Net-Map facilitation pointers: Links

After a recent Net-Map practice sessions a colleague asked a number of very pointed questions which inspired me to start a series of Net-Map facilitation pointers which help Net-Mappers improve what they do, by focusing on specific aspects of the method, building on my 8 years of experience since I developed Net-Map. Let me start sharing them with you too – starting with everything I know about links:

Net-Map Facilitation Pointers: Links

This series of facilitation pointers is aimed at practitioners of Net-Map who want to improve their implementation and are looking for specific guidance on aspects of implementation.


Deciding on the most informative links is a challenge. It can either be done with the participants, asking them: “In which ways are actors on the map connected which has an impact on the result?” or by pre-defining a list, which is then given to the participants to adjust. In general it is recommended to pre-define more in situations where time is limited and you have a good understanding of the situation (or the possibility to pre-test) and to pre-define less where you have the time to discuss with participants, you are working in a situation you are less familiar with and working in a cultural context sharply different from yours.

Pre-testing (even if it is just a simulation without actual participants, the Net-Mappers map what they think it might look like) is very powerful in helping you understand what different links can do.

The general instruction is to look for links which are very different from each other, to allow you to learn about as many different dynamics of the system as possible. When choosing links, reassess your personal and professional biases and stretch beyond them (e.g. some researchers want to only map knowledge flows, without looking at funding or hierarchy; if you personally are uncomfortable with tension in the room you may want to avoid mapping negative links; if you are cynical you may want to only map formal and negative links, but don’t believe in the power of informal positive links etc.).

Picking diverse links can often mean including some formal links and some informal links. Also, it can be very powerful to include at least one negative link (i.e. a link which has a negative emotion attached to it – it might or might not be negative for the functioning of the system). In some cases you want to include a material flow as well, because it is crucial to the system. See below for examples for these link categories. Please don’t use “informal link” as the name of a link on your map. As you can see below, there are many kinds of informal links, and if you don’t specify it is not clear whether this link means for example friendship or conflict. Also, you will never be able to map all links in a system, so be comfortable with mapping just enough. The rule of thumb is that 4 different links is a healthy medium (not too many or too few). In practical experience we sometimes allowed for a 5th link which was a subcategory of one of the initial 4 links, most commonly “informal money flow” or “bribes” in a network which had formal money flow already.

Typical Links in the different categories

Formal links:

  • Formal hierarchy
  • Formal reporting
  • Formal flow of funds
  • Contract relationships

Informal links

  • Being friends
  • Giving Advice
  • Loving
  • Having conflict
  • Being in competition
  • Executing pressure
  • Giving information
  • Trusting
  • Lying to
  • Giving bribes
  • Respecting

Negative links (links with negative emotional content)

  • Having conflict
  • Being in competition
  • Lying to
  • Torturing
  • Fearing (Who fears whom?)

Material flows

  • Giving funds
  • Giving money
  • Flow of contraceptives/improved seeds/shea nuts etc. (a thing which is crucial in the project)
  • Flow of infections (e.g. Who transmits HIV to whom?)

On terminology and misunderstandings

Defining links (and defining the overall Net-Map question) is where we observe the biggest risk for misunderstandings which are not clarified and either lead to a lot of conflict during drawing the map or a lot of misinterpretation of results afterwards. As an example, in Ethiopia, while working with a local implementer we intended to ask for lines of formal authority. In the maps we received nearly no one had drawn any formal authority links, stating: “We don’t do this kind of thing anymore, we are a democracy now.” Somewhere in the process of translation the meaning had shifted towards “authoritarian links”. But even while staying within the same language, one word can have many meanings, e.g. in Ghana the term “motivation” is a material link, as it describes the money you receive before you start your work, to motivate you. To avoid this kind of misunderstanding, it is useful to ask participants for examples: “If you and I have a link of “support”, what does that mean, what do we do?”

When working through interpreters, this becomes even more difficult as they are an additional bottleneck for misunderstandings. Ideally you draw a Net-Map with your interpreter (where they are the case giver) before going to the field, so that they understand what to expect and you can go over the terminology and expectations as well. The best interpreters in Net-Map are those that have developed the ability of being co-facilitators.

What is a link, what is not a link?

A link is a connection or flow between two actors. You can imagine a connection like a pipe and a flow like the water flowing through the pipe. Both can be drawn as links, e.g. “friendship” is a connection (pipe) and “giving advice” is a flow (water). As a rule of thumb, often the links that are connections go both ways, while in the links that are flows, the direction of the link (arrowhead) matters. It makes a difference whether I give you money or you give me money…

However, while it is important to understand what a link is, it is nearly as important to understand what is not a link, to avoid confusion.

Actor attributes are not links!

An actor attribute is everything that merely describes one actor (e.g. being rich, making legislation, being against the proposal, being male or being French) but not the relationship to other actors. It is easy to confuse attributes and links, especially with regards to the membership to groups.

Group membership is not a link!

