What is the best network structure?

It's easy: The one with the biggest trophy has to be the best - but how do you judge what's the best network structure? (Beauty contest winners, copyright by "What makes the Pie Shops Tick?" on Flickr)

That is THE question that my clients normally want me to answer. Tell us the best network structure and help us get there.

Today I exchanged emails with a colleague with whom I am involved in an evaluation project about knowledge flows and we found that in the same country and among very similar actors the information in one domain flows very much in a hierarchical, hub-and-spoke kind of fashion, the responsible Ministry sits in the middle and informs everyone else, mainly in one way communication. In the next domain the network is much more interconnected, while there are some more and some less connected actors, basically everyone has more than one source of information and there is much more exchange between actors on similar hierarchy levels.

Our intuitive initial reaction was: One structure has to be bad, the other one has to be good. And because of where we are comming from (our views of the world), we know that the hierarchical information distribution structure is bad and the interconnected web of information exchange is good. Now if we look beyond what we like or prefer for the sake of empowerment and just ask: How well suited are these structures to get the information where it should go, the picture is more mixed and I have to give an answer that you will hear from me whenever you ask me about what the best network structure is: That depends. Both structures have pros and cons.

The hierarchical structure where one central node controls all the information flow are great for distributing clear and undisputed information in an efficient and effective manner, everybody knows: I have to go to the Ministry to get the right information and the Ministry has total control over the content of the message. On the flip side however, this puts a large burden on the Ministry (or whoever the hub is), because if they don’t perform, no one can take their role and the system will collapse. And there are many ways in which they might fail: their capacity might be overwhelmed with the sheer number of requests, they might have outdated information, they might focus on another issue, etc. Also, innovative ideas, learning from field experience, experimentation and alternative solutions are not encouraged in a system that has pre-defined who owns and controls all relevant information.

A less centralized structure with stronger inter-connectivity and lateral flows is much less vulnerable to one actor’s lack of performance, allows for more cross-pollination and the integration of alternative approaches. On the other hand, a lot of the actors on the ground, who just want to quickly get the relevant information and then get the job done, are easily confused by multiple, contradictory messages and might not always be experts enough to judge which one is the most valid one for their work. Also, less centralized networks tend to take much more time to mobilize, there is no one actor who can take on the responsibility for training everyone. Also it is more difficult to monitor, evaluate and compare the effects of the different interventions that abound. So while there might be a lot of experimentation, that doesn’t automatically lead to learning and innovation – it might just be a lot of reinventions of the wheel. Often low centralization networks do not survive and thrive for a long time, as there is no central driving force (though, sometimes they do…).

So, as far as ideal network and recommendations go, I’d say, neither is ideal. They both have strengths and weaknesses. If you work in a highly centralized network you have the benefit of knowing who to interact with to get your message out. And your role as NGO could be to make sure they have cutting-edge information to start with, to encourage this central actor to allow for more two-way information flow and to expand the core of the network, inviting more actors to share their burden. However, this has to be done delicately, as the hub might fear loosing control and power. On the other hand, if working in a dispersed, low centralization network, you want to see if this is really better for the front line implementers in terms of enabeling them to get their job done. Especially if there is a lot of confusion around contradicting messages, your role as an NGO coming in might be to help the different actors coordinate and consolidate and develop more predictable ways of defining messages, delivering information and facilitating comparable monitoring and evaluation.

From training to practice

I am excited! The Net-Map Summer School in Vicenza, Italy, wasn’t just fun as it lasted. Our participants were also well prepared to use what they learned in their work. One participant who works in an institution for disabled young men explored the use of Net-Map to make hard but necessary decisions: How to deal with a highly disruptive patient, who is difficult to keep but also difficult to place in another institution? Other case studies we looked at included: How can development projects change the decision making of individual farmers to adapt to climate change? How do you best structure a mentoring network for women entreprenneurs? And: Using Net-Map to compare the network development between different donor-funded projects with similar goals. The first emails are coming in already from participants planning to present the Net-Maps they drew to their organizations or supervisors and they share their experience on their own blogs… As a 1 hour one-on-one consultation within 6 months of the training was part of the package, I am curious to hear where all of these projects and ideas are moving.

Net-Map Level 1 Certification Course (Washington, DC)

We offer Net-Map certification courses on 4 levels:

Level 1: Net-Map Facilitation

Level 2: Net-Map Qualitative and Visual Data Collection and Analysis

Level 3: Net-Map Quantitative Data Collection and Analysis

Level 4: Net-Map Mastery – Train the Trainer

Join us for a 2 day, Level 1 Net-Map class on the 4.-5. of August in Washington DC!

You will learn how to use this pen-and-paper method in meetings, individual interviews and to structure your own thinking process. It will improve your project planning, monitoring and evaluation, team work and strategic networking.

From years of Net-Mapping experience, I have distilled the most common prototypical influence network structures, which I will share with you. This will help you detect network problems, bottlenecks and opportunities while you are mapping the network so that you can immediately develop improved networking strategies. By mapping out your own case studies (challenges from your work experience), you will learn the method, develop a networking plan for a complex work related issue and improve your “network eyes”.

Because the most difficult questions normally come up once you are back to your own work, wanting to implement what you have learned, we have added a free 1 hour phone or skype consultation, redeemable within 6 months after the training, to the package.

No prior knowledge of social network analysis is needed. However, even SNA experts will learn a lot of new things in this training.

Sign up!

Is evaluation a cost or an investment?

Turn your evaluation into a catapult (picture by trebuchetstore.com)

The answer to this question basically depends on the attitudes of the people involved: you (as a project leader), your organization/leadership, the body requesting the evaluation and the external expert who helps you do it.

Your attitude: If your organization, project, unitĀ evaluates just because somebody else (donors, board, supervisors) said so, you see evaluation as a necessary evil to get more funding in the future, you collect data to fill in required forms and you make sure to be seen in the best possible light, if the people who require the evaluation punish you for admiting mistakes and obsess about their forms being filled in properly… well, evaluation will not only be a pain and an annoying and scary exercise where people bend the truth as far as they can get away with, it will also be a cost. Or shall I go so far as to say: a waste of money? Well, you might get some benefit out of it, for example the future funding you were after, but you will loose out on the opportunity of learning and improving based on experience and analysis.

If, on the other hand, you can develop the common understanding that the struggles your project went through are learning opportunities, that everyone involved has something to offer to understand what happened in the past and how to do things even better in the future, if the people who request the evaluation require measureable outcomes, but also know that obstacles overcome make you stronger and that you sometimes need to change your direction in the middle of a project (because of changes in the world or learning processes within the project), then your evaluation will be an investment, it will be an amazing and empowering learning experience for everyone involved and catapult your work to the next level in the future.

If your organization sees evaluation as a cost, you might not want to call me just yet, because my tools and approaches won’t work for you. If, however, you want to turn your evaluation into an investment for your future and a transformative learning experience for everyone involved (while still collecting data about your performance), we should talk.