Why Networks Matter

Above, a sample of a Social Network Analysis Map

Above, a sample of a Social Network Analysis Map

By David Ehrlichman

Founding Partner, Converge

Editor’s Note: This fall we’re excited to bring you some more posts by an exciting lineup of guest authors. Today we’re featuring David Ehrlichman of Converge, a team of strategists and designers who have worked with the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation to build the Sterling Network NYC. 

The world is experiencing profound and rapid change. To keep pace with the growing complexity of our planet, the way we work together must change as well. 

Most leaders now acknowledge that the systemic challenges we face cannot be addressed by any one organization or sector alone. Even our most innovative organizations, far-reaching institutions, and wealthy foundations are unequipped and unable to address complex problems on their own. Rather, addressing systemic challenges and creating meaningful change (like seeking to advance economic mobility in New York City) necessarily requires a systemic response, tackling the problem from many angles at once as part of a smart, coordinated effort. 

This is where networks come in to play. From our perspective, intentionally formed networks like Sterling Network NYC mark the next evolution in the way humans can organize themselves to create meaningful social or environmental change. As the authors of Connecting to Change the World write, “The network has become a favored unit of action for people who want to make nearly any sort of difference in the world.”

At their best, networks build on the life force of community - shared values, resilience, self-organization, and deep connection - while leveraging the advantages of a modern healthy organization - shared purpose, efficient structures, timely flow of information, and bias for action. Through this unique blend of qualities, networks can increase the flow of information, reduce duplication, and align strategies for work across between dozens of organizations and across entire systems.

Networks come in all shapes and sizes, from small communities of practice to large social movements, from loosely defined associations to highly focused coalitions. And some are more structured and deliberate, while others are more fluid and spontaneous. 

Yet what makes all networks work, above all else, is the strength of connection and flow of communication between participants in the network. Like the foundation of a house, a network’s relational structure might not be readily apparent at first glance, but without it the work of the network is unlikely to get very far. Network researcher Jane Wei-Skillern, writes: “the single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants. Many collaborative efforts ultimately fail to reach their full potential because they lack a strong relational foundation.”

Mapping a network through social network analysis (SNA) is the most effective method currently available for making that normally invisible relational structure visible. And because the effectiveness of any network  depends primarily on the strength of the connections that exist between the participants involved, SNA is often used as one of the primary means of assessing progress in the early days of a network’s formation before more tangible outcomes emerge, as was the case with the Puyallup Watershed Initiative.

Three key markers for well-connected networks include more relationships forming, people communicating regularly, and more active collaborations. The Sterling Network is thriving in all three areas.

You’ll be learning more about just how the Sterling Network is performing on these metrics, and others, a bit later this fall. The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation will be releasing a condensed public version of its 18-month impact report for the network, and will share key findings and a link to that report here on the blog. Stay tuned for more!