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WHAT DO NETWORKS NEED TO BE IMPACTFUL?
Networks need capacity — or a set of competencies and attributes required to help the network achieve its mission.
Building from the resources reviewed (scroll all the way down), our framework for understanding network capacity identifies a set of seven capacities that networks must focus on developing if they are to make an impact.
● Shared purpose: the visionary goal around which strategies are defined, people are mobilized, and activities are established and harmonized
● Membership: the people and organizations that belong to the network in order to contribute to the shared purpose
● Leadership: the function of guiding, directing, and facilitating the network and its members
● Culture: the network’s operating philosophy including shared values, norms, attitudes, and practices of both individuals and groups
● Infrastructure: the structural design and components of the network including structures and processes for core operations such as governance, member engagement, project implementation, management and administration, etc.
● Resources: contributions, financial and otherwise, that ensure the network’s functionality and the business model through which those contributions are received and put to use
● Measurement: the tools and processes for monitoring and assessing the network’s efficiency, effectiveness, and impacts
SO WHY ARE THESE THE COMPONENTS OF OUR NETWORK CAPACITY FRAMEWORK?
Shared purpose and membership are the two core components — they are the network’s reason for being. We could call these the heart of the network.
The shared purpose and the membership that gathers together to achieve that shared purpose are a network’s fundamentals. Without these, a network cannot and does not exist. The shared purpose stems from a common problem that members want to address. It likewise defines the value proposition for the members: the members engage in order to achieve that shared purpose. The membership brings together an inclusive range of people and organizations who have vested interests in the problem the network seeks to solve.
Leadership and culture are less tangible, enabling components. They are the soul of the network.
The leadership and culture maintain the shared purpose and foster ongoing collaboration. The style and structures of leadership and the norms and values the culture embodies determine the network’s strategy and operations. Effective leadership within networks fosters connectivity, consensus, and alignment amongst members and around the shared purpose; culture enables these constructive dynamics and ensures they are embodied in all network undertakings.
Infrastructure, resources, and measurement are the physical body of the network — the bones, muscles, and connective tissue that facilitate network operations.
Infrastructure, resources, and measurement underpin all network activities. Without these, the network can’t efficiently or effectively operate. Resources, financial and otherwise, ensure that the network can undertake activities. The network’s infrastructure — including structures and processes for member engagement (e.g. working groups) and operational systems such as IT and communications — are needed for functionality. Measurement means monitoring the use of resources and impacts of activities as well as taking the pulse of the network to ensure ongoing alignment with the shared purpose and provision of value to members.
WHAT DO THESE COMPONENTS LOOK LIKE IN PRACTICE?
Shared purpose and membership:
In practice, shared purpose is articulated through mission statements and strategies collectively defined and accompanied by measurable goals.
A network’s membership model is a function of its shared purpose. A membership model defines eligibility, size, categories, and requirements for members. Membership is representative of beneficiaries, with a strategic plan that represents their needs and views. Members fulfill a range of roles and responsibilities towards the shared purpose.
Shared purpose and membership are deeply intertwined. The shared purpose is the foundation for a value proposition for network members. When the shared purpose is clearly articulated, the network can operate as a self-regulating system wherein members participate because their interests align with that purpose and they understand the benefits they will receive from participation.
Leadership and culture:
Network leadership is nontraditional. Rather than hierarchical or heroic, it is dispersed, visionary, collaborative, and entrepreneurial. It is both formal, sitting with senior staff or board members, and informal, sitting with members.
Network leadership exists to align activities with the shared purpose. It facilitates the involvement of diverse members and creates spaces for interactions including shared experiences, dialogue, knowledge sharing, and learning across members.
Network leadership also facilitates decision making for the network, determining how decisions will be made and by whom and ensuring transparency in those processes.
In practice, network leaders do not do members’ work but rather enable members to connect, align, and produce. Network leadership nurtures emergence by fostering connectivity.
Through an adaptive, engaging approach, network leadership instills and embodies the network’s culture, which also emanates from the members. Network culture is premised on how members participate and contribute to the network’s functioning. Fostering a shared network culture requires member involvement and reciprocal accountability. A network’s culture shapes how network members will conduct the network’s business and express their expectations.
Infrastructure, resources, and measurement:
The structures of the network — working groups, communities of practice, etc. — should reflect the network’s strategy, integrate members’ contributions and skills, and encourage accountability. Management systems should ensure efficient logistics, such as IT capacities to meet network needs for virtual meetings or knowledge management. Communications should be designed as multidirectional and inclusive, both internally within the network and externally with other stakeholders and partners.
Networks require financial sustainability to support operational costs for convening, staffing, and communicating, among others. Business models for funding networks should mirror their multi-stakeholder nature, for example, with blended funding sources. Member contributions can range from direct financial resources to in-kind contributions of time, skills, additional staff support, and beyond. Partnerships with nonmembers should expand the network’s reach.
Effective coordination of members, activities, and resources is critical as is monitoring the outcomes of these. Networks need to know if they’re reaching their goals, whether they’re doing so efficiently and effectively, and if they’re satisfying the members’ value proposition in the process. Measuring networks moves beyond traditional monitoring and evaluation to methods like outcome harvesting to understand indirect impacts and network mapping to understand connectivity within the network.
WHAT’S THE CAPACITY-IMPACT SWEET SPOT?
Impacts are greatest when capacities intersect. This can be a member working group that embodies the most constructive elements of the network’s culture and achieves tasks that deepen and perhaps broaden the network’s shared purpose. Or a network-wide strategic plan developed through an inclusive, network-wide consultative process which fosters engagement opportunities across all members for consensus and buy-in.
These intersections are intentionally and thoughtfully designed — proving that network management is both a science and an art.
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For this edition on network capacity, we looked at three sources:
Steve Waddell’s “Global Action Networks”, which identifies 8 network competencies:
A study by VSO entitled “Capacity Building in Network Organisations” that identified 7 key capacities for assessing networks:
And the book “Connecting to Change the World” about how networks emerge and evolve: