Wild thinkers and reliable doers: Fostering Innovation in Networks

It’s an old idea (but still strong I think) that heterogeneity in networks is linked to innovativeness and homogeneity is linked to stability. However, we are not just talking about: What are the networks that produce the wildest, newest, most excitingly buzzing ideas? But: what are the networks, where new ideas actually come to fruition? Now the answer is far less simple.

Looking at organizations I know, I would say, you need a network that has heterogeneous and homogeneous areas that are responsible for different parts of the creative and practical process that leads from having a new idea through testing, implementing to mainstreaming an innovation. So in the different parts of your organization you need people with different networking capabilities. Have some wild thinkers, who like socializing with people far beyond their own field, who develop fluctuating, heterogeneous not very stable networks of inspiration and can serve as a floodgate of new ideas for your organization. But make sure that you team them up with people who network a bit more conservatively, who can channel and filter these ideas into something suitable for your field – however, these people have to be open enough, to see as good idea even if it comes from a different field. And then you need your technical experts, who do the nitty gritty testing and perfecting and have reliable long term networks with people from very similar fields that allow them to turn the idea into a state-of-the-art reliable application. From there you go to the more heterogeneous networkers again, when you look at targeting audiences for implementation.

The challenge: People often tend to want with people of a similar kind, so you’ll easily end up with teams of wild thinkers, who have the greatest and grandest ideas that never see the light of day – or with teams of reliable conservatively thinking experts, who will get you perfect and reliable applications that are rather uninspiring and not very innovative.

So if you look at innovativeness in networks it’s not enough to look as a general heterogeneity index. Rather understand the different heterogeneity needs that occur along the process.

Visualizing Networks Online for KM4Dev

I’ve been thinking of an online version of Net-Map for a while now and my first web-based Net-Map training seminar encouraged me to go further in this direction. During the training I basically directed people I couldn’t see to draw paper maps in their own offices on the Philippines or in India, which is not realizing the full participatory potential of the method. Basically I felt like a blind person teaching someone how to paint.

Now the Knowledge Management for Development Community (KM4Dev) asked me whether we could use Net-Map at their annual meeting to get a better understanding of the links within and beyond this community. And while we will do a lot of this face to face and I’m looking forward to the buzz in the room, we are also considering those who cannot participate in person.

So today I played around with VisuaLyzer, my favorite Social Network Analysis and Visualization Program, to see whether it would be possible to actually draw the network on screen while people are contributing online. The main question was: Can you draw directly and quickly enough as to not disrupt the flow. And the answer is yes. People who use many of the standard SNA programs know how you normally have to fill in an actor matrix first and then import that into the visualization platform. Well, that’s what I normally do with VisuaLyzer. But, and that’s perfect for online facilitation, you can just as well double-click on the empty sheet directly to add new nodes, give them names, attributes (that can be translated into color, size, shape of nodes) and different kinds of links. That’s cool! And the result could look like this:

Early roots of Social Network Analysis

“It may have been possible in the past, for things to have happened in isolation, but from this time forth, the world must be seen as an organic whole, everything affects everything.”

(Polibius, born c. 200, Megalopolis, Arcadia, Greece, died c. 118 BC)

Steeve Ebener, who uses social network analysis in the context of accessibility of health care for the WHO, pointed me to this very early predecessor of modern day SNA.

Thought of the day

“The world won’t stop turning, just ’cause I stop pushing”

A thought that a lot of us facilitators, world-changers, development activists, drivers of change, researchers for development need to sometimes remember, sit down, hold our faces into the sun, breathe out and have a big piece of cake. And a nice weekend.

Deaf children, agricultural gene-banks and rural mother-and-child health

That’s just a limited choice of the very different issues that my training participants on Wednesday were concerned with. So they drew maps about real and potential cases in developed and developing countries, from the international to the local level. As always, alas, time went too quickly and I wasn’t able to take everything in, that happened. Especially with the online-participants, who sat in their own offices all over the world, following my directions in drawing their maps… at least that’s what it sounded like. I hope that some of them will still be able to send me pictures and a discussion of what they drew and how it worked.

I have recorded the workshop and promised to upload the whole thing, slides and web-cam and voice. But it needs to be cut and straightened first and as these things always take time, I’ll make the slides (876K) available right now, for those of you who don’t want to wait.

And, given the interest was much bigger than the places available, I’ll look into organizing the next training as soon as possible.

Learning more about Social Network Analsyis

The Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev) community has a great Wiki which has an interesting introduction on Social Network Analysis within the field of knowledge management, which is worth checking out, if you want to learn more of the background of the approach.

Integrating research and governance

Sounds great. But how do you do it? How can we as researchers for development do projects that have an impact on governance in the countries we work in? Or, is there a problem in this question already, as it sounds like: First we do research, then we go and have an impact.

Should the question rather be: How can we integrate our research projects into local needs and structures in such a way, that research questions are relevant, methods appropriate, results understandable and inviting our partners to act on them…


doing embedded research (like embedded journalism) that just finds out what the powerful wish to hear and serves particular local vested interests?

I have promised to write about this question and am planning to interview governance actors in Ghana about their experiences with research – and talk with researchers about their experiences with trying to have an impact.

As I am developing an appropriate tool I am toying with the idea of asking people about their best and worst experiences, following an approach developed by a group around the German organizational psychologist Siegfried Greif who analyzed the success and failure of organizational restructuring in the corporate world.

And I’m drawing a Net-Map reflecting on my own experiences in Ghana. What I end up doing is to fill the whole surrounding space around the map with my written comments about the links that are positive drivers and those that are obstacles for integration, note down the many remaining questions and more general observations about this slowly evolving fruitful collaboration. With this added qualitative commentary the map looks so much more informative and self-explanatory than a map that just consists of actors and links.

Podcast on Maize and Chicken in Ethiopia

“Wow, we learned more about chicken than we ever asked for…” my colleague David Spielman joked after a week of Net-Mapping poultry and maize innovation systems in Ethiopia. You can listen to the (more serious) rest of the discussion by clicking on the media player below (or here) . The project is still in progress, so the case study is not completed yet – but I will up-date you as we go.

Looking for free and easy SNA software

I use Visualyzer for visualizing and analyzing my Net-Maps and I love it. But while there is a free trial version, in the end it is a software that you have to purchase. As I want to further spread SNA literacy in developing countries, I am looking for free software that is at least as user friendly as Visualyzer, which means having a rather intuitive and visual user interface. Any recommendations?

Give and take

I am so excited! By posting the invitation to our Net-Map training on the email lists of MandE (Rick Davies’ great Monitoring and Evaluation platform) and KM4Dev (Knowledge Management for Development) I have spurred an absolutely unexpected wave of reactions. We offer the option to participate in the workshop online and I have received applications from as diverse countries as Zimbabwe, Nepal, UK and Bangladesh. But what really thrills me are the answers to my questions: “What is your background, have you used social network analysis and/or participatory approaches before, how do you think you will use Net-Map in your work?”

I get the feeling that we will have a group of students, scholars and practitioners with a diverse range of practical and academic experiences and I believe that I will learn about as much from my participants as they will from me. And, as some of those interested in the training live in really incompatible time zones (Who wants to be in the office 3 a.m. to attend a seminar?), have unreliable internet access or busy schedules, we are planning to record the workshop and burn it on CD for those who could not attend.

Why the prospect of meeting these diverse participants online and off-line excites me? Because, of three hypothesis about innovativeness of networks and the points where innovation happens in the network:

The strength of weak ties (A classic, here (429 K) a paper where Granovetter revisits his own argument): You get your new ideas/contacts/perspectives from those people you don’t interact with every day (your closest friends and colleagues will have a very similar knowledge and contacts as you have, as you have spent so much time exchanging information already).

Innovativeness of heterogeneous networks: Most networks have a tendency to mature towards a state of homogeneousness. That’s great for stability but a killer for innovation, because no-one is there to challenge your beliefs or cross unusual thoughts to breed new ideas.

Innovativeness through networks with open fringes, that are dynamic over time: A network that can accommodate and release members in a flexible way over time, will be able to learn from the freshness of their experience and maintain a regular influx of new ideas and new connections.

By the way, a great post on the art of having innovative ideas: “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” by Mark Gould