Who tortures whom?

If you draw a Net-Map to understand who influences the passing and implementation of anti-torture policies in the Philipines, it might not be enough to draw links that reflect advocacy, formal lines of command or flows of money. Torture in the Phillipines was one of the examples that participants of my Net-Map training with Nedwork (http://www.nedworc.org) in Utrecht used. And one of the links they drew was: “Who tortures whom?”

I encourage users to make the different links they draw as diverse as possible, to include formal and informal, and, if it makes sense, material and imaterial flows. Normally when I think of material flows, that is money, seeds, products (as compared to information, orders, policy pressure). Somehow the torture link also feels like it is a material flow, one actor in the network gives this product to another one… Does that make any sense?

Drawing the torture link made a lot of sense. The participants were interested in understanding how the advocacy of perpetrators and opponents of torture affects the system. But to understand these advocacy networks, it was crucial to anchor them in the actual torture network. As you can see in the picture, we used two different colors for the influence towers: Red are those who use their influence towards continuing torture, while the white towers are the influence of those who fight against it.

The lady who drew the network was a foreigner engaged in the anti-torture advocacy. It would be incredibly interesting to draw networks about this question with people in country, especially because of the kind of discussion and deeper insights (deeper than the network picture) everyone in the room could gather. But, on the other hand it is definitely one of these questions where I would be extremely wary to invite people for a group mapping (it is easier to create a safe space in individual interviews) and where the interviewer does not just need to know the method well but also has to know the country, the situation and have a good sense of how far you can go before you are going too far.


The Knowledge Management Impact Challenge

How can you measure the impact of knowledge management? “It’s not easy-o” as my Ghanaian friends would say. But how can we make any claims that it is actually worth the money and time and effort if all we can say is that “X number of people attended the workshop” or “we printed and distributed Y number of reports”? We have to do better than that. Tracking how formal and informal networks evolve over time is one way of approaching this. Especially if you also track your target population’s networks: Where do they go for information? And add a qualitative component to your inquiry, asking what they learn, whose information they trust and how knowing this has changed their work or their life.

I’m looking forward to the results of USAID’s KM Impact Challenge and maybe I will find your project among the stories they collect. This is from their website:

“About The Challenge
Many of us are trying to find ways to effectively measure and demonstrate the results of our investments in knowledge and learning. The Knowledge Management Impact Challenge aims to accelerate this discovery process by gathering and exchanging stories of what works and what doesn’t.

We invite you to share your story by January 30, 2011!

Early Entry Award: Submit a short story of 1200 words or fewer by December 31, 2010, to be eligible for a USD $1,000 professional development grant.

Challenge Awards: Five case story authors will receive travel awards to share their experience at the upcoming KM Impact Challenge unConference.

By sharing a story, you can raise the visibility of your work and contribute to a growing global knowledge base of good practice. We invite you to explore the collection of online resources in the Library and welcome contributions of your favorite publications and tools to share with colleagues around the world.”

Remember what it’s all about

Sometimes people ask me what situation you can use Net-Map in and the answer is, honestly, any situation where you have multiple actors with various goals and different formal and informal links that are somehow involved. So I sometimes end up facilitating group sessions where everybody but me is an expert on the issue and my job is mainly to give them the structure and stay out of the way.

That gives me this strange feeling that is very similar to my occasional dreams of flying. I have asked a lot of people about their flying dreams and people dream-fly in many different ways, so let me tell you, how I fly: I fly close to the ground, it’s like diving with fins on your feet and being able to breathe normally. So, when I facilitate a Net-Map session that is not in my area of expertise, I am just slightly detached, flying, but still close enough to see that wonderful things happen in the group. Because even if they have lost me content-wise, it is still obvious from the group dynamics and excitement that they have great learning experiences, major breakthroughs or cleared up long lasting misunderstandings.

