Different kinds of animals

I’m just off skype with my colleague Allison Hewlitt and our discussion about the different networks we work in and work with has left a door open in my mind. I don’t quite know what’s behind this door but I have started thinking. About what? About different kinds of animals. We are part of and work with a number of professional networks…

  • Some of them completely internally driven, spontaneous, undefined and in flux. These networks exist because we have met, worked together, attended conferences together etc. and feel like it would be helpful one way or the other, to stay in touch.
  • Others exist because someone from outside said: A network approach would help to solve this problem, provided funding, structures, opportunities, maybe facilitators to get and keep the network going.

And then there is a huge area in-between with all different stages of “internally-drivenness” and external support.

Both Allison and I are familiar with a number of initiated networks in developing countries, that fall into the purposefully designed, externally funded and facilitated category. And while we talked about the various challenges these networks face, I realized that – without thinking about it – I try to apply what I learned in my self-motivated spontaneous networks to the externally facilitated ones. Which leads to a lot of frustration, because basically they are two very different kinds of animals.

“Why don’t network members take more responsibility, why do they only come to meetings if we pay per-diems, even though the meetings are for their own benefit, why does little happen if it is not initiated by the donors?” It’s easy to go from frustration to accusations and a paternalistic view of the network partners. But maybe that doesn’t make sense and leads to no increased understanding or improved solutions.

Let’s look at it from another angle: A group of organizations or individuals works together, where one member of this group controls most of the resources and has set most of the rules for interaction right at the beginning. This is basically a hierarchical structure – even without a formal hierarchical organigram. So maybe the less resourceful network members react to what they perceive as the actual power situation they find themselves in – instead of following a network metaphor. This is not to say that donors and facilitators intentionally dominate the network. But it’s important to realize that the good intention to develop an egalitarian network might not be enough.

So what would network members have to do in such a situation, how can you facilitate / allow /encourage that all members in an externally initiated and funded network get a true sense of ownership and responsibility? Any ideas? Experiences of success (or failure) that we could learn from?

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