How Do People Feel Connected To A Network?

By: Johnstad & Associates

Here is a good question that someone recently posed to us:  How do people feel connected to a network and what role can evaluation play?

Developing strong connections among members is the foundation for three types of network actions:

  • Members exchange information easily and are then learning because of the interchange.
  • Members create and align a shared set of ideas, goals, and strategies.
  • Members work together to produce innovation practices, public-policy proposals, and other “outputs.”

Strong connections among members will at a minimum result in the exchange of information. But creating alignment and jointly producing practices etc. takes facilitation, time, and patience, especially if the members have little experience working together.

Connecting people in a network involves more than just introducing them and then letting nature take its course. It involves building trust – members are confident they can rely on each other’s intentions, integrity, judgment, and abilities. With this trust, members are willing to act in new ways toward each other (sharing secrets, making commitments, providing help, taking care, being accountable).

Peter Plastrik and his colleagues have identified four levels of connection in their book Connecting to Change the World:

  • Level 1:  I have been introduced to this person, but do not exchange information with them on a regular basis (at least once per month).
  • Level 2:  I exchange useful information with this person on a regular basis (at least once per month) but have not worked/do not work directly with them on a project.
  • Level 3:  I exchange useful information with this person on a regular basis and have worked or am working directly with this person on one or more projects.
  • Level 4:  I depend on this person regularly for important advice and have worked with him/her on more than one project.

It takes time to get enough members to level 4.  Building strong connections among members is a step that should not be skipped in network building. Yes, some people will be eager to get to the substance of the work and may be impatient with relationship building. But remember, this connectivity is the foundation for work related to alignment and collaborative actions that produce results.

So where does evaluation fit in? A strong network core is an attribute of a healthy network that is developmentally ready to do alignment and collaborative project work. In addition to a strong core, networks benefit from having a large periphery. This is the outer part of a network, consisting of individuals who are only connected to the core through one or two people. Cultivating a large periphery will help the core connect to new ideas and resources.

Periodically (perhaps annually) gathering information from members can tell you about the level of connections and if your network has developed a core with enough members and a large periphery. Evaluation data will allow you to answer the questions: Who is connected to whom? Who’s not connected? Where are the hubs (members with more connections to other members)? Where are the clusters (small groups of members connected to each other)? Are new connections forming? Are new patterns of connectivity forming? This information will help you determine if your past efforts to build connections are working or if you need to step up your efforts.

You can also use evaluation processes (which vary from self-study surveys, team or network surveys, focused discussions, etc.) to assess aspects of your network that promote connectivity, for example, the “culture” of your network, the participation of members, the level of trust among members. Over the next few months, we will be developing some assessment tools that you may find helpful.

As always, send us your good questions.

Kristin Johnstad, Project Director
Johnstad & Associates