Network based working

Networks are brilliant for some kinds of work and useless for others. Networks are messy places that don't respond predictably which can create anxiety in the highly regulated and performance managed health system. You need to work through whether:

  • what you are trying to achieve is best achieved through a network;
  • if you are the leader - you have the skills and capacity for collaborative leadership to lead a network;
  • the environment can support and enable a network.

Networks are not useful when there is a need for a highly controlled, reliable and managed process, and where a known solution already exists

The health sector tends to use the term ‘network’ rather loosely to also encompass projects and mandated collaborations which can confuse leaders. These ‘managed networks’ retain many of the attributes of hierarchies, and are not really networks. Our focus here is on the messy, creative world of networks where leadership is distributed and members work as peers to bring the very best of their intelligence and commitment to solve seemingly intractable problems, and spread capacity to change health and social care for the better.

It is becoming accepted that organisations need both hierarchical working for day to day business and network working for agility and adaptability. ‘Being part of a network and purposefully generating a network form of organising seems to be business-critical for all organisations’. Malby & Anderson Wallace 2016[1]

The default position for most NHS change work is to project manage it usually through a ‘transformation’ board. That is fine where there is a linear relationship between cause and effect – i.e. you know pretty predictably what will happen. That is not the work you do in networks.

Is the work network work? 

Networks are primarily innovative, creative places.

Networks work on relational issue, either ‘wicked’ issues[2] – where if you intervene in one part things pop up somewhere else (there are knock-on effects), and where the relationships between cause and effect are not linear (if you do one thing its not predictable what exactly will happen) and everyone’s view of the issue is partial; or complicated issues where you need rapid learning across diverse perspectives.

wicked tame

The first thing to do is work out whether the issues you are addressing are complex. If they are then the next thing to do it decide if a network is the right form for your particular issue.

Networks are useful for:

  • Generating creative and innovative solutions – they are open to a broader range of possibilities because of their diversity and can, through their member relationships, rapidly develop ideas
  • Rapid learning and development – by connecting members as peers around a shared and meaningful purpose
  • Amplifying the effectiveness of individual members – by generating a wider body of concern and support
  • and where knowledge is being distributed, and you need a high degree of collaboration to achieve your purpose.

(Malby and Anderson-Wallace 2016 p71)

If you think that is what you need for your issue then a network is the right form for your work.

The Function of Networks

Mendizabal and Hearn (2011)[3] identify that Networks ‘work’ through all or some of the following functions:

  • Community-building: The network functions to promote and sustain the values of the individuals or groups.
  • Filtering: The network functions to organize and manage relevant information for members.
  • Amplifying: The network functions to help take new, little-known, or little-understood ideas and makes them public, give them weight, or make them understandable.
  • Facilitating: The network functions to help members carry out their activities more efficiently and effectively.
  • Investing/providing: The network functions to offer a means to provide members with the resources they need to carry out their main activities.
  • Convening: The network functions to bring together different, distinct people, or groups of people with distinct strategies to support them.

Quick Checklist for identifying if a Network is the best organisational form for your work

Is the work you want to do ‘wicked’ work?
Do you need innovative and creative solutions?
Does this work need multiple agencies / people to have a clear shared purpose?
Do you need all these people to collaborate? Is it in their interests to do so?
Can they do that as peers (i.e. equals)? And are they willing to learn together?
Are they willing to share resources in relation to this work?
Is the knowledge you need to do this work held amongst these people?
Are you comfortable with the direction of this work being emergent rather than prescribed?
If the answer to all of these is yes then you have the right conditions for a network.

The following 12 minute video examines the challenges of different networks and how regular evaluation of impact is required. Sanjay and Carol in conversation identify the difficult times when a network stops working and highlight next steps to resolve the situation.

Article Footnotes:

[1] Malby B, & Anderson Wallace M. (2016) Networks in Healthcare. Managing complex relationships. Emerald.
[2] Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" (PDF). Policy Sciences. 4: 155–169.
[3] Mendizabal E and Hearn S (2011) Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies: A community of practice, a catalyst for change. In: Anderson A, and Hodkin M (eds.) IIEP research papers