How to get strategic insights from Net-Map

Just a bowl of spaghetti with toys on top?

So, you have done the mapping, in front of you a messy bowl-of-spaghetti-with-toys-on-top-diagram and your participants or clients ask you:


So what do we do now? What does this mean?

While the content of the answer will be different in every case, here are some guiding principle to direct your eyes and your thought when looking for strategic insights from a Net-Map: In general three issues are considered: Actor Influence, Goals and Connections, with the following lines of thought:


  • Influential actors who can harm / support
  • Increasing or decreasing actor influence
  • Diverse sources of influence


  •  Understanding reasons / motivations / fears / aspirations behind goals
  • Working with, connecting, strengthening positive actors
  • Dealing with, mitigating risk concerning negative actors
  • Changing actor goals toward more positive


  • Network patterns and their effects (e.g. centralization vs. decentralization, boundary spanners, disconnected silos)
  • Tension or reinforcement of formal vs. informal links
  • Connections which create destructive forces in the system
  • Missing links
  • Connecting positive actors (coalition), understanding negative coalitions, engaging mixed actors
  • Dividing negative actors

Become an expert Net-Map facilitator: Next training in DC June 27-28

influence towers from sideWe are are planning 2 Net-Map workshops in Washington DC this year. There are some more workshops planned in other parts of the world (e.g. Kenya in May)– so stay tuned. And, if you are interested in a workshop catered to your organization and at your location, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

The next workshop in DC is scheduled for June 27-28. So please mark the dates. This is a two day workshop in which you learn the basics of how to use Net-Map to improve your ability to understand and navigate personal and professional networks. The workshop will have a strong focus on learning-by-doing and you will be able to bring your own questions and map them out.

The location is George Washington University. Please sign up here

Improve your Net-Mapping in 2 minutes

By reviewing Net-Maps that my colleagues share with me I am picking up on all kinds of typical misunderstandings. Many are easy to fix once you know what they are… Here I would like to share two that you better avoid in order to have clear and specific maps: branches and boxes.

No Branches please

no branches

Some participants intend to make things easier and reduce the mess on the map by drawing links that have branches. However, while it looks like it makes things easier; it actually leads to confusion and less clarity as to who is linked to whom. Please insist that each arrow can only link two actor cards.

No Boxes please

no boxes

This is another attempt to make the picture less messy and save time. Participants put actors in boxes and instead of linking individual actors, they link boxes, put influence towers on boxes, put plus and minus signs on boxes. In most cases this leads to a picture that is incorrect. Because what it means is: Every actor in box 1 is linked to every actor in box 2, which is rarely the case. By putting the actors in boxes, participants paint a generic picture that will not help them develop concrete strategies in how to deal with specific actors.

If they insist that there is a group of actors (e.g. NGOs) who, for the question at hand, act as one, with the same links, goals and influence, give them the option of grouping these actors by writing one actor card that reads “NGOs”. But, in general, only do that with marginal actors, not with central ones.

Help participants to avoid drawing generic maps that will not solve their specific problems.

Join us for a 2 day Net-Map training in Washington, DC

Solve sticky problems while learning Net-Map

Solve sticky problems while learning Net-Map

Spend two days with us, learning the basics of Net-Map, drawing maps of real cases that come from your personal or professional experience, learning to facilitate and read a Net-Map and earn a level 1 Net-Map certificate. We are still in the process of finalizing date and location, but if you want to make sure you are invited, send my colleague Amit Nag an email ( to put you on our list!

What is a link?

  • giving money,

    Are you connected by sausage links? (copyright by stevendepolo on Flickr)

  • giving advice,
  • loving,
  • hating,
  • being family member of,
  • killing,
  • torturing,
  • gossiping about,
  • putting pressure on,
  • giving flowers to,
  • trading with,
  • bribing,
  • being friends with,
  • supporting,
  • giving information to,
  • having conflict with,
  • having formal authority over,
  • trusting,
  • collaborating,
  • lobbying,
  • competing with,
  • knowing,
  • sending emails to,
  • having illicit affair with,
  • committing crimes together…