Being a member of a party, a tribe or a religious group does not, as such, mean that you are connected to everyone else who belongs to this group. It might make your connection to other group members easier and to non-group members more difficult. But it is not a connection as such. If it is important to indicate group membership on a Net-Map, either use the color of post-it (actor category) or write abbreviations next to each actor card.

A link that connects one actor to everyone else (or everyone to everyone) is not a useful link to map!

On some maps there are actors such as “The Media” and participants wish to draw an information link from the media to each and every other actor on the map. Doing this will take up 15 minutes of the group’s time and create additional mess on the map, without giving you any additional information (beyond: “Everyone listens to the radio.”).

Rather note this information in one sentence in your qualitative notes, and limit the links on the map to those which can tell you something distinctive about the structure of connections, which you wouldn’t know without mapping it.

Net-Map Certification Training, Washington DC, Nov 20-21, 2015

Understand how people and their networks influence your (project) success – learn NetMap!

IMG_2552 copy

You are curious about network analysis but what you read about it sounds extremely technical, confusing and abstract? You would like to understand better how the different people in your (our your project’s) network influence what you can achieve? You would like to understand the power of informal connections such as friendship, conflicts, and competition? You would like to be able to guide groups to be able to understand these networks and plan better because of it?
If you sit in front of your screen right now, nodding vigurously (or just having this curious and intrigued look on your face) then this might be for you.
Join us for our next two day NetMap training, where you will learn this tool for mapping formal and informal influence networks, developing strategic networking plans and uncovering the hidden drivers that propell you or hold you back from achieving your goals. NetMap is a straight-forward, highly visual and participatory tool based on pen and paper, which has been used in organizational development, project and career planning, conflict resolution and political economy analysis to name but a few.
The venue is the historic Thurgood Marshall Center. Please sign up here

Net-Mapping the Water-Food-Energy Nexus in the Upper Blue Nile in Ethiopia

When dealing with the challenges of a country like Ethiopia, focusing just on water, or food, or energy is a tall order already. Given how one influences the other, it is, however, not focus which is needed but integration – of issues and also of those people dealing with them. My colleague Christian Stein shared his research on the issue with me. Below is the summary and here is the full paper he wrote, together with Jennie Barron, Likimyelesh Nigussie, Birhanu Gedif, Tadesse Amsalu and Simon Langan for the International Water Management Institute:

Ethiopia is currently undergoing rapid development, heavily reliant on its natural resources such as water and land. The government’s Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) and its Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) strategy set ambitious targets in a variety of sectors including water, food and energy. In order to avoid trade-offs and create synergies between different development agendas, integrated planning and cross-sectorial coordination is crucial. The so-called ‘nexus approach’ is a recent way to frame the interconnected challenges in water, food and energy with the ambition to align policies for sustainable development.

This study fills a gap in the nexus debate by focusing on concrete actors and the nexus challenges they struggle with, instead of on abstract systems and the resource flows between sectors. Based on participatory, visual network mapping and focus group discussions, the paper illustrates three interdependent challenges of the water-energy-food nexus in the Upper Blue Nile in Ethiopia. First, it points to the central role of biomass-based energy resources and the need to balance national ambitions for hydropower and immediate energy needs for rural communities. Second, it identifies agricultural water management as a critical issue where linkages across sectors and scales need to be improved. Third, it highlights the need to strengthen actors working on environmental sustainability issues, and generating political support for their objectives, by making available evidence on the value of nature for development.

The findings of this scoping study show that participatory network research can facilitate dialogue and colearning among researchers and a range of actors on the interconnected challenges of the water-energy-food nexus. Such collaborative learning processes can play an important role in moving toward better coordination between key actors and improved development planning within the Upper Blue Nile.”

Guest Post: Net-Map in cultural development in Germany

German culture Net.Map

First time-use of a Net-Map-procedure in a culture development process

The recently published study on behalf of the Institute for Cultural Policy

offers new ways for the coordination of action for the pilot region in South

Thuringia (central Germany)

©Patrick S. Föhl & Robert Peper

With the decision to perform a network analysis, the Institute for Cultural Policy entered new territory within the framework of cultural development processes. During the process it was planned to highlight previously unknown communication and conflict structures between different stakeholders from politics, administration, arts and culture as well as economy, tourism and civil society. Additionally, so-called white spots (“structural holes”) between representatives of various sectors should be identified. Stakeholders of all relevant domains would be interviewed in order to implement effective coordination structures within the two counties Hildburghausen and Sonneberg. In order to achieve these goals, the Institute for Cultural Policy engaged Robert Peper, a PhD-student from the Leuphana University of Lueneburg, who is trained in visual social network analysis.

By using Net-Map, the network structures between actors of culture, politics, administration, business and civil society could be traced in a very participatory process. In the beginning of the interviews respondents were asked to recall the last three months of their daily interactions with other stakeholders with regards to their cultural work. They were then asked to draw actors on a network card using a large sheet of paper and pens. For this process, standardized name generators were used. In the course of the conversation ego-alteri (connections between interview partner and others) and alteri-alteri relationships (connection between two others, not involving the interview partner) were depicted in the network map. The visualization displayed both the flow of communication as well as the conflicts and future relationships between the actors involved. In order to highlight the most influential actors in the decision making process, the interviewees were asked to mark the influence of individual actors by heightening the respective tokens.

