Mapping the Connectivity of Network Leaders in Minnesota

Prepared by: Johnstad & Associates

A key ingredient of network health is connectivity—how and the degree to which members are connected to each other.  Network mapping is a great way for people to cultivate a network mindset and actually see themselves as part of a network. Network mapping helps participants see, analyze and act to improve connections by:

  • Visualizing how information and communication flows.
  • Identifying resources—who is “out there” and could be tapped for involvement.
  • Identifying where people have common interests and priorities to learn from each other or work on strategies together.
  • Identifying who is missing from the network.

Some of the data collected as part of a network mapping process can also be used to track the health status of the network from year-to-year.

There are two ways to do network mapping with a group:

  1. Creating a hand-drawn network on a large piece of paper, using post-it notes, or by having someone develop a map using shapes in Microsoft Word. Participants can either work together to create one map or each create their own and then compare them.  The advantage of hand drawing maps is that the process takes very little time and they can be analyzed and discussed by network members immediately.
  2. Generating maps with software. This option involves the creation of a web-based survey, sending it to network members in an email, and using software to electronically generate the maps, and then analyzing and discussing the maps.  The survey questions must be designed in a certain way in order to use the responses to generate maps.  Some of the data collected with this option can also be used to track how the network’s structure is evolving from year-to-year.  But remember:  It takes human and financial resources to develop and administer the survey, generate the maps, and analyze them.   And, it generally takes about 3 months.

The basic steps for mapping a network include:

  1. Identifying the network (or alliance, coalition, policy council, or collaborative) you want to map. Which members (people, organizations) do you want to include?
  2. Determining way the maps will be drawn and who will guide the process. Will you do hand mapping or use software?  What types of connections do you want to map (who is connected to whom, quality of relationships, who is working on what, etc.)?
  3. Creating the maps.
  4. Analyzing the maps together. What patterns do participants see? Why are the patterns the way they are?   Which patterns need to be strengthened and why?  Where are there easy opportunities to pursue with would bring more energy and resilience to the network?
  5. Developing a set of action steps that specific people will take to enhance the network.

Network mapping is beginning to happen across Minnesota.  Here are two early examples.

Mapping the Connectivity of Network Leaders in Minnesota

In 2016, staff from the University of Minnesota Extension convened 42 Minnesota Food Charter Network leaders from across Minnesota.  They developed and administered a survey that asked questions about 1) initial levels of connectivity to improve inter-connectivity and learning across networks 2) self-reported levels of capacity to guide technical assistance and 3) better understand Extension staff roles in building the capacity of food networks.  Johnstad and Associates used SNA software to create a set of maps from these data. Some patterns illustrated by the maps:

Connectivity:  Most network leaders report they are not connected to other leaders; about 13% say they have been introduced to someone in another network but have not exchanged information.

Collaboration:  Very few network leaders (about 3%) have exchanged information, received advice, or worked with another network on a project.

Capacity:  Most network leaders indicate their network was at a medium level of capacity (meaning that they had diverse and consistent membership, meet regularly, have a variety of ways to engage partners and are guided by a common framework); about 25% indicate a low level of capacity and identified themes for improvement: moving to a network mindset and shared network outcomes and more collaborative work, establishing a shared vision & priorities and having the leadership to implement the work and network growth.

Resilience: The network is in an early stage of development. The MN Food Charter Network is well-positioned and two others organizations are serving a hub function of relaying info and fostering collaborative work. The goal is to distribute leadership and connections so it isn’t dependent on a small number of individuals or organizations.

Extension staff will be hosting a virtual “lunch and learn” session with interested network leaders to share and discuss the maps, identify any priorities to strengthen their connections, and possible actions to do so.

Northwest Food Systems (Cass and Clay Counties)

The University of Minnesota Extension Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership wanted to characterize the networks that support food access in northwestern Minnesota, focusing on current connections among individuals and organizations that share a common interest and are committed to improving access to healthy food in NW.  The web-based survey went out to people across the region, with about 130 people responding.  Neil Linscheid used Kumu to generate an initial network map and presented information to others about this approach. Johnstad and Associates analyzed additional sub-networks using SNA software to see where there might be useful information to inspire action.  Because of the way some of the questions were formatted they could be tabulated, but not used to create a map.  Some key map patterns include:

Priorities:  One map shows with members of the NW food system have similar priorities and are connected to share information, etc.

Strength of connections:  Another map shows the strength of connections among people working in the same strategy area (for example, people involved in SNAP-Ed have strong connections while people involved with different community gardens have almost no connections to each other.

A virtual “lunch and learn” session is planned so members of the NW food system can explore the maps together, determine aspects of the network that need strengthening, and start to identify tangible actions to do so.

Here are some key things to remember:

  • Network mapping allows members to see patterns and involves them in identifying priorities and actions to strengthen the health of the network.
  • Mapping can be done using paper and pencil or using a web-based survey and software to create maps.  Hand drawing maps is an easy way to begin with a small group.  Using a web-based survey and mapping software will take some training.
  • It’s a cyclical process that can be done annually:  Determine what to map/questions to ask, creating maps, sharing and discussing patterns, and determining/taking action.

What’s next for Johnstad & Associates:  At the 2017 MN Food Access Summit there was interest among half a dozen participants who attended our session on using network maps to influence change.  In the coming months we will be piloting mapping processes with a few Minnesota networks and developing resources (survey questions, reflection process, template for sharing information about patterns back) for any network group to use.

We’d also like to hear from you if you are interested in being part of a virtual peer learning and support group on this topic in 2018.  If interested let me know by December 1 at