I enjoy my dreams of flying and I am thrilled by the way Net-Map works, even if the facilitator is just the method master and all content and passion for a solution comes from the group. But I also love to stand with both feet firmly on the ground and sometimes it is so important to remember what it is all about and not just think of actors and links and structural incentives for performance or corruption etc. I’m involved in a number of public health and nutrition projects at the moment and this morning I did some reading around about these issues, stumbled about this article about plumpy’nut and was reminded what it’s all about: Feeding babies in Africa (in this case). Or at least, as I am not going to move my kitchen back to Africa any time soon: Helping people who want to feed babies in Africa do it better.

Who is good at qualitative network analysis?

I’m struggling with this. And learning while I struggle. Have you been in situations, where you know intuitively what you are doing and it works wonderfully and then you try to teach someone, hire someone to do the same and you just can’t explain it? It’s hit and miss, either they get it or not… Qualitative network analysis is one of these things. So let me try to tell you how I think it works and you can see if that makes sense:

You collect network data in a way that involves collecting network narratives (stories about how the network works) and a visual representation of the network.

You look at the network picture, take the network narratives as an important source of answers to the questions “How?” and “Why?” and try to say something about how network structures are linked to network performance. Not by calculating indicators but by understanding the structural logic of the network.

What do you need to be able to do this well? I have found that it is a combination of training and network intuition. Let’s start with the training. You need to know how to handle qualitative data, which is something you can be trained in. And I have found that training in quantitative network analysis greatly helps in being able to detect patterns and structural issues, even if you don’t do the actual quantitative analysis. If you know what eigenvector centrality is, you will start to look for actors who are connected to the well connected.

But what is network intuition? With my colleague Noora Aberman, who does a lot of the in-country trainings at the moment, I have tried to figure out why it is that some people just “get it” immediately whereas for others learning Net-Map is like swimming up-river. It seems to be a rather fundamental difference, not so much grounded in the training that people had but much more in their general view of the world.

Some people see the world as a networked place where structures are very relevant to determine outcomes, where power is an important ingredient structuring human interaction. When they tell you two stories, they will often think about what was the common thread and what you can learn from this for similar situations. But even though they believe in the importance of structures they don’t necessarily believe it’s as simple as A+B=C and often struggle with determining simple straightforward causalities. When they get in contact with social network analysis for the first time, there is this beautiful moment, when there is a spark in their eyes and they say: “This is how I have seen the world all along, I just didn’t have the language for it.” Then they are hooked.

In our trainings we have met (very simplified, obviously) two other types, who found it much more difficult to master Net-Map and use it to it’s full potential. And that is, again, mainly because of their general view of the world. One group are the very qualitatively oriented, people who tell you two stories and are acutely aware of all the differences between them. If you talk about structures they feel like you are generalizing too much, not taking into account the specific issues that just concern this actor in this moment in time. I have some colleagues who love using Net-Map as a tool to allow interview partners to tell them their story in all necessary detail and would prefer not doing anything with the map afterwards, because for them it has served it’s purpose already. The map doesn’t tell them anything.

On the other end of the spectrum I meet very quantitatively oriented people, who initially get very excited about Net-Map (and social network analysis in general) because they expect that it will help them deal with complexity and give them a formula to compute it and finally say the answer is 42. Or: This is the most important actor in the network. Just from the quantitative indicators. No matter what individual sits on this chair, the network position of the chair determines how the person will act. They get excited when we start looking into the quantitative network indicators. But when they ask me: “What is the best value of XY centrality” I have to tell them “That depends…” Often when I work with people who have this more quantitative mindset, they find it easier to detect the network structures in the picture – but more difficult to elicit the narrative we need and to digest it’s whole richness, instead of just thinking about the fact that A is linked to B.

My very practical concern at the moment: How do you find out whether someone will have a talent for qualitative network analysis BEFORE you go through the effort of training them?

It’s OK to compete! Just let it all out…

There is a common thread that comes up again and again in the last weeks. I talk with people in HIV prevention, infant feeding, nutrition etc. and they tell me about fierce competition between some organizations for having the “one right solution” that solves the problem once and for all. A lot of energy goes into distinguishing yourself from people with other solutions and proving that they are incompatible and maybe even plain wrong (evil?).

