Editors’ Note: This is an article that focuses on the basic phases of building effective networks, using one grounded example to bring the theory to life. We recommend that readers look back also at Carl Sussman’s article (see Winter 2003, “Making Change: How to Build Adaptive Capacity”) and think about how the two approaches relate to one another in the achievement of real change.
Communities are built on connections. Better connections usually provide better opportunities. But, what are better connections, and how do they lead to more effective and productive communities? How do we build connected communities that create, and take advantage of, opportunities in their region or marketplace? How does success emerge from the complex interactions within communities?
This article investigates building adapt ive and agi le communit ies through improving their connectivity— internally and externally—using network ties to create economic opportunities. Improved connectivity is created through an iterative process of knowing the network and knitting the network.
Know the Net
Improved connectivity starts with a map—knowing the complex human system you are embedded in. The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks [ACEnet], a regional economic development organization in Athens, Ohio has long followed the connectivity mantra—create effective networks for individual, group and regional growth and vitality. Recently ACEnet has begun to map and measure the social and economic connections it helped create in the grassroots food industry in Southeast Ohio. Network maps provide a revealing snapshot of a business ecosystem at a particular point in time. These maps can help answer many key questions in the community-building process.
- Are the right connections in place? Are any key connections missing?
- Who’s playing a leadership role in the community? Who is not, but should be? • Who are the experts in the area?
- Who are the mentors that others seek out for advice?
- Who are the innovators? Are ideas shared and acted upon?
- Are collaborative alliances forming between local businesses?
- Which businesses will provide a better return-on-investment—both for themselves and the community they are embedded in?
These are all important questions that ACEnet seeks to answer in order to help build a more vibrant economy in Appalachian Ohio.
|ACEnet, founded in 1985, provides a wide range of assistance to food, wood, and technology|
entrepreneurs in 29 counties of Appalachian Ohio. This region has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country, and ACEnet works with communities throughout the region who want to improve their support for entrepreneurs as a means to provide more local ownership and higher quality jobs.
Before you can improve your network, you need to know where you are currently—the “as is” picture. A network map shows the nodes and links in the network.
- Nodes can be people, groups, or organizations.
- Links show relationships, flows, or transactions. A link can be directional. A network map is an excellent tool for visually tracking your ties and designing strategies to create new connections. It can also be an excellent “talking document”—a visual representation that opens up many conversations about possibilities.
The transformation required to achieve healthy communities is the result of many collaborations among network nodes. Complexity scientists describe this phenomenon—where local interactions lead to global patterns— as emergence. This is how good local ideas are improved upon and brought to scale. We can guide emergence by understanding and catalyzing connections. For example, knowing where the connections are, and are not, allows a community development organization to influence local interactions. This is particularly important in policy networks where key nodes play an important role in what flows throughout the network. Influencing a smal l number of well-connected nodes often results in better outcomes than trying to access the top person or calling on random players in the policy network. If you know the network, you can better focus your influencing activities.
What Does a Vibrant, Effective Community Network Look Like?
Research has been done to discover the qualities of vibrant networks. Sociologists, physicists, mathematicians, and management consultants have all discovered similar answers about effective networks. The amazing discovery is that people in organizations, routers on the internet, cells in a nervous system, molecules in protein interactions, animals in an ecosystem, and pages on the Web are all organized in efficient network structures that have similar properties.
Five general patterns are observed in all effective networks:
- Birds of a feather flock together: nodes link together because of common attributes, goals, or governance.
- At the same time, diversity is important. Though clusters form around common attributes and goals, vibrant networks maintain connections to diverse nodes and clusters. A diversity of connections is required to maximize innovation in the network.
- Robust networks have several paths between any two nodes. If several nodes or links are damaged or removed, other pathways exist for uninterrupted information flow between the remaining nodes.
- The average path length1 in the network tends to be short without forcing direct connections between every node. The power of the indirect2 tie is used.
- Some nodes are more prominent than others—they are either hubs,3 brokers,4 or boundary spanners.5 They are critical to network health.
Network Neglect Can Lead to Devolution
Even though we know several keys to building effective networks, this knowledge is rarely put to use. Networks, whether social or business, are usually left to grow without a plan. When left unmanaged, networks follow two simple, yet powerful driving forces:
- Birds of a feather flock together.
- Those close by, form a tie.
|Recently ACEnet Food Ventures staff asked area entrepreneurs and organizations,|
“From whom do you get new ideas that benefit your work?”“From whom do you access expertise that improves your operations?” and “With whom do you collaborate?” The answers to these questions were mapped using Valdis Krebs’ InFlow™ social network mapping software into an Innovation Network, an Expertise Network, and a Collaboration Network. Analyzing these networks led team members to realize that there were several entrepreneurs who played a critical role in the food sector, but with whom they had little relationship. The team developed a strategy for more explicitly working with these entrepreneurs by asking them to conduct workshops for other entrepreneurs in which they could learn about their needs for business assistance.
This results in many small and dense clusters with little or no diversity. Everyone in the cluster knows what everyone else knows and no one knows what is going on in other clusters. The lack of outside information, and dense cohesion within the network, removes all possibility for new ideas and innovations. We see this in isolated rural communities that are resistant to change, or in a classic “old boy” network. Yet, the dense connections, and high degree of commonality forms good work groups—clusters