Knowledge Networks: Dynamic Development or Tight Structuring?

June 30, 2010 | Manuel Flury | Learning Elsewhere |


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Photo Katharina Conradin

An Interview
with Katharina Conradin, regiosuisse

Manuel Flury: Katharina, you are one of the moderators of the regiosuisse knowledge communities. What is regiosuisse?

Katharina Conradin: regiosuisse is the network unit for regional development in Switzerland. It supports people involved in regional development with practice-oriented knowledge management. regiosuisse offers various concerted services so that the knowledge about regional development can be developed, acquired and exchanged – the knowledge communities are one of those.

What is particular about these knowledge communities?

With the regiosuisse knowledge communities, an approach was chosen that enables its members participate actively not only in the definition of the contents discussed, but also in determining the lifespan of the networks: Knowledge networks need freedom to develop their own agenda and pace. At the same time the regiosuisse knowledge communities are part of the larger regiosuisse family. 

How do you find a good balance?

Managing a knowledge network requires indeed a careful balance between allowing dynamic processes und unplanned twists and turns, and successfully structuring the network, making its outputs coherent. While too dynamic processes may confuse people and make them withdraw from the network, a structuring which is too tight may result in a non-innovative environment, turning people away because the network’s work unexciting.

When regiosuisse started its work, a series of kick-off events were held, during which participants identified key issues and knowledge gaps in regard to the new regional policy. On the basis of these issues, four knowledge communities were formed. In the first meeting of each of these communities, those issues and knowledge gaps were evaluated and transformed into guiding questions. These questions are then discussed in mixed groups, also with the participation of experts. Three to four meetings with 15 to 20 participants are held each year. The moderated discussions during the meeting allow combining expert knowledge, implicit knowledge of the participants and regional experiences.

Could you illustrate this practically by telling us how a community comes to define its content?

One of the communities is for instance a knowledge community for regional managers. The regional managers are those who really have to implement the New Regional Policy in Switzerland, at the very grassroots level. Yet, it was not at all clear what this “implementation” involves, and what the roles and tasks of the regional managers are. We dedicated the first meetings to this topic. In each session, we also have an “exchange window”, where members can bring up new topics

What is the role of regiosuisse and its management board in the identification of questions to be discussed?

The knowledge communities continuously re-evaluate their own work – questions that were relevant at the beginning may have lost their importance, and new questions arise. At the end of each meeting, and also in between meetings, participants can come up with new questions. Yet, in order not to lose coherence, all questions are carefully revised by the regiosuisse management board, which has a good overview of all developments within the Swiss «regional development community». This assures that the knowledge generated fits into an overall and coherent strategy and suits the needs the whole «regional development community». If there is no further need for discussion, the specific knowledge community terminates its work.

How does regiosuisse formulates its strategy? shouldn’t this influence the work of the knowledge communities more?

The strategy is defined both by the management board and in close collaboration with the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs. Of course, this does also influence the communities’ work – it can set a focus on certain issues and topics, which can also be brought into the knowledge communities. Yet, we do believe that in order that these communities fulfil their main goal, which is to help people to exchange and acquire knowledge that is relevant for the members’ own work, they also have to be able to suggest topics.

Based on your experiences and from what you learnt from the SDC networks: what would you suggest to SDC in order to render the work of the networks more profitable for the operations of SDC?

So far, regiosuisse has found a good balance between dynamic development and structured outputs. But of course, this is just one approach of many – but I do believe that a certain level of participation in setting the agenda and defining the goals makes a network more lively and interesting. Yet – if there’s an answer to the title question, it’s probably that that every network requires its own balance.

 Katharina, thank you very much!


For further information, please visit the official website of regiosuisse (available in German, French and Italian).


Katharina Conradin has studied Geography at the University of Basel. For the past 5 years, she has been working for seecon, a consulting agency focussing on innovations for sustainable development. seecon is part of a consortium that forms regiosuisse. Her work is guided by a holistic and participatory approach to sustainability, which allows her to link her different fields of activity – be it of sustainable sanitation and water management, knowledge management, or regional development.


Comments to“Knowledge Networks: Dynamic Development or Tight Structuring?”

  1. Riff Fullan says:

    Dear Katharina,

    I’d like to highlight your excellent point about balancing the dynamic (perhaps at times chaotic!) aspects of network life and more structured processes to support dialogue and output creation. To me, this is what makes strict planning and implementation of network facilitation inadvisable.

    It also means that facilitators should try to ‘listen’ to the ebb and flow of the network, to get a feel for whether members like to have a lot of traffic or only a little, whether they want a lot of direction around discussion topics, or want to be left to their own devices.

    To a certain extent such facilitation is not a formula but rather an art (with a bit of luck mixed in :-)

  2. Ernst Bolliger says:

    Dear Katharina, Manuel, Riff

    Thanks for your article highlighting a central phenomenon I observe in any innovative process: The balance between a “chaotic interaction” and a “clear structuring”. For the challenge in the daily life, I just would replace the “or” in your title by an “and”.
    According to my experience, innovative processes – be it at individual, team, organisational or even supra-organisational level (as in the case of regiosuisse) – are based on this alteration between creative chaos and attempts to structure various views and experiences into insights, lessons or hypotheses.
    I like to compare this phenomenon with nature: When a new cell is formed, the nucleus of the cell gets dissolved and re-combined with the genetic material of another nucleus. Only through this chaotic process the creation of something new is possible.
    I agree with Riff: There is no “strict” planning possible for network facilitation. However, there are a lot of tools available for inciting network members to creative contributions and discussions on one hand and to structuring discussion processes and results on the other. Keeping in mind the nature of SDC networks the more “chaotic experience sharing” as well as the more “structured contribution to policy development” need both to have their place in the network activities and in the facilitator’s attention and skills. “Listening” to the ebb and flow is for sure important. However, there are different ebb and flows to be attentive to. There are different interests in a network: Those of the participants, those of the focal point and those of the organisation represented by the responsible manager. And as in real life, a provocative question or hypothesis can provoke a storm or even a tsunami of contributions in a rather silent ocean.
    The art of successful facilitation is finally a mix of personal style and responsiveness to the various trends in the network.


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