Quote of the day: About social networks and being poor – or not being poor

“I don’t have much by way of possessions, a lady riding the bus to Montgomery once told me. But, she said, I do have a lot of belongings. I belong to my family, my people, my church. And they belong to me. With all the mouths I feed, she continued, looking out the window, I won’t lie to you – I could use one of them big houses. But don’t never, ever let anybody tell you that you’re poor. In the eyes of the world, maybe, she said. You just keep looking through your own eyes.”

from: Traveling Light – On the Road with America’s Poor, by Kath Weston, 2008.

How can we make this less boring?

10-22-09_1338 Today I met with Natalie Campbell, who works for Management Sciences for Health and was really interested in how to best map out the relationships between their communications group and the rest of the organization. If we start with the picture of a traditional communications group, which mainly serves as a hub in a hub-and-spoke network, we get this rather straightforward (did I hear anyone say boring?) map.

It shows how it is supposed to be, the formal and expected lines, the communication group gives information to every other department. But even in a situation like this, there is much more to this story than just a factory assembly line. So how can we tell a more interesting story about this knowledge distribution unit?

How about this:

10-22-09_1342 Look at how well the communication goes and use normal lines for so-so, thick lines for excellent and dotted lines for really bad.

The next thing you might realize is this:

10-22-09_1345 You communicate about different things with different people. In this case the red lines are communication about events and the black lines are communication about tools. As you can see, with some departments you communicate about both, sometimes you might have, for example, very strong communication about tools and very meager communication about events or the other way round.

But what does it mean, when you say THE DEPARTMENT communicates? Right, it means that Peter, Paul and Mary, your staff members, communicate, and each of them might be involved in their own specific way.

10-22-09_1350 And by looking at their different roles and how they interact with each other and the rest of the organization, you might learn a lot about the specific strengths and weaknesses you are facing.

As you can see, the department is here represented by a circle with the staff members as individual actor cards and links are drawn

  • within the department between communication staff
  • between individual communication staff and other departments and
  • between the communication department as a whole and other departments.

But maybe it’s not enough to just see how strongly different actors communicate. You want to know more about how and why:

10-22-09_1353 So you add explanations to the links, so that just when you look at the picture you can see what the major story lines are: Is the communication between two departments weak because of a fight or because they don’t need to communicate much to fulfill their roles? Is there intense communication with another department because of a personal friendship, because of a specific event they plan together etc.?

And finally, after getting a more detailed map of the status quo, let’s talk about your vision:

10-23-09_0934Do you want to continue with this hub and spoke model of a network? Or would you prefer the departments to communicate more with each other? Are their other issues (colors of lines) that you want to communicate about? Are there some weak links that you would like to strengthen? Who within your department or from the other departments could help you there? What is a good strategy to get from the situation as is to this vision of a denser, less centralized network?


Isn’t it strange, how the internet changes our offline life? I’ve moved into my neighborhood (Capitol Hill in Washington DC – also called “parentville”, because the baby-less are a small minority) a year and a half ago. And while I enjoyed the fact that people great you on the street right away, I didn’t feel like I was part of a neighborhood, I just lived in a house that was located in this area of town.

Now since I joined the majority (read: since I had my baby), I have also joined an online parenting group for this neighborhood, MOTH (Moms on the Hill) and that made all the difference. Through the listserve I learn about lost teddy bears and dogs, free baby stuff on the porch, about burglaries and yard sales in my neighborhood and all of a sudden have 3000 mommy and daddy “friends” that I can ask for advice when my baby doesn’t sleep through the night and that I can invite for “home office blues lunch” if I’m missing the company of office mates. And since I am on this list, I do feel like I am at home in this neighborhood and I meet people I know (from the list) when baby and I go for walks.

I find it fascinating, how on the internet geographical origin explicitly does not matter but still it can help to develop something so extremely location specific as a neighborhood. Do you have similar experiences, where online and offline enrich each other?

How to discuss a bowl of spaghetti?

In an email exchange Roberta Amaral, who is preparing a Portuguese version of the Net-Map manual, asked: “How do you discuss a messy map at the end of an interview?”

What you need to do to work the network magic is to take all this abundance of detail and simplify it by adding focus and teasing out the structure and negotiating meaning. You have been there during the interview so your are not just working with the spaghetti (the messy drawn network) but you can use the discussion that led to this drawing to guide you towards an understanding of the most important points. Practice makes perfect, so the more often you do this, the better you can read the structure and find the crucial issues in the qualitative discussion.

But what do you look out for?

Look for everything that doesn’t make sense. For example the well connected actor with no influence. It sure will make sense once you asked your why questions. But the sense might be completely different from what you expected. Follow your gut feeling: If you don’t understand it, it means at least that you need more explanation to get it. But very often there is more to these confusing points than just a matter of content that needs to be clarified.

Look for the extremes: High density and gaps in the network, most and least influential actors, ask more questions about them, what does it mean for the achievement of your goals that there is a gap, that these actors have no power at all, that there is so much interaction etc. There is no ideal network density that fits for all situations so the question is always: Does it work here? Who benefits?

Ask for trouble: Ask your interview partners to help you focus by asking questions like: Where are the most important stumbling blocks in this network? Where is an entry point for corruption? Where is it most likely that the communication chain will break down? Which actors have a conflict of interest?