Are you in the right networks?

Last week I gave a one-day networking workshop to an international women’s organization in Australia. They were keen to find a way of assessing whether they were putting their limited time into the right things – among them, the right networks. They also wanted to understand more about how their networking could contribute to their advocacy work.

The ambitions of the organization are huge, commensurate with the need to change the world into a place in which women have at least equal rights to men. The organization’s main purpose is to give grants to women’s projects in specific Asian and Pacific countries. They want to make a difference. Their well-designed website makes all of this very clear.

The organization is quite small, with some 20 staff and a sprinkling of volunteers.  The organization has been around for 25 years.  Many of the staff are new to the organization. One team works primarily on fundraising. Another team is mainly focused on the programmes, and a third cohort is the administrative staff. The three teams do not interact much with each other, and they do not necessarily know what the others are doing. All are very, very busy.

Diagram 1. The value chain of the NGO

The advocacy, communications and administration work  has a purpose: to support the value chain of the organization. At the back end, fundraisers work tirelessly to get the money needed by the programmes group, who make the decisions on where to invest the money. At the end of the chain is profit – that is, change.

The potential funders look at the front end of the chain - the results - to determine whether to give to the organization. Is doing what it set itself up to do? Is it a leader in its field? Is it making a difference?

To be a leader requires more than money to carry out program. To be a leader an organization has to show it knows the issues and has the capacity to innovate to find solutions. For funders, money is a means.  What is important is knowing that the organization they invest in is using its resources – all of its resources - wisely.

One of the primary tenets of network theory is that people are a resource. The people on staff, and the volunteers, are a resource beyond their skills and competencies.

I anticipated that one of the valuable aspects of the networking day would be the ability of the staff to notice the resources at their fingertips. So before asking the question: are we in the right networks, we decided to start the workshop with the question: what networks are we in? Sitting at tables with 3 or 4 colleagues with whom they rarely interact, participants mapped their networks – their school friends, their family, their colleagues, contacts they have through sports. Some were remarkable – a number of women had special networks of other parents that pick up their children after school, people they trust a great deal. Not many kept in contact with old school friends. Some kept in touch with colleagues from previous jobs. Everyone had a good range of people in their networks. Some gave access to people they do not know themselves but who could be useful, some helped them develop knowledge, some gave them a sense that they belonged.
The next part of the workshop looked at the value of networks. This mini-lecture was based on research I have done on the value of networks to organizations.

Theory of Networking

The structural level

In 1983 a researcher named Granovetter made an important distinction relating to networks. We have connections in those networks – he calls them ties – that are strong or weak.
What he calls strong ties are the connections that exist between rock solid networks.  For example, looking at our own networks, the strong ties are those between family members, between colleagues and between people in a sports team.
Weak ties are the connections we have with people outside our group (family, work) affiliations that give us access to deals, knowledge, tips and connections.
Weak ties give us the possibility of connection to other social systems. They are critical to the ability of networks to access new sources of information and new resources. These resources include access to other networks, specific information, access to decision makers, access to public opinion and social capital.  Weak ties are people whose name comes up when you ask the question: who do you know who can talk to xxxx?
Individuals with contacts that reach beyond the boundaries of the organization, and beyond the limits of the shared contacts the organization or unit has, bring resources to the organization. 

The cognitive level – developing knowledge

Unique knowledge that is embedded in the organization gives the organization competitive advantage. For an organization to stand out from the others, it must need to know things or how to do things the others do not know. Developing that knowledge, that real down to earth knowledge, is where networks become a vital tool to your organization.
Researchers have discovered that organizational knowledge is created through a continuous cross-fertilization of knowledge that takes place through networks of actors within an organization and through networks within an industry. 

The relational level

The third main value contribution of networks to organizations and businesses is at the relational level.  According to human resource management theory, engaged employees contribute to the success of the organization.  One way of getting people engaged is to have them connect with people in the organization that are not directly related with the work they do. In many large companies you see employee resource groups: people who connect with people with similar circumstances.
The degree of trust that exists between members of an organization can be used as an indicator of the level of social capital that an organization possesses – the social capital is the ability of the organization to involve employees in their work.  Bordieu spoke of group obligations, Granovetter of strong ties and Bossevain of psychological protection – informal or formal internal networks provide a sense of trust and dependability. When colleagues become friends, the company or organization benefits. Information and support gained through friendships and networks is cheap, it is trust worthier because it is richer, more detailed and accurate, and it is a reliable economic resource because it comes from a continuing relationship. Studies show that when informal coalitions form into cohesive work groups and the norms incorporate the goals of management, productivity rises.

With the theory and the personal networks in their back pocket, participants were asked to think of a need they have – something they would like to do if they had time, something they need some resources for if they are to move this thing off their “to do” list. This is the point in the workshop where the big ideas come out. People who are really up to something have big plans they can’t necessarily shift off their desks immediately. After writing down the “need”, they shared their need with others at their table. The others were asked to listen only, and could ask questions for clarification, but they could not provide solutions. The challenge they were given was to look at their network and find people there who could be useful.

Participants observed their natural instinct to solve problems themselves, and if they asked others, the others are people in their team rather than colleagues in a different team. Having teams mixed at tables gives colleagues access to resources of people they don’t know well, and encourages colleagues to have the sort of conversation with each other they do not normally have.  At one table the HR officer discovered that the father of one of the program staff holds a senior HR position in a large concern, and could perhaps be a good resource for her in her quest for information.

With a shared understanding of the value of networks for organizations, participants were ready to analyze the networks in which the organization is involved.

A team had prepared this segment by mapping all the networks the staff is involved in, 101 in total. We created a matrix. In the horizontal axis we put the three values of networks to organizations: Structural, Cognitive and Relational. In the vertical axis we wrote the four focus areas of the organization: the areas in which they wanted to be seen as leading. The staff requested a further dimension be added: to see how much focus was on gender and development (GAD) national, GAD global, country specific and sector practice – relating to laws, HR issues, etc.

The organization now has the task of interpreting these findings. What do they say about the quality of their networks? Is the organization spending enough time/resources being linked to people that support them in building their capacity to be leaders in their field? To what extent are the networks supporting the organization to be an advocate for change at home, and to what extent are they supporting project partners in being advocates for change in their country? When contemplating establishing new networks, what do we want them to provide us with? With which organizations do we need to partner, to get access to change makers, resources, operational excellence?

Networks are potentially a rich resource for organizations. Utilizing them requires careful thought and planning.Knowing which ones add value and which ones are a pleasant distraction is vital.

Why not invite Netsheila to work with you to evaluate the value of your networks!

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