Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Network Effectiveness Tides and Tables

photo credit - JimMedia

Today some Packard Foundation staff who have been thinking about network effectiveness, plus our visiting scholar Beth Kanter, got to chat with evaluation expert Michael Quinn Patton about evaluating networks. Our Evaluation Director Gale Berkowitz invited Michael to spend a day at the Foundation while he was out on the West Coast. Michael has a nice story telling approach to sharing his thinking. I think the stories belong to his clients, but here are my takeaways.

After reading Working Wikily 2.0 http://workingwikily.net/?page_id=149 he missed a continuum that goes from;

Network → Coordinate → Cooperate → Partner

Our discussion followed along this frame. We talked about the realities of network ebb and flow. Organizational Effectiveness Program Officer Kathy Reich mentioned that we get the advice “build your network before you need it”. And Michael pointed out that sometimes networks will hum along at a lower level of activity, doing no more than sharing information e.g., tracking state court cases to predict when the issue could become a Supreme Court case. While the network is just “networking” or is engaging in basic activities it is building the trust needed for the network to activate, moving into campaign mode to solve something.

He also talked about how sometimes there are subgroups of effectiveness within a network. When it is time to mobilize the network it may need to get smaller, leaving behind outliers who have a hard time functioning in a network.

Michael has heard funders criticized when they are slow to support a network’s activation; requiring extensive proposal work when the network is responding to the rapid emergence of an opportunity. Just when network members should be devoting their attention to the window of opportunity they get bogged down in a time consuming proposal process. Could foundations get money out faster to already trusted partners?

Another essential network function is to watch for a window of opportunity for activation. So an early task is to create a shared vision of that window of opportunity. Would it be a new health minister? a disaster? front page headline about the issue? Other networks focus on creating a window.

Sometimes after intense outcomes focused action the network will settle back into just networking. Some networks stay vital with scenario planning - what could go wrong? In addition they conduct drills. (that is what firefighters do; they drill and practice so they are ready for a fire) Others become a listening, or as Beth said - sensing network.

Network Ebb and Flow – so it might looks more like this

Evaluation Table
We tried to figure out the axis for a two dimensional grid. We came up with something familiar.
One axis would be the extent to which there are identifiable outcomes. You could ask; how close are network members’ description of their shared purpose? The other axis would be process. Where are network members on process issues; relationship, trust, and understanding of each other’s niche.

This reconfirmed for me why social network mapping is tool that can be used for network evaluation. Process questions include the frequency of use of the network, who you go to get information, how important the network is to you vs. other things, how much do you trust the information you get from the network. The questionnaire could include questions that get to alignment on the purpose and hoped for outcomes also.
I came away convinced that we funders and network participants should be patient in our networks, and I am curious about work that has been done on network life cycles. Feel free to send it my way.