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.


  1. Thank you for these indepth notes about the network effectiveness evaluation discussion. I love the metaphor you use about the ebb and flow of the tides. I think the same applies for those using social media/social networks for external facing work - the unbounded networks. That their network might go through these ebbs and flow - and that thinking in terms of "campaigns" misses the need to keep the ongoing networking part, well, ongoing.

    Here's my post with background about Michael's work, the videos, and those wonderful creation stories

  2. here's the link.


  3. Here's my big question. Looking at the framework and the concept of tide tables - where do you individuals and their social graphs come into play? Is it strictly organizational relationships? How do you overlay unbounded/bounded networks or those whose goal may be external facing work? I see parallels to movement building.

  4. Stephanie,
    Nice post and analogy to ebb and flow. I would think the "flows" increase over time. I also agree with Beth that people need to break out the "campaign" mentality.

  5. Hi Stephanie,

    Thanks for the reflections. Two things that stood out for me are:

    1) the cyclical relationship of network, coordinate, cooperate, partner and how profoundly different and interrelated those organizing concepts are and,
    2) the x/y axis of network evaluation being outcomes and process; simple and on target from my experience; i also appreciate the distinction between purpose and outcome

    Sounds like it was a very valuable meeting.

  6. Thanks, Stephanie. As part of that group yesterday, I too was invigorated by our discussions and came away with some good ideas for evaluating networks. Armed with that discussion, and 2 articles in the latest American Journal of Evaluation (Benjamin & Greene; Cross et al.), I am starting see much more clearly how we can both understand and improve the effectiveness of our network investments.

  7. Thinking about Beth's questions about networks of organizations, or is it people? I think even networks of organization are all about people. That's why trust is so important. I can’t think of an organizational network that could not be destroyed by people dysfunction. And I think the same applies to unbounded networks. That is why people are so sensitive to issues like paid-for tweets.

  8. It's a a couple of days later and I have had a chance to think about this a little more and I find myself coming back to some essential dilemmas that keep cropping up about assessing network effectiveness: How important is it for the network to have an outcome it is trying to achieve? As an evaluator my instinct is that it is very important. However, I can't say that empirical evidence supports this! Another dilemma with evaluation implications is to what extent do we need to assess what type of network the network is. Again, the evaluator in me thinks it is very important and to establish and baseline and then find ways to track its changes. However, is it really worth the resources it takes to track the network that much? When I look at the work that we have been engaged in, the answser is "it depends" on both of these. It depends on what we hope to learn from this, who also cares, and how badly we need to "know."

  9. Seems to me it all gets back to the definition of network.

    When we want to increase awareness about relationships, improve communications, and increase opportunities, it's beneficial to encourage people to map networks and take on network weaving/connecting. The idea with "n"etworks is to help clusters that have been isolated to get to know each other and introduce people to new resources and ideas.

    When you want to move "n"etworks to action, then it make sense to coach network weavers within the "n"etwork to help people self-organize. At first, these may be twosies - two people exploring to find out new ways they might do something they both care about. However, if money is structured into Innovation Funds, many innovative cross-organizational projects will emerge. Sometimes you may want to help form a "N"etwork that meets regularly and sets priorities; but it's important to realize that this often creates and in/out dynamic that may squash broadbased innovation.

    To evaluate, you can track all the innovative projects and their outcomes, as well as tracking the capacity to include, innovate, collaborate and self-organize.

  10. Just a word about "purpose." Of course people in a self-organized project will have a common purpose, but it generally will be narrow: build a playground, organize a festival.

    If you push a network to have a common purpose, you eliminate a lot of the variety that has the potential to bring about breakthroughs. For example, the introduction of community development groups to obesity prevention groups might result in innovative approaches to playground location and programming.

    In my experience, moving to action provides focus, not purpose.