Network Poetry


Crisscross by Androwilli (on flickr)

I have often Imagined that glances

survive the act of seeing

as if they were poles,

measuring rods, lances

thrown in a battle.

Then I think that in a room

one has just left

those same lines must stay behind

sometimes suspended there and crisscrossed

untouched and overlaid like the wooden pieces

in a game of pick-up-sticks.

(by Valierio Magrelli, translated from the Italian by Dana Gioia)

 (the heading is mine, not the poem’s)

The gift of doubt

Albert O. Hirschman

When reviewing my colleagues’ experience in improving the water and sewerage system in Baghdad, using the Outcome Mapping method, I realized one thing: The really big learnings, changes, breakthroughs happened when something went wrong, when people made mistakes, not when everyone was doing things perfectly. For example only the bad reactions of the public to initial newspaper articles made the team understand that they had to listen more than preach. If the initial communication had been o.k. – though not great – and no one would have even noticed or complained, there would have been little learning.

Today I read an inspiring article which shows me that aparently I am not the first to see this – the literary economist (who prefered to quote Kafka to doing math) Albert O. Hirschman made a science out of researching this. His biography is out, and this New Yorker article gives you a first flavor:

“Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.”

“Developing countries required more than capital. They needed practice in making difficult economic decisions. Economic progress was the product of successful habits—and there is no better teacher, Hirschman felt, than a little adversity. He would rather encourage settlers and entrepreneurs at the grass-roots level—and make them learn how to cope with those impediments themselves—than run the risk that aid might infantilize its recipient.”

Word of the day: Stick-to-it-tiveness

Heard this in an NPR interview with Robert Langer, prolific inventor (over 800 patents to his name). He claimed that this is one of the secrets to being a successful inventor – it’s not enough to have good ideas or be clever, you have to stick to it and really follow through.

That reminded me of a time in the summer of 2006: I had come up with Net-Map earlier that year, used it in two cases and felt ready to move on. “Interesting”, I thought, “but I am ready for the next more wonderful thing.” Looking back I have to say, I didn’t even know what Net-Map was all about… A more insightful colleague recommended that I give it just a bit more time, stick to it just a little bit longer because, as he put it: “This may well be the best idea you’ll ever have.” I don’t know about that, but here I am, seven years later, still sticking to it, and still excited. The most interesting thing happening at the moment is that I have gotten so much closer to implementation, most of the projects I am working on at the moment are concretely helping people change the world, not just analyze how it works.

To talk about swimming – or make them jump in?

Any talk about water won't rival the feeling of this swimmer who just jumped in (picture by Horia Varlan on Flickr)

Or: Why talking about an experience is no substitute for the experience.

This week I led students of Latin America Studies at Georgetown University through a Net-Map exercise (Thanks to their teacher Patricia Biermayr-Jenzano for organizing this!). They chose their own questions (a wide range, from personal family disputes to crime reduction in a Latin American small town) and started mapping it after a brief introduction. All of them had read some of my papers and case studies before, so one of the things that struck me in their feedback was how different Net-Map looked to them when they read about it and when they actually did it. Some of their comments:

“I initially was skeptical because I did not understand why a simple activity could be a method for creating social change.  Net-Mapping allowed me to view the world differently.  Granted, stepping back and analyzing the degree of influences in our lives should be a natural process, but it is something that we do not do visually.  By doing this activity and visually seeing our influences, it breaks the ice and fosters dialogue in a non-confrontational way.” 

“The level of sophistication of the tool far exceeded my personal expectations.  I was skeptical not because of the materials involved in the process (paper and pen) but because of the difficulty in determining who influences whom in most of the research in which I have participated.  I think the greatest advantage of the Net-Map system is the ability to look at an activity from a variety of levels.  My group worked on the scale of the individual, but seeing the work of the other groups made it obvious that Net-Map can be transferred to an organizational level or even perhaps to an international level.” 

