What Are Networks?
- Written by Prof. Rebecca Malby
Collaboration is the new normal for health systems, place-based networks to develop integrated services are critical as we understand how to best support people experiencing complex health and care needs. Across the world organisations are understanding the best use of hierarchies and networks for different types of work, but in cultures steeped in performance management the adjustment to a peer-based model of decision-making can be a challenge. We start in this blog by setting out what networks are and how they differ from networks. Have a look at this Video which explains the difference between hierarchied and networks.
Networks are a group of people who collaborate on a shared purpose. The purpose can be to learn together, to deliver something together, to campaign together. Networks are a creative and innovative way of organising to achieve an outcome together, where members collaborate as peers based on the principle of reciprocity (exchange for mutual benefit). Networks are highly relational, characterised by a culture of sharing, trust, and respect between members. They are adaptive and thrive where they make an impact so they are not ‘for ever’ but time-limited by their purpose and their ability to generate impact (for members, funders and stakeholders).
Networks are motivated by their purpose. This purpose is internally generated not externally mandated. Knowledge is shared rapidly within the network although this is not always visible externally. Networks size, membership, depth of internal organisation varies considerably from small informal learning networks through to organised advocacy networks lobbying to meet member needs.
The distinctiveness of networks (Malby and Mervyn 2012 ) lies in:
- Their ability to be innovative and creative and their reliance on diversity
- The distribution of power and leadership across members
- Reciprocity and exchange as the defining relationship between members based on mutual interest around a common purpose.
- Fluctuations in their member engagement and impact
- Their adaptability to survive and thrive
- The centrality of the knowledge function
Whilst hierarchies take considerable effort in planning and reporting, networks effort in directed at securing effective relationships between members, in order to generate an understanding of the intelligence, capacity and commitment of members, and to act collectively. The leadership effort for networks is very different from that of a traditional hierarchy.
Network work (which could be about sharing knowledge, an interest group on a topic, a sub group delivering a service on behalf of the network) is distributed between members, based on their expertise, skills and capacity. Members therefore undertake network work in different groups dependent on what is needed.
Leadership in a network is facilitative in style and rotational based on the skills needed to achieve the network’s purpose. It is usual for network leaders who start-up a network to hand over to a different leader to maintain the network.
Network members come together because they share a common sense of purpose, which motivates them to work together to find shared solutions. The sense of purpose is internal to the group rather than imposed from outside and may well change and develop over time.
Members act as peers, all having something to contribute. Power is distributed. The language in use in networks is of exchange, mutuality, reciprocity, innovation and experimentation. (Malby & Anderson Wallace 2016)
‘Members participate because they see mutual benefit over time and may well accept that there is a short term “cost” for them. The aim is to build what is known as “social capital” ‘(Malby & Anderson Wallace 2016 p21)
Within Networks there are three main types:
- Developmental – task-focused, sometimes delivering services together or coordinating services, often developing new approaches to care across partner organisations.
- Learning – generating rapid sharing and diffusion of knowledge; developing new practices.
- Agency/ Advocacy – these can also be called policy networks but are essentially focused on a cause: lobbying and generating evidence to shape and influence policy or opinion.
Networks can incorporate all of these or just one.
(Malby and Anderson Wallace 2016 p 26)
These are the key features of effective networks.
- Shared purpose and identity
- Address big issues/ have a compelling purpose
- Meet member needs
- Adaptive leadership
- Strong relationships and ties
- Generate helpful outputs
(Malby et al 2011)
On this page you can find links to blogs covering all the core issues in setting up and leading a network. The diagnostics section on the website will help you take the temperature of your network to see how you can ensure you have everything in place to enable the network to thrive. You can ask questions or find good reads on networks in the resources section.
Much of this text come from Malby B, & Anderson Wallace M. (2016) Networks in Healthcare. Managing complex relationships. Emerald.
 Malby B & Mervyn K. (2012) Summary of the literature to inform the Health Foundation questions. Leeds: Centre for Innovation in Health Management, University of Leeds; 2012
 Malby B, & Anderson Wallace M. (2016) Networks in Healthcare. Managing complex relationships. Emerald.
 Malby B., Anderson-Wallace M., Archibald D., Collison C., Edwards S., Constable A., Dove C. (2011), Supporting Networks that Improve the Quality of Healthcare. A developmental diagnostic process to support network development. The Health Foundation