Prepared by: Johnstad & Associates
Someone asked me the other day just what is the purpose of our evaluation work and how will the data be used. Good questions.
First some reminders. Never forget that Minnesota’s food system is complex. Underneath this system is a set of networks holding the old ways in place that need to be exposed and opened for change. Changes in Minnesota’s food system will occur as new networks supplant the old.
Understanding a network isn’t the same as understanding an organization. A network, even if it is intentionally focused on the same issue or vision, is a decentralized, member-driven platform of relationships that is self-organizing. Effective networks as described by June Holly in her Network Weaver Handbook:
- Improve information flow that help people improve their programs, projects, and services;
- Increase communication that gives a broader perspective and the potential for better solutions—an effective network should help connect people from different types of organizations, different backgrounds, and different parts of Minnesota’s food system;
- Open new resources. Typically there are many untapped resources in a community or region. Taking time to identify the needs of individuals and organizations in a network can help connect people needing something to someone who can fill that need;
- Expand and support leadership. In working with networks, we have learned there are many hidden leaders in communities. Once these people are identified, you can encourage and help them to step forward. The last thing you want is for a network to lose momentum due to the loss of any one leader;
- Encourage collaboration, innovation, and learning for breakthroughs that result in action that makes a difference. Information sharing and communication are the foundation for identifying opportunities where joint action can make a difference. You will know a network is healthy when people are part of many joint projects at any one time. Working collaboratively tends to expand people’s perspectives and generate breakthroughs;
- Increase inclusion and bridge divides. A healthy network connects and involves across the siloed parts of a food system. The chances for systems change are enhanced when people from isolated parts of the system are brought together;
- Create better outcomes. Systems change involves individual change. Behavioral change occurs most often when an individual is embedded in effective networks that are committed to complex, intractable problems;
- Facilitate scale and impact. Ideally, networks are experimenting with new approaches and sharing their results with many others. Collectively, patterns of success can be identified and aspects of those approaches can be shared and reproduce. This is called knowledge harvesting.
So where does evaluation fit in? We encourage you to embrace the multiple roles that evaluation can play. The contents of evaluation tools themselves will help to identify key aspects of network health and effectiveness. Evaluation findings will identify where a network is strong and where it needs work. These findings should help a network determine what actions are needed to strengthen their network.
An effective evaluation process involves three stages that get repeated over and over: deciding what to measure, gathering and analyzing the data, deciding on and taking action. Unfortunately, we have seen too many evaluation efforts that do the first two stages but do not provide for the third. Part of our work, therefore, is making sure that the data collected is shared, discussed, and hopefully acted upon over and over and over.
Using data to get to action: This involves members of a network looking at data (or even just debriefing a completed action) and discussing three questions:
- What: What do we see in the data? What patterns stand out?
- So what: Which findings and patterns are most important to the network’s health? What are our strengths? What aspects of the network do we need to strengthen?
- Now what: What should we do next? Who needs to be involved?
We have seen networks that initially worked with a facilitator to discuss these questions be able to self-manage their discussion. And, we have seen networks adopt some creative processes in doing so. A network focused on the arts as a vehicle for economic development used an artist member to draw a mural on a white board as the members discussed these questions. A network of after school programs broke into small groups and moved around a room where newsprint had been posted for them to write their responses. In another network, members did a “round robin” discussion of each question so that each person gave one response until no new information was surfacing (here one member wrote the responses on newsprint while another took notes on a laptop).
Getting ideas for “now what”: This may involve some informal research: Which network(s) have faced a similar issue and what worked/what didn’t in addressing it? Is this a topic that is common to multiple networks that could be addressed in a training? What suggestions and resource tools does June Holley offer in her manual, Network Weaver Handbook (A Guide to Transformational Networks), that we could use?
Kristin Johnstad, Project Director
Johnstad & Associates