Engagement, Participation and Collaboration in Networks

Networks are their members. The core organising principle of reciprocity based on a relational culture of trust, respect, openness, sharing, as peers defines how networks organise and creates the focus for all participation.Where networks have high degrees of bridging and bonding [1] social capital (earned and ascribed trust between member) perform better.

Members determine Governance (decision-making), Leadership, Purpose, Direction, Communication, Knowledge generation and sharing in the network, the process to decide these is facilitated by the Network Leader. The Network leader’s role is to:

  • Create the conditions for diversity to be valued and conflict to be useful
  • Connect members to each other
  • Design network meetings based on dialogue

Network members govern their peers (self-governance) and their own behaviour in relation to:

  1. The impact of the network
  2. The network rules of equality, reciprocity and participation

Network design

It follows that there are four key areas for organising in networks (Anderson-Wallace 2011[1])

  1. Power & Leadership - How is power used and leadership enacted? How do decisions get made?
  2. Purpose and Direction - How are the joint and several purposes of the network surfaced, how are these purposes developed and how is direction set and adjusted? How expectations of action are set, maintained and measured / evaluated?
  3. Communication – How do you ensure that communication is supported as a primary organising process, which constitutes and reconstitutes the network moment by moment?
  4. Knowledge & Learning – How do you ensure that knowledge is developed as a shared asset and that social learning opportunities are maximised?

The process of agreeing how these are going to be enacted in the network is key – it has to be done by the members together, and nurtured and facilitated by the network leader. The membership has to agree the ‘rules of engagement’ for the network including what participation (joining in) looks like, and how the network communicates internally (how everyone in the network has access to intelligence) and externally.

Communication in a network has to meet members needs for connecting, knowing that work is going on in the network, understanding impact, sharing intelligence, as well as external needs to secure funding and engage stakeholders.
The three types of networks have different ways of joining in for members:

  1. Developmental – task-focused, sometimes delivering services together or coordinating services, often developing new approaches to care across partner organisations. Here members are coordinating their effort with the other members to secure change in the services they deliver in partnership, they are inextricably linked.
  2. Learning – generating rapid sharing and diffusion of knowledge; developing new practices. Here members are primarily working for their own ends – generating support from other members for their own learning and to take into their own organisation. They will be supporting other member’s learning, but the collective aim is about sharing for individual imapact rather than collective impact.
  3. 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. Here we are back in the realms of collective impact where the individual members work together to secure the environment as a collective task.

Whether working as a collective or to support individual members, there is always value for each member. Without value generation the network withers.

The roles members take in networks

Members take up a range of roles in networks from brokers to connectors to energises.

engagement participation

Members Needs

Networks do at least one of the following with and for their members:

  • Amplify the work of individual members – helping and supporting members to learn how to do their work even better than they do it now.
  • Generate greater visibility for work done by the members within the overall network’s purpose and add to the members' reputation.
  • Generate new knowledge which will help all network members in their own roles.
  • Shape the context (policy-level, donor-level) in which the network functions to achieve its purpose.
  • Deliver services/ outputs to others as a ‘network offer’ and can deliver services/ resources between members as a ‘support’ offer (e.g. back-office roles) where there are economies of scale.

(Malby and Anderson-Wallace 2016[2])

As peers network members govern their peers (self-governance) and their own behaviour in relation to:

  1. The impact of the network
  2. The network rules of equality, reciprocity and participation.

This requires frequent interaction between members both virtually and face to face. Network members play a multitude of roles within the network, sometimes taking a leadership role of a sub-group (interest group or task group), sometimes making offers to support members, sometimes harvesting ideas from colleagues in the network. Some members are good at generating relationships and making connections between other members. Some are good at eliciting impact. Some are good at supporting others or offering intelligence. The Network Health Scorecard (see associated files) is a membership survey that enables you to take the temperature of members engagement in the network.

Key Questions for Network Leaders:

• Are members engaged?
• Are members’ preferences and needs reflected in the network’s activity?
• Are the relationships truly reciprocal?
• How is the collective purpose changing over time?
• How is the network assessing its impact?

Article Footnote

[1] Anderson-Wallace M (2011) Organising to connect – Networks n healthcare. Occasional Paper. The Health Foundation.
[2] Malby B., Anderson-Wallace M. (2016) Networks in Healthcare. Managing complex relationships. Emerald