Defining network management: Facilitation, coordination, and administration for effective networks

Over recent decades, we have seen networks become a go-to model for solving hard problems and achieving impact at scale. From local coalitions to international alliances, networks — an organizing model that integrates participants who have common interests and work together to achieve shared goals — exist around the world and across all types of issues and problems that need to be solved.

Networks often require the support of dedicated network management, people brought on to support the members to define and achieve shared goals. While diverse in their goals, structures, and formality, networks often require dedicated support to ensure their operation beyond the volunteer efforts of members. This is where network managers come in. Whatever their official titles, “network managers” should foster the collaboration and cooperation necessary for networks to be effective and impactful.

What is network management?

The nature of networks is nuanced — they function by connecting members and fostering their collaboration on shared activities. Towards this end, the role of network managers is a supportive one. Managing a network is not about more traditional centralized decision-making and directive task completion. Network management is the facilitation, coordination, and administration that supports and bolsters the network, enabling members to design, develop, and implement activities that achieve the network’s shared purpose. For network managers to succeed, these three approaches work in concert:

Facilitation is the act of engaging participants in a process to understand their objectives, plan how to achieve those objectives, and work together to do so.

Coordination is the act of helping all those involved in a plan or activity work together in an organized fashion, harmonizing and aligning actions to synchronize efforts towards a common goal.

Administration is the act of organizing, undertaking, and supervising tasks or activities to move the network toward its goals and maintain the network’s foundation.

Facilitation and coordination are all about fostering connections and managing processes that promote the collective action of the membership — those who have come together to achieve a shared purpose that resonates with them. To collectively make progress towards achieving that shared purpose, they must be connected to one another, to build consensus on priorities, and to design and implement shared activities. Networks also require administration, which is about fulfilling the operational and logistical tasks that are foundational for organizing collaborative activities.

Networks provide the space to make connections and take collective action based on collaboration, relationships, and shared purpose. Taking this three-pronged approach, network managers hold the space for relationships and collaborations to be built and cultivated to achieve shared purpose. They coordinate and facilitate members and their collective projects, support visioning and strategy, and mobilize resources to help see projects to fruition.

Network management in practice

Collective Mind’s proprietary network diagnostic framework defines networks as comprised of three core components — network capacities, network functions, and organizational functions. Network capacities are the pieces networks must have in place to both be a network and to be effective. Network capacities include the shared purpose, membership, leadership, resources, and more (see here). Network functions are the activities that a network undertakes through member engagement and participation to achieve their shared purpose — such as advocacy, thought leadership, or problem-solving (see more here). Organizational functions are the operational underpinnings of a network, like IT and financial management.

In this context, the practical responsibilities of network managers are related to supporting the network’s capacities and functions. Any given network manager will have their own specific portfolio of tasks and activities. Where a team of network managers is in place to support a network, different staff will likely have specialized roles for supporting the gamut of the network’s capacities and functions.

Supporting network capacities can include facilitating collaborative vision- and goal-setting or coordinating participatory strategic planning processes. It can mean instilling constructive network values into network activities. Network managers might need to raise funds or mobilize in-kind contributions from members for network activities. They might also need to monitor activities, outputs, and outcomes both to report back to members and perhaps to partners or funders.

To support specific network functions, network managers will design and manage the structures and processes for members to participate in them. This could mean coordinating a working group wherein a subset of network members organize themselves to undertake tasks together. Member engagement cuts across all network functions as well as capacities. It includes connecting members to each other, building and managing relationships, and ensuring participation by providing a wide enough range of opportunities to participate in ways that feel appropriate, meaningful, and engage members’ interests.

Ensuring this range of tasks requires a broad set of skills and abilities from high-level strategic systems thinking to the practical capacity of project management. Given the complexity that networks embody, network management is both an art and a science. As this field of practice continues to evolve, network managers require opportunities to deepen and improve their practice in the service of constructive collective action.

Sign up for the Collective Mind newsletter to receive these in your inbox!