Pressure moving through a multiplex network

I get more and more convinced that we need to know the whole story to understand what happens in a network, the links are just the bones and without a discussion of their meaning, we often go so wrong in interpreting them. For example, think about about how influence  – or pressure – can move through a network, using all different kinds of links as vehicles. In a network where we map out the flows of funding, lines of formal authority, links of political pressure (as the threat of mobilizing public opinion) it can work like this:

A civil society group uses political pressure on a donor pushing for a certain theme that the civil society group identifies with. The donor uses funding to influence government behavior in this issue. Government uses the formal lines of authority to actually implement the change. Only by drawing a multiplex network (different kinds of links) and getting an explanation from people who know the field, you can get the whole story.

How can you grow without becoming McDonalds?

Viv McWater’s blog is one of the places I go to for inspiration. And she got me again. This time with her thoughts about scaling talent, which means (as I understand) making the impact of talent felt on a level that is higher or bigger than the talented individual. She quotes Joel Spolsky comparing Big Macs and The Naked Chef and gives us this to think about:

  1. Some things need talent to do really well.
  2. It’s hard to scale talent.
  3. One way people try to scale talent is by having the talent create rules for the untalented to follow.
  4. The quality of the resulting product is very low.

Cheat Sheet: Entering Net-Map data

Yesterday I prepared this one page guide to entering Net-Map data (236 KB) in an Excel file, so that it’s easy to import into VisuaLyzer or other social network analysis programs. I wrote this up for our IFPRI colleagues in Malawi, who are drawing Net-Maps with policy makers and others about fertilizer subsidies to understand how research can have a bigger effect on policy makers. But I know that the question of data management occurs in most projects when you use this method (unless you just want to draw and discuss, which sometimes is also enough), so let me share it here.

Difficult Decisions

I’m normally someone to make decisions in a heartbeat, stick with them and generally speaking, fare rather well with that approach. I have a number of friends though, who labor – endlessly it seems – over decisions and just can’t make up their minds. And, lately, I have found myself doing quite a bit of back and forth about some decisions as well. So, I have asked myself: What kind of decisions are that and why are they so difficult.

You’d think the most difficult decisions are those where there is a lot at stake and some options will lead to very good or very bad outcomes. And that is indeed what it feels like while you’re investigating al the pros and cons and trying to figure out which option will kill you.

But… take a step back and have another look and you’ll find out that while most of these questions are indeed about very important issues, the paralysis often stems from the fact that none of the options is optimal and none is detrimental. The results will be so-so-ok, no matter which one you choose. And the fact that in a lot of the crucial life decisions you could (after eliminating some really bad options) basically flip a coin, drives us so crazy that we rather go into overdrive trying to find the one argument that tells us why one solution is the “right” one.

So, the next time you can’t make up your mind for the life of you, just consider that it might be because all options are similarly good/bad, pick one and get going.

Two afterthoughts:
1. These kinds of decisions (important issues but many so-so-ok options) tend to be the ones that some people start fighting crusades for after finally making up their minds – as a way of convincing themselves and others in the face of insecurity that on this very important issue they did the right thing.

2. Often the really crucial decision in these cases is between making up your mind and doing something on the one hand and continuing to obsess and doing nothing on the other. So, ironically, in the frantic search for all the last facts to make sure you really do the right thing, you might be making the one possible bad decision – delaying action till it’s too late.

(Picture by Loriot)

Shake ’em…

SID_1Imagine putting 60 people in a box and shaking it like crazy. Then you walk away and have no idea what will happen next.

That’s the feeling I had after an exciting Net-Mapping session with a group of development and knowledge management professionals at our SID workshop last Tuesday. I had warned the participants beforehand that the experience would be like ordering a great 5 course meal and any time the waitress comes with another course, she will set the plate down, let you try a few bites and run back to the kitchen to bring the next course before you even really appreciated the one in front of you. Squeezing a presentation (10.4 MB) and a practical Net-Map experience in 1 1/2 hours meant that we had to do a lot of squeezing…

So I was amazed at how well it worked. We had everyone sit around tables of six, one person would volunteer a real or fictional case and the rest would be the interviewers, asking the questions of:

  • Who is involved (write it on actor cards and distribute on map)
  • How are they linked (define and draw formal and informal links in different colors)
  • What are their goals (note next to actor card)
  • How influential are they (add influence towers to actor cards)

SID_2Then I let my inner drill sergeant take over and moved the group through these steps in less than an hour. At the end I asked every table to formulate the one most interesting or surprising thing they learned through this exercise:  Some participants talked more about the method and it’s possible applications, others talked about the way they had gathered a new understanding of a burning problem they face in their work situation or the political landscape of their field, but everyone seemed to have gotten some new insight out of it.

