Founder, Collective Mind
A dozen years ago, I applied for a job to be the coordinator of a working group for the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE). They hired me, presumably, because I had some relevant prior experience and knowledge of the topic of education in emergencies. But, I had no idea what a network was or how it was any different from the NGOs or private sector firms I had worked for previously.
In time, I became intimately aware of what networks do and how they function. Networks gather the relevant organizations and individuals around a metaphorical table to address a particular societal or systemic problem collaboratively, fostering collective action towards a shared vision of change. INEE advocates and influences policy, sets standards for service delivery, coordinates and connects its community, shares knowledge and resources, provides thought leadership, and supports learning and capacity building among its global membership. A small staff based around the world manages all of those activities.
Networks matter – but network practitioners matter even more
Over the last decade or two, we have awakened to the fact that addressing our hardest societal problems requires working together. How do we protect and empower the vulnerable? How do we ensure inclusion in service delivery? How do we address existential crises like climate change or pandemics? For challenges of this scope and scale, cooperation and collective action are essential.
Networks are a powerful model for organizing people towards these ends. More than the sum of their parts, they allow independent actors to collectively maximize their reach, resources, capacity, influence, and impact. They go by many names – coalitions, alliances, consortiums, partnerships, forums, initiatives, movements, campaigns, and more – and operate at all levels, around the world and across sectors. Networks have shown to be effective, efficient models to tackle challenges in health, education, climate change, peacebuilding, digital inclusion, nutrition, youth unemployment, criminal justice reform, inclusion, humanitarian response, and beyond.
But as networks increasingly become a go-to model for achieving collective impact, the support to those who manage and lead those networks has failed to keep up. It is the people who work for networks – the dedicated staff who passionately facilitate, coordinate, and mobilize, often behind the scenes – that make it possible for networks to operate and solve problems. Unfortunately, this unique professional field and specialty often goes unrecognized and unsupported.
Over the course of 2019 as I was establishing Collective Mind, I undertook research to better understand the needs of these network practitioners. I wanted to see if my experience as a network manager was a shared one, and to dig into the nuances of how they see their roles, how they do their jobs, what they struggle with, and how they learn and identify the resources to help them when they struggle. To do so, I undertook loosely structured, one-on-one interviews with more than 30 individuals who were network leaders and managers. They worked for networks that were primarily global in scope, with a few that had a regional focus. Their networks spanned a wide range of topics from access to reproductive health supplies to girls education, legal empowerment, child protection, and the use of cash in humanitarian response. Through these extensive conversations, I heard about their experiences – both the joys and pitfalls – and found that, unbeknownst to them, they share a common experience which I’ve summarized below.
Our collective problem-solvers face too many problems
Network managers are often hired for their technical or sectoral knowledge and experience (e.g. energy or education). While this knowledge is important, it doesn’t help them to fulfill the function of their jobs either strategically or operationally. Network managers generally don’t come to their jobs with the experience or understanding of the organizational capacities or approaches that are unique to networks. Similarly, they may have not yet honed or adapted the distinct facilitation and coordination skills required to manage and build networks in particular. They’re highly enthusiastic and strive to create impact – but they may struggle with how to do so in a network context that they’re not prepared for.
When they search for resources and tools to help them do their jobs, they’re likely to find that no consolidated body of knowledge exists. Even a Google search on “networks” will typically just turn up IT-related results. Networks practice is highly multidisciplinary, with resources and tools scattered across different fields (e.g. organizational development, social network analysis, knowledge management, leadership, etc.). The resources that do exist are often difficult to locate. Few professional development opportunities exist that are network-specific. On top of that, leaders and managers may not have the budget or resources to access them given the inherent difficulty of funding networks (a separate but critical challenge).
