What makes Networks tick? Learning from (a lot of) experience

When are networks the right response to a development challenge (as opposed to a monumental talking shop -

A network

A network

more hot air than action)? Oxfamers Andrew Wells-Dang, Stéphanie de Chassy, Benoit Trudel, Jan Bouwman and Jacky Repila discuss:

Working with and as a part of networks is an inescapable part of today’s interconnected world — and increasingly of Oxfam’s programming and influencing. But what kinds and structures of networks are most effective at building social capital? How can networks bring desired benefits to their members and participants? How can they achieve positive impacts on governments and businesses? How can we ensure that the networks are inclusive and promote the rights of women and marginalized groups? And finally, how can INGOs and institutional donors support these platforms to contribute to change beyond limited project cycles?

Summarised below are the learning points distilled from a recent workshop:

A common purpose is the first requirement of a successful network. Whether collective action is conceived as networks, coalitions, alliances, or in other terms is immaterial; what matters is that the structure is consistent with the group’s mission and aims. Networks can be assessed using qualitative or quantitative means or a combination of the two. Workshop participants learned from examples of the Qualitative Assessment Scorecard (QAS) used in Vietnamese advocacy coalitions, Social Network Analysis (SNA) employed in Georgia and Armenia, and do-it-yourself network mapping from the Asia region’s GRAISEA programme. Each approach has strengths and limitations. Quantitative methodologies (such as SNA) analyse the number of links and connections amongst network members, but not their quality or change over time. Colourful and detailed network maps (produced using SNA as shown above) can be a useful conceptual tool, especially for large networks across multiple sectors or countries. Qualitative tools (such as the Scorecard) are important for shared reflection and self-assessment, offering a frame to interpret a network’s internal growth and contributions to change. However, these approaches are less effective for cross-network comparisons.

Different kinds of Network

Different kinds of Network

Oxfam (and other international organisations) should critically assess our roles in networks. In some countries, INGOs are joint members of networks with local partner organisations, whilst in others, Oxfam plays a convening and co-funding role but does not consider itself a member. Both approaches are appropriate in the early stages of network formation, but should be reconsidered as networks move towards consolidation and sustainability. An evaluation of network weaving in Armenia and Georgia found that Oxfam and several other international members play an “anchoring” role in binding other members together: without the brokering and liaising of central network members, the alliances were at varying degrees of risk of fragmentation. Reducing the alliance’s vulnerability of implosion is all the more critical in the South Caucasus with the planned closure of Oxfam’s offices in 2018 and the need to leave a programme legacy for spin-off organisations Bridge in Georgia and OxYGen in Armenia. As a direct result of the evaluation findings, mitigation steps are being taken, including rotating leadership roles and strengthening local connections through capacity development and exchange visits between local network members.

Sustainability of networks is possible, but not a given and not always desirable. Some networks exist for a particular purpose: when their goal is achieved (or blocked), the members disband and move “underwater” until the next collective opportunity emerges. In other cases, informal social networks among activists persist for years without external support. Other networks develop increasingly formal organisational structures, with secretariats and dedicated staff. In all cases, sustainability is not just a question of funding: it depends on members’ commitment to a shared vision, their trust in each other, and sufficient (but not dominating) leadership capacities. It also depends on the capacity of a network to adapt to a dynamic and changing environment, review vision and strategies, and re-invent themselves beyond the project cycle.

Network building is a key influencing strategy, building on a broader process of Political Economy

Network of networks

Network of networks

Analysis (or power analysis). All programmes working with networks have undertaken forms of stakeholder and context analysis in the design and formulation periods. The ‘big questions’ that all networks must address are ‘WHAT is the change we want?’ and ‘WHY is this critical to people living in poverty?’ These processes have included consideration of gender justice, and in some cases ethnic and regional equity as features of power and influence in the respective contexts. Whether or not the context assessment is called by the technical name of political economy analysis, key to its success is the involvement of (potential) network members themselves in contributing their understanding of the situation in which they live and act. In this way, political economy analysis is not an academic exercise conducted by expert consultants, but is done on a frequent — even daily — basis by insiders who seek to interpret their own context. Outsiders and part-outsiders, like Oxfam advisors, can help to facilitate this process and serve as sympathetic critics and reviewers, building influencing capacity and setting benchmarks for change.

We boiled down conversations at the workshop, added what we’d already read and produced this handy (we hope) guide to what constitutes an effective network (watch this space for future learning resources):

Characteristics of effective and sustainable networks

  1. Pre-existing social capital:
  • Networks that build on/evolve from existing relationships (rather than engineered or top down created networks)
  • Networks that have built up a shared history that creates mutual trust (or at least a good understanding of points in common and differences!)
  1. Strategic fit
  • This includes the shared vision that network members have developed.
  • This is a crucial aspect in the early stages of network formation and will have a strong impact on its effectiveness. It often requires a big investment from the members.
  • It also entails the value addition the network brings to all members. What is the network’s relevance to its members?
  • Diversification of the value proposition (more entry points) makes the network stronger
Old Boys' Network
  1. Old Boys’ Network (can you spot David Cameron and Boris Johnson?)
  2. Connectivity
  • The quality, mix, spread, inclusiveness of the relationships and connections in relation to the purpose of the network
  • Speak with one voice when it matters, developing a collective surge capacity
  1. Leadership
  • Strong, non-hierarchical leadership that facilitates and fosters rather than top-down management
  • Leadership that is shared and distributed among members
  1. Governance and management
  • Control is shared and all members can influence management decisions
  • Clear governance and management structures as well as well-defined rights and responsibilities of members
  • Agree what success looks like and how it will be measured
  1. Mutual trust
  • Reciprocity — a mutual give and take that develops into trust
  • Openness and willingness to share and learn
  1. Accountability
  • Members participate
  • Members are represented
  • Members are committed and have ownership
  1. Organizational effectiveness
  • The network provides quality services
  • Has the necessary skills and capacities
  • Manages to tap into the capacity of its members (resources, time, talent)
  1. Adaptability
  • Capacity to adapt to changing context and needs of the membership
  • Continuous learning and feedback loops
  1. Dynamism
  • Joint learning
  • Commitment to learn together

If you want to be posted when more network assessment resources come on line, have your own experience to share, or you want to find out more about the work being done, contact Jacky Repila in the Oxfam GB Programme Learning Team.

This blog is based on discussions at two workshops hosted by Oxfam’s South Caucasus Food Security programme in Yerevan, Armenia on 13–15 December 2016. Watch this short video to hear from the participants themselves what they took away from the event.