Last week I attended the annual Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) Conference and spoke at a session on Leadership in Action. My remarks focused on how to apply the power of networks to our newest Rockefeller Foundation Initiative, launched in May 2013, called Digital Jobs Africa.
In recent years we have evaluated several of our Initiatives, and learned powerful lessons about the planning, implementation and sustainability of effective networks. Networks powered the achievement of many of our goals, crossing themes as diverse as impact investing, disease surveillance, transforming health systems, and addressing the impact of climate change in Asian cities.
At the BSR conference, summarized eight important lessons stemming directly from our evaluations, as well as the advice of networks specialists, like Jared Raynor, who have guided our thinking:
1.Avoid the “build it and they will come” mentality and funding model.
We need to be clear about the purpose for the network, the needs of its stakeholders, and their capacityto participate. The word “network” can mean many different things to many different people—sometimes it is a community of practice, focused on practice; sometimes it relates to coalitions and alliances, and is therefore geared toward social change and advocacy. Other networks are mainly knowledge networks, providing information and generating collective knowledge; and others are primarily service delivery networks, which are operational in scope and purpose. In all cases, the purpose, needs, and capacity have to evolve from network members themselves.
2. Use appropriate design for the network structure.
Probably the most important design question is: Should a network follow a hub and spoke model, with a secretariat coordinating activities from the middle, or a dispersed set of nodes where different organizations take on different roles? These have different management and funding implications—influencing staff costs, for example. It’s important to assess how best to empower network members to contribute, and crucially, which design will scale the work of members to achieve common goals and objectives.
3. Trust is key to effective networks.
And it takes time to build that trust. Most of our networks have been international in nature—in working across national borders, we’ve had to navigate different languages, geopolitics, and cultural differences in communications and professional practice. In some cases, trust is necessary to overcome the inclination of members to compete. Whether it’s nonprofits competing for funding, or businesses competing for market share, putting sufficient time and effort into building trust is important.
4. Management and governance of a network should be explicit from the beginning.
Is the network an informal structure—not a legal entity—or is a more formal structure needed for legal, fundraising, or other reasons? How are decisions made? Who has authority to make them? Ask and answer these questions from day one.
5. Effective networks are usually working networks.
Members should share a common purpose, motivation, and will create mutual benefit and gain. Every network must deliver a real value to participants—or it just won’t last.
6. Effective networks are built on expertise, not just interest.
There is a critical role for curating knowledge and expertise, and enabling the capacity development of network members.
7. Networks are essentially communication networks.
In designing a network, it is important to determine what method and technology is going to work best for this particular community of members.
8. And finally, bigger is not necessarily better.
It’s important to keep networks manageable and focused.
These issues—management, design, and governance—often undermine effective networks, not lack of technical capacity or good intention.