I've been reading NetGains: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change by Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor and I think it has some interesting things to say about building networks. One of the most important is the notion that there are three kinds of networks "that form a progression that a network's evolution is likely to follow." While networks may not move through all stages of the progression, we do know that to reach the third stage successfully, you must first progress through the previous two.
This type of network connects people to allow the easy flow of and access to information and transactions. The focus is on developing ties between people so that they can develop trust and gain understanding of one another prior to moving to another level of connection. This is the "base" network that must be formed in order to move to the other levels of networking. Without connectivity, you cannot develop alignment or move to action. These kinds of networks are particularly important when you are concerned about the isolation of particular individuals or groups from other people.
The task of a network builder in a connectivity network is to "weave," that is, to help people meet each other and to increase their ease of sharing and searching for information. Flickr's start-up story offers a prime example of a connectivity network:
But even beyond the product and (user interface) Flickr emphasized making new users feel welcome. Caterina mentioned how there would be a member of the Flickr team moderating the Flickr forum 24/7 just to make people feel part of the community. While this might sound a bit exaggerated, you get the idea. Flickr put a tremendous amount of effort into community development and support.
In this type of network, the focus is on aligning people around collective values to develop and spread a common identity. This identity usually reflects some of the individual interests of members, but in this network, they've come together because they share some common values or identity. Their goal is then to develop and spread that identity, both among the members and outside of the community. College alumni and professional associations are examples of alignment networks.
Network builders in alignment networks are facilitators. They help people explore their shared identify and meaning so that they can define and communicate their common core values. They are listening to the individual members and helping the group arrive at a collective vision of their identity and shared purpose.
A production network "fosters joint action for specialized outcomes by aligned people." In other words, it is designed to move people who are united on a common cause from affinity to action.
Network builders in production networks act as coordinators. Their primary work is to help people plan and implement their collaborative actions. Network members actually do the work of the network. The coordinator provides the glue to hold their actions together. They pay attention to the activities that are required to keep the group focused on collective identity and collective action.
The Critical Lesson
It's been my experience that because many nonprofits form collaborations in response to funding opportunities or requirements, they move immediately into developing a production network. However, network research indicates that such networks are doomed to failure because a production network is based upon having developed first a connectivity network and then an alignment network. In other words, to create a production network, you need connectivity and alignment first.
The other key thing here is that the activities that it takes to form each of these three types of networks are different. You cannot build a connectivity network by immediately moving to the strategies that are necessary to build a production network. They are not the same.
In another post, I'm going to share what Plastrik and Taylor have to say about the strategies for building each type of network. But for now, to me the important piece of this is to understand that networks evolve and that attention must be paid to developing first connections, then alignment before a network can become focused on action.