I was delighted to be invited this week to help an organisation find its network mojo. This particular network brings together academics and practitioners in a sector to spread expertise, good practices and innovation. They have had some success, but they are not sure that they are drawing all the potential benefits from a network structure. I was asked to do a session with them on what networks are and what factors make them effective.
One of the messages that comes loud and clear from the research is that trust, commitment and participation lie at the heart of this sort of social/organisational network. The difficulty for an organiser is that these are not qualities that can be summoned up at will.
However, a closer look at the evidence shows that there are some things a network organiser can do. Trust, commitment and participation can all be increased if network members share a sense of purpose as to what the network is for and share norms of behaviour for operating within that network.
Shared purpose doesn’t need to mean shared interests. Academics and practitioners in a sectoral network will have different interests (for example, expanding the sector’s knowledge base, publishing articles, winning business, gaining thought leadership). But they can still have a common purpose, such as increasing the esteem of their sector, or influencing government policy. By stating that purpose, and validating it with the network members, the organiser can rally the network and increase their willingness to connect. Another advantage of a clearly defined network purpose is that it can drive some people to leave the network, if they don’t share that purpose. That sounds counter-intuitive but a large network can often be inefficient, particularly if a number of its members are either inactive or uncommitted.
Another tool available to network organisers is the creation of shared norms. Norms are defined as social expectations that guide behaviour. By setting standards of what is acceptable and (crucially) making sure they are followed, a network organiser can build trust among network members, thereby increasing commitment to the network’s purpose and participation in its activities. This then becomes a virtuous circle with increased participation leading to increased returns for the individual, increased commitment and greater trust.
Of course, these connections are fragile, which is why organisers should be vigilant in making sure that norms are followed and changed if necessary.
The title talks about the secret of success, but of course it isn’t as simple as that. But due consideration by network organisers of their shared purpose and shared norms can go a long way to creating an effective and resilient network.