It leaves me confused because one would think there is a bigger “common enemy” out there, e.g. “childhood malnutrition” and in theory most agree that you would get furtherest if you worked together on a solution. And to the uninitiated outsider the differences between the various solutions often seem marginal as compared with their commonalities – like the difference between Colgate and Sensodyne toothpaste, which may have some different ingredients and effects but mainly, let’s face it, are some kind of paste you use to keep your teeth clean. Using either of them will get you much better results than not brushing your teeth or brushing them with Nutella.

Now when Colgate and Sensodyne compete, no one will bat and eyelid if they found out that these brands are competing for the consumer’s money. It’s called healthy competition and we hope it will get them to make their products better or cheaper or maybe even both.

Now imagine the people development organizations could sit down and plainly, without guilty feelings say: “One of the reasons we disagree is that there is limited funding in our field and if we want to survive as an organization, as an approach, we need to convince the people with the money that our approach is the best.” Sounds straightforward and logical to me. But I see all kinds of NGO coordination bodies and other multi-stakeholder forums, where we have to pretend that there is no competition about money or visibility. So the structures are set up ignoring one of the most important incentives. And, surprisingly (really?) they fail to deliver.

I’m convinced that it would get you further if you could say to your competi-collaborators: “I know we compete about this. I also know we would get further on XY in collaboration. How can we work together so that we achieve our individual and collective goals?”

You might not find a way to keep your cake and eat it. But at least you won’t find yourself caught in an unexpected cake fight that leaves no slice of the cake for your clients.

How important is it to draw the network correctly?

Very. And not at all.

This is a revelation I had when using Net-Map as a tool to help a group of colleagues have an in-depth discussion about a complex challenge in their work. So this is about Net-Map as facilitation tool more than Net-Map as tool for collecting network data you will analyze later.

If you want to have the group really get down to the core of the matter, make them explore their differences and be specific about the networks, it is crucial that they want the network to be an absolutely correct representation of how the problem is structured. Because that makes them disagree with each other, explain the reasons for the disagreement and thus get a more in-depth understanding of how others see it and finally, through these struggles get to a common understanding (mostly).

On the other hand, if you use Net-Map as a facilitation tool (and won’t analyze the data afterwards), you really don’t care how they draw the links and if each and everyone of them is correct and complete. For you as a facilitator it’s really “Whatever works for the group”. What does that mean? If it “works” for the group, it get’s them talking about the real issues at hand and they are happy with the way the picture visualizes their views of the situation.

Once you have mastered the method to a degree that you can be playful with it, this is a really important understanding. Because it will guide how you use it with groups: Encourage them to really care for drawing the correct network (while explaining their reasoning to each other). But be flexible when something doesn’t seem to work for them or they (or you) can come up with a shortcut, just go along with it.

For example, in this last session we (the organizers and I) had pre-defined links and one was “request for approval”. The group spent half an hour discussing what that meant and how approval works between two interacting matrix organizations. We weren’t getting anywhere or drawing any links, so I called for a brief coffee break (coffee breaks are a very important facilitation tool… I have mastered them allright…).

Afterward I proposed that instead of drawing an extreme spaghetti network of overlapping approval links it might be enough to write “app” next to the three top dogs who give final approval and move on to the next more interesting link… I don’t think the half hour before the break was wasted, because it was important for the group to get a deeper understanding of the complexities of leadership in this case. The only thing that didn’t make sense was to force them to draw the links when the discussion revealed that it would mean a lot of work without obvious benefit (increased clarity).

In that same session we did a lot of “putting actors in bubbles”, e.g. drawing a line around everyone who is in a certain division of an organization. Then some links connected to the actor, others to the bubble. That’s a pain if you try to find a way of entering it into social network analysis software. But it’s a great and straightforward way of structuring a map for discussion and getting a more correct picture of reality.

That’s one of the great things about mastering something. You know the rules so well that you can start to play with them.