“I had never done net-mapping or anything alike before. Honestly, when listening to the explanation I thought it was kind of a game. However, after doing the exercise I actually realized the great value it has. Using this hands-on method of visualizing problems or activities I believe is really useful. I believe that great ideas and problem visualization can be seen that may not be realized using other strategic methods.”

Yes, I fully realize the irony of this post, because, as I said in the introduction: talking about an experience is very different from experiencing it. So, get some pens, post-it notes and toys, print out the instructions, come up with a question that bothers you and involves many different actors and see what happens if you try mapping it. You might not start out as an Olympic swimmer but rather splash around in the shallow pool for a while. But even that will be a more interesting experience than reading stories about water, wouldn’t it?

Knowledge Networks

Steve Borgatti is my all time favorite Social Network Analysis author. He is a SNA expert to be taken serious (after all, he is one of the people behind the standard software UCINET) but while he knows all his formulas, his most interesting papers are more philosophical than empirical or mathematical, exploring, for example,  how different kinds of flows (let’s say money or infection) require different kinds of centrality measures, because it does make a difference whether you give something and then it is gone (alas, money) or you give it and keep it at the same time (Also alas, infections. If only it where the other way round…).

I found this brief text about the meaning of different network structures for knowledge sharing and he does a good job of explaining how you can quantify the quality of a connection by looking at it’s multiplexity (do these two people just share knowledge or do they have more than one different link). And he looks for the most efficient network for knowledge sharing: The hub-and-spokes network has one central node that all links go through and who can reach everyone with one step. This is highly efficient as long as the central node is performing well and we are looking at simple “knowledge packages” that need to be delivered, where the right answer is clear – as compared to a knowledge co-creation process or situations where more than one answer is possible. A more stable situation that is equally as efficient would be the core-periphery structure, where the hub is replaced by a group of interconnected core actors who are surrounded by a periphery of non-connected actors. He concludes:

“In sum, dense, core/periphery networks are very efficient at spreading knowledge.
The other side of the coin, however, is that they are not good at innovation, because it is too easy for the conventional wisdom to swamp new ideas.” Steve Borgatti 2005


Why I love my commute

Seriously, after 2 years of working from home, I love every part of going to office. Getting dressed, for example (and I don’t mean putting my husband”s old sweater over my pyjamas, which is the newest trend in home office fashion, now that it is getting colder…). And reading stuff on the metro that I never seem to get to otherwise. That is why, this morning, I loved my commute. Harrison Owen about “Open Space Technology” (In: The Change Handbook – The Definitive Resource on Today”s Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems, by Holtman et al.). I’m fascinated by how Open Space works and what it does and would like to get into it more (attend, host etc.). And I think that’s because the underlying philosophy resonates with what I am doing. So on a rainy Monday morning, between Potomac Avenue and U Street Metro stations Harrison Owen warms my heart and has me nodding by saying:
“diversity becomes a resource to be used instead of a problem to be overcome…” and
” In Open Space, the good news and the bad news are identical: It works. In Open Space, every group I have worked with becomes excited, innovative, creative, and ready to assume responsibility for what they care about. This all sounds wonderful, but at times for some people, if also sounds like a prescription for going out of control – and they are right. If maintaining control is your fundamental intent, for goodness sake, don’t even think about Open Space. On the other hand, if you are prepared to believe in the people, trust them, and acknowledge that in a ll probability they are the true experts about what needs to be done, then Open Space will deliver – and you can be sure that fundamental change is a likely consequence.”

This resonates with my believes about network structure and control and how sustainable networks grow up (mature) into structures with less and less central node control.

Quote of the day: About social networks and being poor – or not being poor

“I don’t have much by way of possessions, a lady riding the bus to Montgomery once told me. But, she said, I do have a lot of belongings. I belong to my family, my people, my church. And they belong to me. With all the mouths I feed, she continued, looking out the window, I won’t lie to you – I could use one of them big houses. But don’t never, ever let anybody tell you that you’re poor. In the eyes of the world, maybe, she said. You just keep looking through your own eyes.”

from: Traveling Light – On the Road with America’s Poor, by Kath Weston, 2008.