What’s Our Job?: Getting Clear on Network Functions

September 12, 2018 3 Comments


Image from Sharon Mollerus, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.


As I’ve worked with a variety of social change networks to launch or transition from one stage to another, I’ve been guided by the following formula:

Form follows function follows focus

My experience is that many groups and initiatives can get very concerned about structure – How will we make decisions? Who will be members? What is expected of them? What do they get in return? These are important questions, and they deserve a fair amount of time tending to them. What can bog many groups down at this stage, however, is that they have not sufficiently sorted out the functions of the network, how it creates value, if you will, which has important implications for form. And if the group is not clear on its focus (purpose, animating goal, mission), this can be that much more perplexing.

So I’m spending more and more time with networks sorting out their core “jobs,” with a few additional guiding mantras, including:

Do what you do best and connect to the rest.

The value proposition of change networks in my mind is that they add value to a broader landscape of activity, not that they come in and try to take over. Even if this is not the intent, groups can spend little time figuring out what already exists “out there,” what efforts are underway, what other collective efforts are operating. This lack of awareness risks creating unnecessary and unhelpful duplication and competition.

From an ecosystem perspective, each living organism finds a particular niche (what it does best and where) and contributes to the broader whole. I recently met with a network that did some important work sorting out what the jobs of the network as a whole are versus the functions of its individual members. For example, members decided it is NOT the work of the network to create curricula; that’s what members do. It is the job of the network to disseminate these, to make them more broadly accessible and to create a portal that draws more attention to a variety of educational resources that can meet a diversity of needs. Furthermore, the network decided its job was NOT advocacy, since another group already did this work quite well, but it could provide a great service alerting members and others to important campaigns and organizing efforts.


Image above from Yandle, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.


Another guiding mantra:

What value can we create through connection and flow?

There are really the two main ways that networks achieve what are called “network effects” (such as resilience, adaptation, small world reach …). If we are not talking about how a network does its work through leveraging, adding and shifting patterns of connection and flow, then we really are not bringing a network mindset to net work. When we do, this can help illuminate areas for adding and creating value – for example, bridging across various kinds of boundaries, temporal, geographic and cultural, or amplifying otherwise unheard or less resourced members.

Recent work with another network yielded the following list of functions, which they are continuing to play with:

  • Build trusted relationships between multiple sectors and communities
  • Convene partners across state and sectors
  • Generate conversation among diverse partners
  • Identify newly arising (systemic) barriers so they can be addressed
  • Provide greater access to technical assistance providers
  • Facilitate access to relevant expertise (including lived experience), information and resources
  • Disseminate information about innovative approaches and policy priorities
  • Disrupt the status quo in the name of creating system change (ex. support litigation)
  • Contribute to movement; use innovation and creativity to inspire people to action
  • Curate relevant data, information, planning documents and other resources, and ensure community input is reflected

What about you and your network(s)? What functions are you finding add the greatest value? How are you determining what you do best as a network, and where, and how you contribute to others?


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