Do social networks help farmers detect cattle disease? And what does that have to do with you?

Could you tell if they were healthy or sick? (copyright by MotleyPrincess on flickr)

The reason why I love teaching is that the most interesting effects don’t happen in the classroom but afterward, sometimes even years later. One of my first assignments as independent consultant three years ago was to teach an introduction to Social Network Analysis at the International Lifestock Research Institute in Kenya. Yesterday I received an email from a participant with his newest publication on the way that social networks influence farmer’s ability to detect cattle disease.

And I love research that finds out the unexpected: People with just a high number of links in the community don’t have a high knowledge about trypanosomosis – they just know what everybody in the community already knows, repeating the same old same old. Because the knowledge needed is not so much home grown but brought into the community from the outside, it is crucial to connect to those more marginal actors who bring in new knowledge.

What? You are not a farmer in Africa, you don’t even own cattle? Think about your own (technical, work, religious, family) community. Just interacting a lot with the same people at the core of your network might be comforting because you know what they will tell you and you feel important and supported by them – but if you want to be the one who brings in new ideas, go out of your comfort zone, connect with the people at the fringe (or outside) of your network and see what they have to say.

And if you are interested in learning more about the farmer’s ability to detect and control trypanosomosis, here is an abstract of the paper:

Impact of social networks on cattle farmers’ knowledge of animal trypanosomosis and its control

Hippolyte Affognon, Der Dabiré, Issa Sidibé and Thomas Randolph

Although there is increasing emphasis on farmer-led extension in rural development and the power of word-of-mouth and social networks for the spread of knowledge and information, few studies have been conducted at farmers’ level to understand the impact a social network has on farmers’ knowledge. This study was undertaken to explore the relationship between a cattle farmer’s position in a community and his or her level of knowledge on animal trypanosomosis and its control. Data were collected through a knowledge, attitude and practices (KAP) survey by use of a questionnaire in four randomly selected villages in the commune of Solenzo in Burkina Faso. A social network at farmer level was constructed that included all cattle farmers in each village. Descriptive analysis and a linear regression model were used to analyze the data. Results showed that the power of a cattle farmer for catching whatever is flowing through the network as information, measured as his degree centrality, is negatively associated with knowledge on animal trypanosomosis and its control. However, a person’s strategic connection to the most marginal people, but exceptional in a specific knowledge in a community — a concept better reflected by a person’s betweenness centrality — is positively associated with knowledge.

Is your most annoying opponent really the most dangerous one?

Is this a mosquito? (picture by cheetah100 on flickr)

I have started interviews for my innovation networks study, trying to understand how a new idea materializes and becomes real world change. I am looking at the whole political process you have to go through, building coalitions, spotting and dealing with opposition etc. And while every innovation story is different, I do see some common patterns emerge. One interesting person is the really annoying nay-sayer. Someone who sees their own glory threatened if you are successful, prefers a different solution to the problem, or just thinks that any kind of change is a pain.

The innovation pushers can spend a lot of time and energy being annoyed about them, complaining, building them up as the common enemy. But the interesting insight comes when setting up influence towers and considering: How strongly can this person actually influence that we implement our innovation? And I am surprised to see that some of these people who get a lot of attention end up being of rather marginal importance to the whole project success. Maybe they are like the mosquito in the room, that won’t kill you but can really really distract you.

Now the challenge is: How do you figure out early on whether the person who tries to stop you is a mosquito or a lion? And how can you develop the discipline to react appropriately, focus a lot of attention on potential lions and ignore the mosquitos? This is one of the few monents when you will hear me say: Don’t just blindly follow your gut feeling. Because we all react to certain triggers and the fact that someone is unpleasant, inappropriately competitive or you just can’t stand them, says little about whether or not they actually would have the power to stop you or not. There seem to be two steps to the assessment: Your gut feeling will (most often) tell you who to watch. Then take a step back and ask yourself: In the worst case scenario, what could this person do to stop us? Do they have formal veto power? Do they have access to someone who does? What other strategies could they succesfully employ?

Once you know whether this opposition is crucial to the success of your innovation, you can start thinking about strategies. If your opponent could have a potentially detrimental impact, you should do something and there are basically two directions you can take: Embrace or fight (well, the third option is ignore – but then you are giving the other person control over the situation).

Embrace: Understand the underlying motivations and see if you can find an overlap. Can you do something about their fear (of change), need for recognition, feeling of exclusion? Can you adapt the content of your innovation to integrate some of their ideas or can you change the public appearance to give credit to them in one way of the other? Can you strike a deal: I support yours and you support mine? Do you have a strategy to ease the disruption that change will bring to their work? Often these strategies are enough to defuse the bomb and they tend to cost much less energy and create less damage than a confrontative approach.

If they don’t work for the other person or for you, be strategic in the fight you are looking at: Who in the network is influential and on your side already? Any powerful people who are still sitting on the fence? Who are the people both you and the naysayer are connected to? Can you pull them toward your position? What are the missing links and actors in your innovation network?

Now while I encourage you not to spend too much energy on the mosquitos, not to obsess about them, I will say: Keep an eye on them. Check every once and again to make sure they didn’t become more influential without your knowledge.

Net-Mapping for Common Ground: Churches and the LGBT community

One of our participants of the Net-Map certification coures last week mapped out the question: “Who can influence a greater inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Mennonite church?” For everyone involved that is an emotional issue, no matter what stand you take. And it is one of these issues where it is easy to demonize the other side. There is one step in the standard Net-Map procedure where you write the goal of the actor next to the actor and I encourage people to write it in a simple and clear way if possible. In this case it was obvious: Are they for or against more inclusion…

But strangely, writing plusses and minuses next to actor names didn’t seem to do us any good: It didn’t tell us anything new about this situation and didn’t help us explore possible next steps. So I proposed something else: Next to each actor, write their goals in a few words in the way that they would state them. That was a greater challenge: Writing the goals of your opponents in a positive way. And, at least for the moment of writing them down, considering that they might have a point, or, at least, that their intentions might not be all evil. So we found out that on both sides of the argument, there are some groups who are strongly interestes in “unity of the church”. And that there are some that are interested in learning how to deal with diversity in the congregation in general. So instead of feeling: “These guys are not fighting for us, so they are against us.” we started searching for common ground from which we could explore further steps…

If you want to read more about the issue itself, you could start here, on LGTB Mennonite activist sites: Gay Mennonite League, The Brethren Mennonite Coucil for LGBT Interests and read this article on beliefnet which sheds a light at the discussion without taking one of the positions. And if you want to see how this kind of discussion can explode between people who hold different positions, read the comments on this article on a gay pastor’s removal in the Mennonite Weekly.