Do your networks own you – or do you own them?

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Does the bear eat you or do you eat the bear (Polar Bear Family and Me by Gordan Buchanan)

Does the bear eat you or do you eat the bear?

Coming back from the largest meeting of social network analysts, the Sunbelt Conference of the International Network of Social Network Analysis (INSNA) I realize that my approach to this question might be different from the mainstream in the field. Most researchers who are interested in social networks will ask a variation of the following questions:

  • How does the network you are embedded in determine what you get (depending on research interest the “what” can be as diverse as “money”, “weight gain” and “HIV/AIDS”)? Or:
  • How is your network determined by who you are (looking at the network differences between men and women, rich and poor, sick and healthy, new and old staff etc.)

I guess, that’s what most researchers do, looking at how one thing is determined by something else. I am much more interested in the practical and proactive question:

  • Once you understand your network, what can you do about it?

Network researchers make a compelling case (backed up with a lot of evidence) that network structures do indeed influence what you can achieve or what risks will come your way. And it is obvious that different people have networks are structured differently. But wouldn’t it be great to get a better understanding of what individuals and groups can (and cannot) do to improve their network structure and content to be happier, achieve more of what they want, get out of painful, limiting and dysfunctional network relations?

Have you been able to change your networks? Why did you do it and how? What was difficult? What was easy? Did it change what you can give and get? I’d love to hear from you.

And if you want to find out what happens to the man in the glass box as he is visited by a hungry ice bear (picture above), you will find an amazing video here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/01/04/polar-bear-arctic-gordon-buchanan_n_2410791.html

The three biggest networking mistakes of advocacy groups

That’s one way of getting your message accross – just throw it at them… (picture copyright by Emily Layla)

A member of our new Net-Map LinkedIn Group asked about how Net-Map can be used to improve the effectiveness of advocacy groups. So here are three things that advocacy groups often do that hampers their success and where Net-Map can help them understand these limitation better:

1. Develop homogeneous networks: They just hang out with their own kind of people. Let’s say your a health advocacy group. You tend to network with other health groups, the ministry of health etc. But it might be that the Ministry of Education or Agriculture, or the farmers associations or a cell phone company can contribute things that you don’t have and make you much stronger. By putting up the influence towers in you Net-Map you might understand that there are other powerful actors that you want to relate to.

2. You focus on the “advocacy” link: Many advocacy groups see the world structured by the “advocacy” link and often overestimate the influence of advocacy as compared to other forces. By Net-Mapping and including links such as flows of funds, conflict, family relations, formal hierarchy, bribes etc. and then seeing these links in relation to the influence towers, they can see that advocacy is just one part of the puzzle. And there might be areas of the network where pure advocacy is a waste of time and resources, because the incentives are stacked so strongly against you that just repeating “But it would be better to did it differently” will get you nowhere. Mapping links that are very different from advocacy might also help the group to become more creative in what they can do to further their cause – or what their coalition partners can do to further their cause.

3. You focus on your own message only: The ultimate goal of advocacy is to change what people do. But often advocates also want to make others believers in their cause. This leaves them to talk about their own message all the time. Instead of thinking about what drives the other network members. One example how Net-Map helps break up that thinking pattern is the Nigeria Newborn Survival Case here. A colleague from Safe the Children told me a story about the power of framing the message for your audience instead of for your own ears that goes along the same lines: It’s about improving the healthiness of school feeding in the US: To convince conservative congressmen to do something about this, they went through senior army people, who turned it into a national security case – unfit young soldiers being unable to defend the country. I’d love to Net-Map that.