10 key factors for successful networks

A while ago I mentioned on twitter that I was thinking of blogging about some old school network theory research I’d found. Quite a few people said they’d be interested so here it is as a starter for ten – it’s not new and I’m damn sure some of you will think it’s not really that clever, but I do hope it is a good starter for ten on a discussion about the nature of networks.

Research study:

The research I was talking about was conducted with funding from the NHS SDO programme (the Service Delivery and Organisation R&D Programme) from the Department of Health. The SDO programme is still in existence (I think) and you can find out more about it and the research that it has funded via the link above.

Nick Goodwin, who at the time was based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (I think, altho he might have been at the Health Services Management Centre at Birmingham University), worked with a number of colleagues to conduct a systematic literature review into networks, you can read more about their work here and if you’re really interested I’ve attached the full systematic review here.

The review was conducted in 2004. While it is six years old I wouldn’t imagine anything they found is now considered incorrect, however life moves so quickly that I’m confident that online networks and the potential for social networking will have introduced a different dimension, especially with regard to the terms of the tools available to monitor, support and expand networks.

Definition of network:

They used a broad definition of an inter-organisational or multi-organisational network as follows:

“any moderately stable pattern of ties or links between organisations or between organisations and individuals, where those ties represent some form of recognisable accountability (however weak and however often overridden), whether formal or informal in character, whether weak or strong, loose or tight, bounded or unbounded”.

This definition acknowledges the variety of forms that networks may take. It also acknowledges that networks are fluid constructs, the level of organisation, hierarchy and managed integration varies over time.

Ten success factors for networks:

As with any systematic review, it contains a lot of information. For the sake of this post I’ve shared the top ten success factors that the authors identified. I may well have oversimplified some of what they were saying, so apologies to any purists if that is the case; but I hope the following is useful as food for thought:

1)    Achieve a position of centrality within the network

  • need to be central to the network to be able to exert leverage to engage resources, knowledge and funds and in turn, to better manipulate the network
  • need to be clear of what the specific network co-ordination function is
  • evidence suggests that people tend to respond to principles and charismatic network leadership, rather than to rules and structures
  • progress to a central objective is dependent upon shared commitments, principles or interests – rather than mandated changes

2)    Have a clear mission statement and unambiguous rules of engagement

  • goals and purpose and function of network membership needs to be clear
  • …but it is a delicate balancing act because also need to avoid being over prescriptive or bureaucratic

3)    Be inclusive – ensure all agencies and individuals gain ownership of the network

  • …if they don’t and there is no common goal then there is no purpose having a network

4)    Large networks should be avoided – they incur high admin costs and lead to inertia in all networks

  • the broader/larger the network, the harder it is to centralise management arrangements, to coordinate and to control production
  • too much bureaucracy can inhibit innovations and turn people off

5)    Develop strategies for network cohesion

  • shared commitments, such as joint financing or common targets provide buy in and stability to network members
  • remove geographical, service or jurisdictional boundaries
  • employ skilled boundary spanner(s) – neutrals who engender commitment, trust and reliability
  • make use of IT to span boundaries and enhance performance amongst and between network members

6)    Avoid mandated or imposed networks

  • networks need to be owned by members not thrust upon them
  • clear procedures and clear benefits to membership help but over-regulation can lead to disharmony and mistrust
  • top-down imposition of networks should be avoided however senior management support and commitment helps

7)    Actively engage respected professional leaders who will promote the network to peers

  • the anecdote to top down imposition, is the use of influential key players to spread the word to their colleagues and peers

8)    Avoid network/organisational capture by, for example, a professional elite or a dominant organisational culture

  • professional engagement and enthusiasm is key to success
  • …but must be careful that the network is not hijacked by one group/agency/culture

9)    Respond to the needs of network members in such a way that the network remains relevant and worthwhile – maintain ‘net worth’

  • responsiveness is key to long term survival – as long as members feel that they gain ‘net worth’ from their involvement then they will stay
  • some networks will be time limited
  • competing interests and priorities can co-exist as long as mutual long-term self-interests are served

10) Professionals in networks must provide the mandate to allow managers to manage and govern their activities

  • challenge is to balance self-governance and management, when network coordinator may have no management role
  • potential solution to this ‘governance gap’ is to provide members with the right incentives that they agree to their own system of regulation and governance to bind themselves together

So what?

I have a personal interest in networks and how they work – the organisation that I work for research in practice for adults is made up of a network of local authority adult social care departments, therefore knowing how networks work and what supports to provide is key.

I’m sure that the advent of online networking and the changing ways in which people communicate and connect will have had an impact on each of these ten success factors.

I also know from earlier twitter conversations that there are quite a few people out there who share an interest in networks, and who have been reflecting on the impact of technology for supporting networking. If you know of any people or work I might be interested in please post a comment and let me know. Thanks.

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8 thoughts on “10 key factors for successful networks

  1. Thanks George, this was really useful and timely. And thanks for including the full systematic review (which I haven’t read yet but will). I have a few questions for you if wiling and interested:
    1) What is your feeling about the weakest link in a network being the most useful (as that persons is more likely to bring in knowledge/learning/perspectives that are new and unknown to the group; and

    2) Under what conditions to do you think large networks are more useful (pt. 4 Avoid large networks) considering what one can get from LinkedIn (a very large network) vs. small thematic networks of known and like-minded people.

    1. Thanks George – I found your 2 follow up articles on twitter and facebook which addresses a little bit the issues surrounding large networks. I would still appreciate hearing your thinking on the importance of weak links.

      1. Hi Maggie, glad you found this useful but it’s an old post (2010) so suspect theoretically things have moved on somewhat since then. So, your questions:

        1. Weakest link: I’m not sure how you’d really define the weakest link so don’t have an easy answer. I think any network benefits from plurality and diversity, however it finds that, and I do think value comes from growth – so I’d definitely advocate for new perspectives, but not sure I’d agree that the person bringing those needs to be the ‘weakest link’. Given changes online and the opportunities of technology I think we’re increasingly seeing connectors emerging, who sit on the outsides of networks and connect thinking and people between them – personally I’d consider these people to be really valuable, but they may be referred to as ‘weak links’ in the usage you’re describing.

        2. Size of network; well this is another great question. I’m not a LinkedIn fan but I would conceptualise it as many different networks (groups/links) within a large network. So that might answer your question! As for small versus large, I think technology has changed things again, twitter is a massive network, but many people are members of multiple small networks and groups within it. It is also frequently possible to be a key member of a dedicated network (for example as a conference or workshop delegate) that has a short lifespan, but sits within a larger network (e.g. professional membership).

        So, I think I’m saying that networks have moved on, and the best focus is on your skills and connections, and how to build and share these generously; as opposed to a focus on size. Hope this helps? G

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