Building networks for learning

Networks are important - © Can Stock Photo Inc. / marish
Networks are important ((c) Can Stock Photo)

Social capital refers to those stocks of social trust, norms and networks that people can draw upon to solve common problems. But harnessing the power of these seemingly invisible networks to achieve sustainable development goals such as in public health, well being or environment is an elusive undertaking. All too often their power for supporting development is seriously underestimated. However, the downside is that misguided networking efforts can creates relational demands that sap people’s time and energy. So there is good reason to study networks, and determine the best way to manage them.

The first set of articles below look generically at how to build and map networks. The second set provide links to institutional approaches for working across groups and organisations, including partnerships and boundary organisations. An accompanying page provides links to a range of resources that collectively cover Team building, communities of practice (COPs) and learning groups.

Building networks

Connected Communities: How social networks power and sustain the Big Society Traditional approaches to community regeneration which define communities in solely geographic terms have severe limitations. They often failed to deliver on key social capital improvements such as improving trust between residents or fostering a greater sense of belonging. In this report Jonathon Rowson and colleagues argue for a new approach to community regeneration, based on an understanding of the importance of social networks. Such an approach has the potential to bring about significant improvements in efforts to combat isolation and to support the development of resilient and empowered communities.

Understanding networks: The functions of research policy networks This paper by Enrique Mendizabal argues for the importance of focusing on policy research network functions. It considers the usefulness of networks and the benefits of taking a more functional approach to understanding them. It then deals with six functional categories in more detail, providing some illustrative examples for each. This leads to the recognition of a set of overarching roles or ‘supra-functions’ that describe the network raison d’etre. The paper grounds these functions in case studies, and ends with a series of conclusions and implications for further research, policy and practice.

Strengthening humanitarian networks: Applying the network functions approach Not all networks do the same thing. This report by By Ben Ramalingam, Enrique Mendizabal and Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop suggests there are six overlapping functions for networks that different networks perform in varying mixtures. The functions are community-building, filtering, amplifying, learning and facilitating, investing and providing, and convening. Another report that looks at similar issues, but in even more depth is Enrique Mendizabal’s ODI publication Building Effective Research Policy Networks: Linking Function and Form PDF icon

Understanding networks: The functions of research policy networks This paper by Enrique Mendizabal argues for the importance of focusing on policy research network’s functions. It considers the usefulness of networks and the benefits of taking a more functional approach to understanding them. It then deals with six functional categories in more detail, providing some illustrative examples for each. This leads to the recognition of a set of overarching roles or ‘supra-functions’ that describe the network raison d’etre. The paper grounds these functions in case studies, and ends with a series of conclusions and implications for further research, policy and practice.

Social network analysis This web paper by Olivier Serrat acknowledges that power can increasingly be located in the networks that structure society. Social network analysis seeks to understand networks and their participants and has two main focuses: the actors and the relationships between them in a specific social context. Describes the benefits that networks can bring to their members and related organizations and how they can be made visible.

Building Smart Communities through Network Weaving This paper by Valdis Krebs and June Holley investigates building sustainable communities through improving their connectivity ‘internally and externally’ using network ties to create economic opportunities. Improved connectivity is created through an iterative process of knowing the network and knitting the network.

Communities of practice and networks: reviewing two perspectives on social learning This paper by Sarah Cummings and Arin van Zee examines two different approaches used to describe and analyse similar phenomena: “networks for learning” and “communities of practice”. The paper points out how these two concepts come from different traditions and strands of thinking, and goes on to highlight fundamental similarities in the two approaches which stem from their respective focus on social learning.

www_iconAchieving individual and collective goals: ICTs, capacities and networks This article considers the collective capabilities of networks in relation to their use of ICTs, information and knowledge management. As the authors, Peter Ballantyne and Denise Clarke, point out ICTs can enable networks and their members to achieve their aims more effectively, and are often part of the ‘offer’ that a network makes to its members.

Networking for learning: The human face of knowledge management? This article is by Niels Keijzer, Charlotte Ørnemark, and Paul Engel. It is intended to contribute to the debate on networking for learning by exploring its potentials and limitations. It draws substantially on discussions and resource materials shared through the Pelican Initiative, as well as other literature and practical examples, and seeks to identify some entry points into this field for policy-makers and development practitioners.

www_iconCreating High-Impact Nonprofits Conventional wisdom says that scaling social innovation starts with strengthening internal management capabilities. This study of 12 high-impact nonprofits by Heather McLeod Grant and Leslie Crutchfield, however, shows that real social change happens when organizations go outside their own walls and find creative ways to enlist the help of others.

Mapping and analysing networks

Potential Human Rights Uses of Network Analysis and Mapping Here is Skye Bender-deMoll’s report to the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program on network analysis and mapping. The goal was to give a non-academic introduction to network concepts and related fields, survey some relevant academic and humanitarian projects, and make some proposals. The report also includes good visual examples. Skye’s blog is at skyeome.net – covering curiosities of culture, communication & networks.

A value network approach for modelling and measuring intangibles This paper by Verna Allee describes a way of modelling business relationships that incorporates new thinking around knowledge and intangibles, networks nad organisational complexity. More information on these networks can be found from the Wikipedia value networks page.

www_iconIntroduction to social network methods This on-line textbook by Robert Hanneman and Mark Riddleintroduces many of the basics of formal approaches to the analysis of social networks. This book aims to provide a very basic introduction to the core ideas of social network analysis, and how these ideas are implemented in the methodologies that many social network analysts use. The book is distributed free on the Internet in the hope that it may reach a diverse audience, and that the core ideas and methods of this field may be of interest.

Working at the boundaries

A number of approaches are being developed to institutionalise processes that support working at the boundaries, or improved dialogic processes. Boundary organisations are increasingly being suggested as an improvement in this regard. It is important to remember that working at the boundary is a process, and can be achieved through many different structures.

Perspectives on partnership: A literature review This paper by Doug Horton, Gordon Prain and Graham Thiele reports on a wide-ranging review of the literature on partnerships and other closely related forms of collaboration. It identifies and analyzes key cross-cutting themes and success factors, highlights gaps in current knowledge, and identifies high-potential areas for further study. A wide range of research-based publications is reviewed, including studies in such fields as management and organizational development, public administration, economics and international development. It is noteworthy that empirical studies of partnerships are rare, particularly in-depth case studies. Theoretical pieces seldom present empirical tests of hypotheses, and practical guidelines are seldom grounded in theory. Gaps in knowledge are identified at the level of individual partnerships, the level of the organizations that participate in or manage portfolios of partnerships, and the level of research or innovation domains that are characterized by networks of partnerships.

Workshop on Boundary Organizations in Environmental Policy and Science This paper provides some early thinking around the concept of boundary organizations and sustainability. It was prepared by the participants as a report of a workshop on the same topic. It provides a good overview, and reminds us that boundary crossing requires not only an emphasis on structure, but it requires the structure to deliver on process. David Guston also wrote a follow-up paper, Boundary organizations in environmental policy and science: An introduction DPF icon, which formed the introduction to a 2001 special issue of Science, Technology & Human Values

An accompanying page provides links to a range of resources that collectively cover Team building, communities of practice (COPs) and learning groups.