There are so many different ways in which actors can be connected. Most network analysis studies that I see just look at one kind of link. Often this is even as generic as claiming that one actor is “connected” to the other. Which, see above, can mean a lot of different things. When I map networks I like looking at the tension between the different kinds of connections between people. A classic one would be looking at how formal hierarchies and family connections impact on the influence of actors on policy outcomes. I have found that very often in Net-Mapping we revert to a number of standard links: Formal authority, formal money flows, flows of information and something like giving advice, lobbying or putting pressure on others. But I have also found that sometimes choosing unusual links, such as “who tortures whom?” can be very insightful (hopefully that is not the case at your office…). Also, combining links of very different kinds can help you get new insights about a system: When talking about preventing HIV, how about adding a material flow, instead of just asking how the information flows throught the system, follow the flow of condoms as well and find out whether they reach those who have gotten the information they need that makes them want to use condoms. Also, adding a negative linke, such as conflict, can add new insights and help you be more strategic. The is no “right” kind of link you absolutely have to ask about, in any study I could come up with, if not hundreds, at least ten different kinds of links that make a lot of sense. The right links to look at are those that will give you unexpected insights. And if you are looking at more than one kind of link at a time, make them as different from each other as possible.

From tweet to action: Who moves social movements on twitter?

People (boxes) who tweet and core words (bubbles) they use

The fact that today’s social movements, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, rely so heavily on twitter and similar communication tools, pose an amazing chance for researchers and other curious people who want to understand who moves these movements. The other day I discussed with a friend what kind of networks you want to look at to better understand this and I’d propose three different kinds: People networks, semantic networks and two-mode people/semantic networks.

People networks are the easy intuitive ones: Who follows whom? Who re-tweets whom? Looking at this will help you understand who the leaders, boundary spanners, broad-casters are.  Most likely, for an issue that manages the step from tweet to action successfully, you will look at a core-periphery structure, with a small inter-connected core (who might also communicate regularly outside of twitter) and a large periphery of followers, who are less inter-connected but look at the core for calls to action and thought leadership. Over time, different clusters might pop up as their own sub-cores or even take over from those initially starting the debate.

Semantic networks look at which words appear together in the same document (a document could be a single tweet, a string, all tweets from one person, whichever works). This can tell you something about the discourse around your issue: Is it just one large well connected issue or are there different schools of thought (more moderate and more radical for example or more philosophical versus more pragmatic and logistics oriented)? You might see that things evolve over time, for example it might be that the movement starts out united behind one cause (“Let’s overthrow the government!”) and after that is achieved, the debate disintegrates in many different camps (moderate and radical islamists, market oriented democrats, socialists etc.).

And to really understand how this development of the debate and the connections between the tweeters hang together, you want to look at two-mode networks. But I have to warn you, they are the least intuitive. In a two mode-network you look at two different categories of things, for example people and words and how they connect to each other. So, there are no direct links within one category (no people-to-people links or word-to-word links). This picture shows you: Who uses which words? Who is connected by being part of the same discourse (even if they have no direct link to each other)?

By looking at all three of these together, you can see who the leaders are, what their role (content) in the movement is and how that develops over time. And if you can compare either different incidents or different points in time, you will learn something about the network structures that are best suited to lead from tweet to action.

Are we talking about pipes or water?

A few days ago I was on the phone with a colleague who did a series of Net-Maps with groups of African farmers, asking them where they get their information about improving their farming practice. When we talked about the data she collected, we realized that what her farmers had mapped was like the pipe system (hopefully fresh water and not sewage…): What are all the potential connections that these farmers could use?  That’s an interesting questions. And as the mapping was done with groups of farmers, I am sure that a lot of them learned about information sources they were not aware of before and that drawing the maps together might have helped them to access more and more diverse information afterward. What they didn’t map though was where does the information actually flow; and who provides more fresh water (good, correct, new information) as compared to sewage (old, wrong, useless information) – though some of this information was shared in the discussion.

I’m not writing about this, because there is a right and a wrong approach to mapping out information networks. I think it is important to know about the (potential) connections as well as the flow. And depending on your underlying question and motivations, one might be more crucial than the other. But what is important is to be aware of what you are mapping, just like my friend was, otherwise it is so easy to misinterpret the answers and make up very bleak or overly optimistic stories about the connections that people  have access to or actually use.