Limited professional development opportunities may both be a consequence of and contribute to the fact that career paths aren’t readily available for network practitioners. Staff often stay in their topical or sectoral space, seeing themselves as experts in their field not in networks. They will likely move between network roles and other roles as technical experts or working in service delivery, policy, academia, or other functions for that sector. Additionally, having been hired for their sectoral knowledge, their network expertise may be undervalued if they seek a role with a different network on a different topic, which may hire primarily on technical background rather than experience with networks, ultimately creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
Given the limited resources available to them, network managers typically learn by trial and error – which often feels like trial by fire. It is both frustrating and inefficient. Because they work primarily in a technical sector or field, rather than identifying as a network professional, they may struggle to find peers from whom to learn. People in their topical or sectoral spaces likely won’t have the experience or understanding of networks that they need to tap. Because we often work in silos, they likely aren’t connected to people working for networks in other topical areas with whom they could share their unique experience and knowledge. As such, network-focused colleagues and mentors aren’t available to them.
As a result, network managers often feel isolated, managing the complexity of their roles without support from or connection to others. This is especially true for the senior leaders who are in uniquely complex positions, managing expectations from all sides—governing bodies, staff, network members, and hiring/hosting organizations when networks aren’t their own legal entities.
We can—and must—do better
If networks are to live up their potential to help solve the world’s hard problems, we need skilled and supported professionals to make them effective and impactful. This requires establishing of an explicit field of networks practice. Network practitioners should have a viable career path that’s supported by resources, materials, and professional development opportunities. They need toolkits for understanding how to approach a network operating environment. They need clarified professional profiles, job descriptions, and skillsets. And they need a professional community for mutual support and learning.
There are a number of ways to support the establishment a robust field of networks practice. Here are a few of my suggestions.
Foster peer learning communities. Network practitioners share a functional rather than a topical space. But network management is often learned the hard way, alone. Peer learning communities foster peer mentorship and serve as a powerful method for professional development. They provide opportunities for experience and knowledge sharing that help network managers clarify their challenges and identify potential practices for how to manage their own networks without the pain of trial-and-error. Knowing that other colleagues exist out there that share your struggles is a validating experience; the connections derived support mental and emotional well-being not just efficiencies.
Make tacit knowledge explicit and available. Vital to any professional community is the availability of professional development resources to train practitioners and keep them at the top of their game. As noted, this knowledge base is lacking for network practitioners. Much of the first-hand knowledge that exists about network management is in the heads of those colleagues that have done it. This tacit knowledge is invaluable, especially given that network-focused resources and learning materials are limited. Effort needs to be made to glean this experiential knowledge from colleagues and develop it into coherent, comprehensive resources. For those resources that are available, network managers would benefit from go-to spaces for knowledge and resources that consolidate, tag, and allow for effective searches of targeted resources. These efforts would go a long way in building the knowledge base for this field.
Provide executive coaching for senior leaders of networks. Providing effective senior leadership in any type of organization is a tall order. The complexity that networks embody make this senior leadership role even more difficult for network leaders. Targeted executive coaching that understands the nuances of both these operating environments and these roles within networks should be developed and made available both for individual network leaders and for peer groups. The latter could in particular be valuable not just for mutual support in terms of experience and knowledge sharing but also to help network senior leaders feel less isolated.
The world has changed. The challenges we face – like poverty, inequality, issues of power and exploitation, access to resources and services – are in high relief and, as such, the collective action required to solve them is more critical than ever. Networks will continue to be an organizational model of choice to achieve transformational change. The organizations that support collective action and social change, and the people who facilitate and coordinate it – such as PCDN, Conveners, Net Impact, Skoll Foundation, and Collective Mind, among others – have a strong role to play in ensuring these leaders and practitioners are properly equipped. Let’s support our colleagues who will lead these efforts by establishing a respected and supported field of networks practice.
Kerstin Tebbe is the network whisperer. An international development/humanitarian response professional interested in non-traditional approaches to change across all sectors. See also her episode of the Social Change Career Podcast In Episode 10 of Season learn how during Kerstin’s earlier work years she discovered the need for capacity building for networks. Kerstin shares her career as an independent consultant and ultimately the process of founding her own organization Collective Mind, dedicated to changing the world through networks.