections to resources in Washington and other centers, and each community was struggling to meets its own needs. But they all shared the same economic goals.

A “network weaver,” combining community organizing skills with collaborative leadership, helped to focus the activity that gradually drew these isolated groups into working relationships as an effective network. One key to success was the weaver’s awareness that his role had to be transitional. In the early phase, he was the one common link among all the local groups, but the importance of that role needed to diminish as the source of creativity and innovation shifted to the growing number of participants. Similar to Leadbeater’s concept of network leadership, the weaver in this case helped organize the diverse and creative ideas of numerous contributors but did so without centralizing power and decision-making.

In this post I’ll summarize Krebs’ model and in the next apply it more specifically to collaborative processes of conflict resolution.

Here are the phases that Krebs distinguishes in the formation of networks generally as well as in this case.

  • Isolated Local Groups:As in the Appalachian case, it is often true that, prior to development of a large-scale collaborative network, scattered individuals and organizations tend to form local networks around common interests. The purposes of such groups are usually directed not at community concerns but at meeting their own needs. The “old boys” network of exclusive leaders is one example. Another could be a trade association or a non-profit group busily competing with others for limited funds. Such restricted networks tend to operate in their isolated “silos.”
  • Hub-SpokeA

  • Hub and Spoke: Change began in the Ohio case when a well-connected, collaborative leader started drawing these scattered groups into more effective relationships. To do that, the “network weaver” first developed his own relationships with each local group separately. A map of the network at this point depicts a hub (the weaver) and spoke arrangement. The weaver is connected to each group, but the groups are not yet connected to one another. This stage should not last too long in order to prevent dependence on the weaver to define network purposes and strategies.

  • Multiple Hubs: The hub leader then starts building relationships across the boundaries that have been keeping the local networks apart from each other. For this purpose, the weaver facilitates limited collaborations among them. At the same time, training of other committed participants needs to begin in order to share responsibility more widely. These individuals come to comprise a core group who invest more time and energy in the process than most participants. They take on equivalent roles of serving as the “hubs” for enhancing cooperative relationships. The picture of the emerging situation now consists of separate, but larger, local networks with multiple hubs or weavers. This is also a transitional phase.

    Multi-Hub

    The separate networks begin to create loose ties with one another, often through individual relationships (indicated by dashed lines in the illustration). The core leaders work on deepening these initial ties into stronger bonds based on collaborative efforts. Gradually, the importance of the separate networks lessens as individual members create more and more cross-boundary relationships. Obstacles can arise during this transition if the separate networks focus more on rivalries and power struggles, rather than giving priority to achieving benefits through collaboration.

    If this transition proceeds well, the role of the core group of weavers changes. They step aside from the “hub” position and let the cross-boundary relationship building continue. Their role shifts to that of working with the creative ideas of the now quite diverse network and helping shape them for implementation. At that point, the next stage emerges.

  • Core-Periphery

  • Core/Periphery: By the time the network has become fully effective, it has a very different structure. There is a core group of the most active members at the center, and around them are the great majority of participants (the periphery), each of whom contributes whatever skills and ideas they want to offer. The core group filters this creative input and turns it into workable proposals for problem solving. They must do this, however, in a collaborative manner and maintain active dialogue about proposed solutions or projects with the rest of the network.

    Critically important to maintaining a vibrant network is to keep it open to new contributors. They tend to enter at the periphery but if they choose to become highly active need the opportunity to move into the core group. This openness creates a continuing inflow of new ideas and influences that enable the network as a whole to adapt to changing circumstances.

The economic development network in southeast Ohio evolved over several years. After the network achieved success among one group of communities, the collaborative leadership started reaching out to build relationships with other similar networks to form a large regional alliance. The diverse contributions of all its members led to widely supported economic proposals that secured outside resources for implementation. The core members were essential in defining the projects that would meet the various needs of the communities, but that work would have been impossible without the diversity of ideas contributed by the entire network.

The model has particular relevance to the phases that stakeholders go through in a collaborative public policy process. I’ll take that up in the next post in this series.

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