The evaluation of the network analysis, which included 14 Net-Map-interviews with politicians, tourist officers, artists, museum directors among others, revealed surprising findings. Key players and core interactions were identified that were previously unknown but are crucial for the future cultural development of the model region. A regional tourism association appeared as an extremely well-connected node and as an important potential strike for cultural operators in order to obtain access to the business sector. In addition, the regional mayors turned out to be the lynchpins of the collected network, which comprises a total of 167 players. Missing relations could be located e.g. between artists and schools. Many local actors spotted developing a denser network between cultural and educational sectors as the most important task for the future.

The advantage of this Net-Map-based network analysis lies in the possibility to highlight the most important formal and informal interactions of cultural governance processes and to identify gaps in the network structures that need to be closed in order to pool resources and to strengthen communication and decision-making processes for the cultural field of a whole model region. These expectations were fully met with the results of the recently published report. The study served as an important additional tool for the whole cultural development process (which also involved many other tools such as expert interviews, structural analyses, workshops etc.) and was presented at the occasions of different cultural workshops. The process ended in April 2015 and can now be seen as a good example for a modern approach with regards to cultural development planning.

Dr. Patrick S. Föhl, leading project manager of the cultural development processes, sees great possibilities for the use of network analysis – also in other regions: “There is a lot of potential. Participatory social network analysis will play a crucial role in future cultural development processes. In the model region Hildburghausen and Sonneberg it already works. The results of the analysis are an important milestone in the cultural development process and clearly demonstrate the existence of comprehensive networking.”

For further information about the process please visit the following websites:

german culture Net-Map two

Can you make it more playful and more serious?

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child)

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child)

What? Everything.

Keith McCandles of Liberating Structures asked me this question when I shared my instructions for the use of network pattern cards with him. He proposed to make it more serious by inviting a group to explore a shared problem and to make it more playful by asking: “What is the pattern you would need to choose if you really wanted to mess this up?” And only after that the group would pick the pattern they think will make them succeed. This follows the idea of the liberating structure TRIZ.

His question stuck with me – way beyond the concrete discussion of how to facilitate a group experience. Now it has a place of honor on a post-it on my office wall: “Can I make it more playful and more serious?” How would my life and work be, if I made it more playful and serious.

When I am with my kids, could I have more playful openness and laugh more about things that just aren’t that important AND have the mindful focus of someone who knows that this is serious, that these few years of closeness run by quicker than you think and that every moment matters.

At my work, what would happen if I played and improvised more freely, inviting myself, my colleagues, our clients to use play for experiencing the changes we aim for in an nonthreatening environment – it’s only play after all. And what if at the same time I was much more serious about my aspiration, much braver about naming and claiming the changes I really care about, allowing myself to really care about them?

What are the things in your life that could be transformed by being more playful and more serious? Are you taking steps in that direction already?

Network Pattern Cards

network pattern cards with copyright a

By relating their own experience to prototypical network patterns, groups can get a deeper understanding of how they work together (or not) and what the opportunities and challenges of each of the different patterns of self-organization are. Also, these patterns give group members a language to talk about how they experience collaboration, what they appreciate or struggle with and what kind of network structure they prefer. In many cases this will be more of an exploration and an exercise to understand other’s preferences better – because every pattern carries challenges and opportunities, there is no one perfect solution for the group to discover.

These cards can be used in many different ways – and the patterns are far from complete. Please find detailed instructions for one exploratory exercise with groups here (inclusive of an easy to print version of the patterns). And don’t hesitate to contact me with questions, ideas for missing patterns, examples of how you used this etc.

network pattern cards with copyright c

network pattern cards with copyright b

Rare opportunity: Learn Net-Map in the UK!

How about hanging out at the beach, learning Net-Map and meeting about 1000 highly intelligent social network analysis experts of every discipline, who do everything from crazy complex quantitative stuff to anthropologically observing network development on the ground? The Sunbelt Conference of the International Network of Social Network Analysis (INSNA) is an inspiring event, whether you are a beginner or a full-blown SNA genius and one of the great things about it is that it always starts with two days of training workshops, before the three days of 700 talks in parallel start. A great way of learning for example some of the complex software, which is painful to learn alone at home. Ah, and another great thing is that they insist on always finding a location close to the sea. They alternate between the US and the rest of the world and this year the conference will be in Brighton, UK.

This year Net-Map will be present there in a three hour hands on training in the first part of the conference and we will have two sessions for applied network knowledge which will be heavily leaning toward Net-Map. Though my talk will not be about Net-Map but about the new network pattern cards which I am developing. I would love to see you there. The last time I have taught Net-Map in Europe was the Summer School in Italy, and that was in 2011. A few spots are still available for the Net-Map training workshop, so if you are interested just go ahead and sign up and I will see you there. Together with a whole bunch of other Net-Mappers.


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