What’s the true nature of networks? In this post Nadia von Holzen reflects on the characteristics of networks and how best sharing and learning in networks can be organized and supported.
By Nadia von Holzen
In an earlier post I described networks as living systems shaped by its members, their engagement and their commitment. I characterized networks as smart, dynamic and innovative. In this post I want to explore the ‘wild side’ of networks and what it takes to support them.
The nature of networks
Networks are a special form of cooperation; there are different forms (formal, social, or community of practice (for further information see: Work the Net. A management Guide for formal Networks by GTZ and SKAT)). A social side is characteristic of all networks. Networks always have an informal side, a last sense of wildness.
If the network was an animal what would it be? At first sight it might seem a strange exercise to imagine the network as an animal. In fact a metaphor like this can help us to understand both the nature and characteristics of networks, and how best we can support and nurture them.
For me a network has something wild and impetuous, something unpredictable; you can tame it but you can never fully control it. If a network were an animal I would describe it as stallion or a lead mare living with the herd in the pasture. The yearlings love freedom; they split up in subgroups and seek adventure; in the absence of leadership they challenge each other. The lead mare explores the grazing grounds with her herd in the search for the seasonal offerings to secure its survival and to defend its territory. The herd means food, security and continuity.
Photo by Karl Schuler
And as the stallion or the lead mare pull the herd together and leads it to new pastures, I see networks as a place that connects people from various backgrounds within and across organizations. Networks are the “caretakers” of knowledge and competence, as Manuel Flury described them in his post, their core is exchanging information and knowledge. The network members are “grazing food for thought”. Exchanging in networks means reflecting jointly, thinking out of the box and exploring solutions. The Focal Points jointly with the Core Group members are taking the lead to keep the drive alive.
We need to consider certain characteristics in order to successfully support lively network collaboration:
Care for the herd and the offspring
A network is a social form of cooperation. This social dimension is key for the network’s survival in the long term. Without the social “kit” and without the caring leadership by Focal Point and Core Group members welcoming new members, pulling the herd together and connecting the nodes, the network will loosen and fall apart. To be part of the network means being part of a group of people in conversation on issues relevant to their work and future. SDC networks are attached to an organizational unit but are not “fixed” organizational structures fitting neatly into the organization chart. Networks will always be loose, a bit uncontrolled and wild; their functioning is based on relationships.
Joint search for new grazing grounds
Networks’ key mandate is sharing and learning among professionals. Focal Points and Core Group members lead the herd to new grazing grounds and encourage exploration into new pastures. Bringing in experiences and linking to external resources is part of the game and is encouraged. Conversations are facilitated both face-to-face and online. Joining the network is enriching for all as it leads its members further and deeper in their own reflection and harvesting.
The freedom of the “pasture”
Networks need space to experiment and explore. They iterate, evolve and innovate. The herd expands its daily experiences by moving freely, and in varying smaller groups, through its known territory and beyond.
Photo by Karl Schuler
As organizations we need to give networks this freedom to reach beyond organizational structures and to play with the unknown. Networks pool together when the time is right to explore jointly new meadowland; e.g. in the search for joint approaches or for cross-fertilization on thematic issues. Organizing learning and sharing in tightly defined working groups is like corralling the stallion, limiting his movements and his desire for freedom. Networks function better with looser forms of collaboration; in subgroups engaged in joint learning groups.
A last bit of wildness
We can stimulate network activities but can never fully control them; networks’ activities and dynamics retain a certain unpredictability, a certain “wildness” that we can never really tame. Networks have their own biorhythm, their ups and downs. They have their high times and low times; and, as social organizations form, their bio-rhythm is unique to each network (in her post Marylaure Crettaz visualized this nicely).
What animal would a network be for you? How would you describe the characteristics of networks?