But in this short and intense period of time, there wasn’t enough space and focus to be able to look at the individual cases in more detail and as we rushed through the learning experiences of each table, there was a lot left unsaid. So, as I said, I felt like shaking this whole room full of people with no idea what this will lead to… I’m curious to hear if any of the ideas that people got during the exercise or after having slept on it, will grow into something…

SID_3(all pictures by SID Washington, more here)

Quote of the day

“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” Abraham Lincoln

Reminder: Learn Net-Map tomorrow in DC

It will be wild and fast and frustrating. We have far too little time but still want to do everything. So, what it will be in the end is a (substantial) starter to make wet your appetite for the main course. As it says in the invitation:

“Influence Mapping of Social Networks – A presentation about the Net-Map Toolkit”
An event hosted by the Society for International Development (SID) Washington DC Knowledge Management Workgroup

Date: Tuesday November 10, 2009
Time: 12:30pm – 2pm

Venue: International Resources Group (IRG)
Address: 1211 Connecticut Avenue NW; Suite 700; Washington, DC
Please note that there is no webinar associated with this presentation.

On November 10, join a hands-on session of the Knowledge Management workgroup to experience social network mapping in an international development context. The Net-Map Toolkit, developed by Eva Schiffer, is an easy-to-use and low-cost mapping tool that helps people understand, visualize, and discuss situations in which many different actors influence outcomes. Net-Map can be applied for diverse purposes such as improving governance, identifying linkages among actors in a given network, or “simply” bringing out in the open participants’ tacit knowledge of a certain situation. Eva will provide examples of using the method to improve communication in case of an avian influenza outbreak, to increase the impact of research on policy making and to develop common strategies in multi-stakeholder natural resource management. After the interactive presentation participants will be invited to share their thoughts on this approach in a general discussion.


Eva Schiffer

Independent consultant and developer of the Net-Map Toolkit.


Stacey Young

Senior Knowledge Management Advisor at USAID and Co-chair of the SID KM Workgroup.

Tony Pryor

Senior Manager at International Resources Group and Co-chair of the SID KM Workgroup.

It’s like magic! But what does it mean?

UNU Africa Networks consolidated no lable1I’ve been mapping networks for some years now but in the past months I have used a more traditional approach to social network analysis for the first time. In a project with the United Nations University, we (Nancy White and I) are tasked to find out how their networks are structured and to initiate a debate around improving networks for increasing impact in Africa.

As the UNU is spread around the globe, we chose not to visually map the networks, but send out network questionnaires, basically asking questions like:

  • Who of the people on this list have you ever interacted with?
  • Who of these people do you currently collaborate with?
  • Who would you like to work with but have not approached yet? etc.

The questionnaire was administered by the people at Cross Analytics (at 4 US$ per participant they did a pretty good job in terms of support etc.) and all I had to do was wait for the results to be delivered to me in the square matrix format I need to enter it into Visualyzer.

I was absolutely excited when I got the data because it did look like magic – out of the blue these interesting networks emerged and I could play around with them, exploring the structure, observing how they evolved over time and guessing what it all meant.

And that is the biggest difference between participatory network mapping and a survey approach: With the survey you get the network structure but little of the background, the how and why. Sure, you can add non-network questions to the survey to elaborate the background. But often I only see the questions emerging while I draw the network, which means that after analyzing the survey results, I have more questions than answers… Confused but on a higher level… In this case that doesn’t hurt: The survey is planned as a first step in a longer process and an entry point for discussion, so I will get to ask all my questions.

But how do researchers do it who only rely on one course of surveys? How do they find out what the network structures mean? Why doesn’t this drive them crazy?

Upcoming talk in DC (10th of November)

The Society for International Development in Washington DC will host another knowledge management event next week and they are giving me the chance to talk about Net-Map there. If you are interested, it’s a public brown bag seminar and it’s on the 10th of November, from 12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.. You can register here.