Collective Mind Community Conversation

Networks of networks

by Seema Patel, Senior Advisor, Collective Mind

Collective Mind hosts regular Community Conversations with our global learning community. These sessions create space for network professionals to connect, share experiences, and cultivate solutions to common problems experienced by networks.

In March 2022, Collective Mind co-hosted a Community Conversation about “networks of networks” with inHive, a team of network builders working with local partners globally to strengthen young people’s access to strong networks and relatable role models. The session welcomed Brendon Johnson, Senior Network Lead at inHive, and June Holley, Network Weaver at the Network Weaving Institute. Both Brendon and June brought their vast experience and perspectives to co-facilitate and participate in this interactive and engaging conversation on what makes network-of-network models unique and impactful.

Highlights from the conversation

As described during the conversation, networks are, by design, microcosms of the systems they’re attempting to shift, especially impact networks. They attempt to incorporate and have representation of every relevant stakeholder, whether those stakeholders are influencers in the system or at the receiving end of an unjust system. As a result, they are primed to have connections and collaborations with people and organizations that can create impactful and effective transformation.

In that context, when discussing the idea of a “network of networks” in its simplest form, they can be thought of as doing what they do best, but joining together in order to scale and thereby have more of the kinds of action, learning, and support needed to make transformative change. From a different vantage point, as shared by one participant, a network-of-networks approach may simply mean one network choosing to prioritize a given partnership at a given moment, e.g. collaborating with a particular group because of their geographic location, co-developing an innovation with a specific coalition, implementing a regional advocacy campaign with a regional partner.

The term “network of networks” can be used as a way to brand and communicate the model externally as organizations coordinating collectively. The network-of networks configuration and relationships can also be thought of more functionally as an “ecosystem of networks.” The functional benefit of thinking in this way is to soften the idea of the institutionality and formality and embrace a network’s potential to be agile — to partner with other initiatives informally, share resources and information and collaborate with ease. The key to this ecosystem working well is that the internal health of the networks involved is strong and they’re able to quickly and seamlessly make internal decisions around collaboration.

Another way to think about networks of networks is in terms of how and what they come together for. For example, there are sector/issue-focused networks of networks, i.e. food access groups across the country banded together and assembling regularly to share learnings and successes. There are cross-sector networks of networks coming together to look for synergies where work is complementary and where ideas can be spread from one network to another, regardless of topical focus. There are also local networks of networks, often focused on a leverage point, for example, developing local policy or implementing local collaborative projects. Across all of these, the power of networks can be strengthened when they collectively band together to take advantage of their amplified ability to affect change.

Yet another way to view networks of networks is around how they evolve. An example from the conversation referenced the use of collaborative trainings to “plant seeds” across movements that lay the foundation to build out a future network of networks. Additionally, by training these individuals or groups, you begin to build relationships across these networks so they can benefit from learning from each other. Or, as shared by another participant, a network of networks can also be thought of as a living, breathing organism that evolves and adapts to its environment over time, much like the tentacles of an octopus that operate independently with distributed intelligence but work in conjunction with the whole of the organism. This gives it the ability to make sense of and interact with its environment in a distributed way, learning from its surroundings and experiences along the way. A network of networks similarly operates with distributed intelligence and resources to support and strengthen the ability for the collective organism to succeed and thrive over time and achieve greater impact.

Additional resources

Miss the session? View the recording and slides.

Get involved

Have your own experiences or insights on networks of networks? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Or email Seema at seema@collectivemindglobal.org to co-host an upcoming session with us.

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