Is process management just something for control freaks?

Sometimes misunderstandings in conversations seem to be my main learning opportunity. Maybe that’s one benefit of working in a context where I am not a native speaker…  Today I presented Net-Map to my colleagues at AffinityLab and in the discussion afterward I said something about how great this tool would work for managing processes. What I didn’t realize was that a lot of people think of the following, when they hear process management:

A higher level, non-involved entity (for example “the” management) looks at problems from a social engineering perspective and comes up with a set of strict and not very useful rules that everyone else has to follow with the goal of standardizing processes – but often with the effect of increasing bureaucracy and decreasing motivation and problem solving capacity.

Net-Map is not a good tool to do this. And even if it was, I’d say: Don’t! Because, why would anyone want to do that???

So how can you use Net-Map as a process tool? What I was thinking of is this: At the beginning of a longer strategic process (maybe a project implementation, a product development or a organizational change process) you invite those involved and impacted to an initial Net-Map session to develop a baseline map and discuss the following questions:

  • Where do we want to go from here?
  • What do we need to do to get there?

You would discuss both your content goals and what strategic changes in the existing network might help you get there. Are there links that need to be strengthened or abandoned? Do we need to add more partners? What are coalitions, bottlenecks, potential and actual conflicts and what do we do about them? Who can do what to get us to a better future situation?

After that you go back to work and do whatever the purpose of your group or organization is. After some time, you get together again and draw a map of how it looks now: Some of your networking plans of the first round worked out and you see changes just like you predicted. In other areas achievements were more difficult. In the process you might have realized that some of your initial strategies were naive or counter-productive, that you didn’t understand the importance of some actors who became more central to the cause etc. Everyone involved was encouraged to adapt their strategies according to the learning that took place and in can explain in the second round of mapping how we got where we are and what we now need to do to get to the next level. While you compare the network plans with the actual network you have developed, this is not a simple assessment process that would focus on the achievement of pre-defined network goals.

If you start a process like that, you are saying: I trust my partners/employees that they are motivated to do their best and that together we can come up with better solutions than any individual could. But you also say: Let’s check in periodically to see if we are still on track and explore how we can think together and make sure we don’t get lost in networking for the sole purpose of networking.

Net-Map paper in Field Methods Journal

This paper focuses on how the method works, both for data collection and for facilitation of processes. If you are a regular at this blog, you know it all, but you’ll be glad to have it all in a condensed, quotable fashion.

Net-Map: Collecting Social Network Data and Facilitating Network Learning through Participatory Influence Network Mapping”, by Eva Schiffer and Jennifer Hauck, Field Methods, August 2010.

I’m going to the office now!

I know, for many of you that’s nothing to write home (or a blog post) about and for some it might be just the daily drag… But after two years of working from the sofa-bed-kitchen-table-home-office, let me tell you, having to get properly dressed to go to work feels great. And having colleagues. But no boss. What better workplace could there be?

As of this month I am a member of the Affinity Lab, a shared workspace, where people like me (and maybe like you) can rent desk space at affordable rates and work in a room full of people like me. Or, even better, unlike me. Because we know from social network analysis 101 that heterogeneous networks are best for innovation. Ok, you need a bit of similarity as well, otherwise it’s difficult to actually develop and maintain connections. So when I first came here and told the manager Phillipe Chetrit, what I do for a living, he was excited. He immediately got why it is interesting, without knowing yet how it works. Next week I will give a brown bag seminar for my co-workers here and see who shares the excitement even after understanding how it works. So, if you work from home and you are ready to strangle your cat, geraniums or husband, I can highly recommend finding a little desk space somewhere away from cats, geraniums and husband.

Who to involve in before-after-monitoring Net-Maps

I’m working with Alive & Thrive, a Gates Foundation funded project to improve young infant and child nutrition in a number of third world countries. Net-Map is part of the monitoring and evaluation component that is led by IFPRI. The question we are looking at at the moment is: If the project aims at changing the networks related to infant nutrition, how can we monitor if it actually does. And who do we need to ask to figure this out.

The initial intuitive approach is to ask those people who are knowledgeable about the issue and the existing networks now and ask them again towards the end of the project. But looking at it more closely I realized: One of the goals of the project is get groups and individuals involved who are not interested in the issue as of now. Sure, if you ask the experts now and in three years, they might say that these marginal actors have become more involved. But you would get a so much brighter picture if you ask the marginal actors now (when they have a rather fuzzy vision of the network and place themselves at the fringes) and after the intervention (when, hopefully, they know much more about how the network works and put themselves in a more defined position). So even though the before interviews with marginal actors will be confusing, not very efficient and lead to little reliable data about how the network works at the moment, you need exactly these unclear pictures from the beginning of the project to be able to show afterward that you did have an impact on their involvement and network knowledge. And if these interviews are additional to the core actor interviews, you will still get a pretty good picture of the before and after network as a whole.

In my typical “learn more about a network in short time” projects I would recommend only interviewing people who are knowledgeable about the network and stop the snowballing when the answers start getting boring (saturation point). But for monitoring and evaluation purposes I might have to re-think this recommendation. So my working recommendation now would be: Interview some overview experts / highly involved actors and interview those whose network position and network perception you want to change. Get a combined network picture for before and after from your highly involved actors. But also compare the individual before and after networks of your target population.