How to get more activity in a network?

Through the snow I traveled to Brussels for a coaching session on facilitation of networks. Of course, the trains were delayed and Fyra was completely cancelled (surprise! Why did I book that ticket in the first place?), but it gave me some more time to reflect on what kind of people play important roles in building relationships in a network.

This topic comes from a question that I am often asked by network facilitators: how to get more activity going in their network? A common complaint is that the network members are reactive and it takes a lot of pulling and pushing to get them involved. I am convinced that part of the answer lies in involving and training the right people.

The connector

We all have networking skills; we use them every day in our social interactions, and these skills can be acquired and improved. But as with any skill, some people are more talented than others. They are more agile and natural networkers, they almost naturally provide energy to the networks that they take part in. These people come in different shapes and descriptions: Malcolm Gladwell describes them as ‘connectors’, EelkeWielinga coined the term ‘free actors’, and June Holley introduces them as ‘network weavers’. Or perhaps they can be more generally described as ‘informal leaders’. They are the people who get things going, and you probably already have some examples in mind from your own network.

I believe the amount of connectivity describes the health of a network well, so I like the term ‘connector’. Let’s list some characteristics for the connectors in a network. They are:

  • social and outgoing,
  • active communicators,
  • sensitive to what is taking place,
  • sharing their ideas and thoughts freely,
  • linking people,
  • getting satisfaction from motivating others, and
  • acting because they see the need, whether or not it is part of their job.

The network facilitator

Connectors are very useful to have in a network, but connectors are not necessarily good facilitators. They can help spread ideas (and in social media terms might have a high Klout or Kred score with many followers), but can also be too whimsical for others to trust them with coordination tasks. Having and spreading ideas is one thing, but guiding the process to see them through is equally valuable. Those who also have these latter skills are the real network facilitators.

They might have some of the characteristics of the above, but in addition are:

  • pragmatic and result oriented,
  • sensitive to what others need to accomplish, and
  • get satisfaction from achieving results collectively.

Activity

So, how to get more activity going in the network that you are responsible for? Keeping the above in mind, one way is by making use of the connectors and facilitators in your network to increase the connectivity and to get concrete results.

Some ideas on how to do this:

  • Identify the people who can play these roles (the list of characteristics gives an idea what to look for and otherwise ask around: some people will stand out) and try to delegate responsibility in communicating to their peers on specific topics/activities/projects.
  • Provide them with space and trust to develop initiatives, to try things out (to experiment), but also keep track of their activities so you can help out when necessary.
  • Give recognition for any result that comes out of this.
  • Document what is going on so you can show if activity is increasing.

Capacity building

I believe that any network, including yours, will certainly have people with the potential to play these roles. But perhaps they still lack the confidence or are for other reasons reluctant to assume a more prominent role. Find out why and help them to get started. You could think of training potential connectors and facilitators to increase their networking skills in which case, it is definitely useful to also build more awareness on how networks function.

Successful network facilitators need to build their capacity to organise both projects and people.

Let me share an example I heard recently from Anne-Marie Poorthuis in the break of a meeting for network professionals. She told me how she taught primary school children to organise projects that they wanted to carry out. The children had come up with very diverse wishes ranging from organising a school outing, to giving a party, or improving the playground. She used her network analysis tool (link in Dutch) to see whose help they needed and how they could go about realising their projects. The whole class presented their ideas to the parents who were surprised and enthused by their creativity. Very animated discussions emerged resulting in a lot of feedback and, in the end, a number of the projects were actually put into effect.

Anne-Marie’s example shows an excellent way to develop skills so highly needed in our modern, networked world: the skill to find the people who can help you achieve your goals and to connect with them. Some of us have these skills more than others, but with a bit of coaching we can all develop them.

And the benefit?

Involving connectors and facilitators should get more activity going in the network and my assumption is that this will increase its effectiveness. (For ways to measure both connectivity and impact, see Keystone’s publication.) But you don’t need to wait for a formal evaluation; I believe more activity is a good result in itself! More activity is a result that deserves to be broadcasted within the network, but also to the general public, and of course also to your donors or supporters. What better advertising is there than  being able to say you have a lively, healthy network!

 

Koen Faber, 21 January 2013

PS: I am curious to have your feedback on the characteristics I listed for connectors and facilitators. And perhaps you can share examples of networks that succeeded in simulating the informal leaders to take a more active role.

 


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