Taking the pulse: Engagement is a network’s lifeblood

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For this edition, we looked at the following sources:

Connected Citizens: The Power, Potential, and Peril of Networks

The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World

Community Engagement Toolkit (Leading Inside Out/Collective Impact)

We already know that networks exist for their members.

Without members, there is no network. If we take that logic another step, we realize that member engagement — how we cultivate interactions amongst and between members — is the foundation for network impact.

Fundamentally, networks are comprised of nodes (people) and links (the connections between them). Unfortunately, we often assume that if we bring together a bunch of nodes (people), we have a network — without fostering the connections between them.

Engagement is about fostering those connections in meaningful, reciprocal, and value-added ways. People connect by interacting — and network builders and managers have to create opportunities for interaction. Interaction is not participation — members will choose whether they participate and the may choose to opt-out. But a network must always provide diverse opportunities for interaction. Through engagement, we pump lifeblood through the network’s veins.

If engagement is so critical, how do we do it?

Effective engagement requires active facilitation of frequent, regular, and meaningful interactions that build consensus, trust, and shared ownership — in other words, that build relationships. Those interactions are most successful when they are transparent and inclusive; clear about roles, responsibilities, expectations, and boundaries; and integrate feedback mechanisms.

Interactions can foster connections both directly and indirectly, but they should always be intentional. That intentionality requires a sense of why you’d like to connect people as well as an understanding of members’ behaviors, interests, needs, and priorities. That’s why listening and consulting tops the list of methods for engagement; they’re foundational to any engagement approach. We must cast a wide net for advice and input, making it easy to participate and ensuring that people know they’re being heard.

Connecting people for mutually supportive activities is similarly powerful. Connected directly to one another, members can discover each other’s assets and coordinate needs and offers, strengthening their ties through reciprocity[1].

Fostering mutual support activities is facilitated by establishing and maintaining systems for organizing these exchanges. The more transparent and accessible these systems, the lower the cost and the higher the speed of sharing and meeting needs, and the greater the integrity of the interactions[2]. The more credible and effective the systems are, the more trust is built with and amongst members.

Bridging diversity amongst members likewise adds value. Different types of members and members with differing views, interests, and needs have the potential for high-value interactions as well as the discovery of new and unanticipated solutions.

Finally, it’s not just what happens within the interactions but the very possibility of them that drives effective engagement. We have to hold the space over time for these exchanges wherein collaboration and cross-fertilization, both planned and unplanned, can occur. We hold the space by facilitating repeated interactions that people feel welcome and motivated to join and return to. We make participating easy and, through its repetition, allow for trust to emerge over time. Holding the space is, importantly, about creating space while not pre-defining the outcomes of what will happen within it. People gathered in the spaces we hold will create their own outcomes — that’s the beauty of it.

How do we create the most meaning and value from the engagement we facilitate?

The spectrum below articulates different types of engagement based on a range of depth, intensity, and quality of interactions. Activities at different locations on the spectrum create different levels of buy-in and ownership.

Taken from Community Engagement Toolkit (Leading Inside Out/Collective Impact)

The farther to the right on the spectrum, the greater the participant-driven or -led nature of the engagement — and the greater the buy-in and ownership. When members drive or lead engagement, they own and buy into the network’s purpose. Shared purpose is the network’s heart. By continuously cultivating the network’s shared purpose through all engagement activities, we provide big and small ways in which members can both act on that shared purpose and continue to refresh it. Through those activities, we ensure and deepen both ownership and buy-in by members of that shared purpose.

Thanks for reading! Get in touch to share your thoughts, ideas, and feedback with me at kerstin@collectivemindglobal.org.

[1] Connected citizens: The Power, Potential and Peril of Networks (pg. 19–21)

[2] Connected citizens: The Power, Potential and Peril of Networks (pg. 19–21)

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