The fine line between a ‘Network’ and a ‘Notwork’

More and more organizations are realizing the tremendous potential that networks possess in fostering changes i.e. changes in policy, practice and procedures to achieve strategic organizational objectives. In the context of this post, ‘network’ implies internal virtual networks which are primarily set up to tap the pockets of knowledge that exists within an organization.

The growth of such networks is often governed by the process of mapping expertise by thematic areas with the overarching objective being the development of a community comprising members who share similar interests and who can learn from each other’s skills and experience by sharing knowledge. The key success factors for a network vis-à-vis community are well documented i.e. buy-in from leadership, clear understanding of what is to be achieved, appropriate technology solutions (community tools) to support knowledge sharing and resources who would act as the facilitator for the network. All these factors are critical and a lack of focus on any of these may result in the ‘e’ in Network being replaced by ‘o’. The result: a network that does not work. For this post, I would like to focus on the ‘Resource’ factor which in my humble opinion is often way down in the priority list when a network is established.

While we seem to spend a considerable amount of time and budget to ensure that the other factors are catered to, we don’t seem to exercise the same level of diligence and effort when it comes to choosing the resource who will keep the network ticking. So what are the attributes which are sought after when it comes to choosing the network facilitator? Some of the popular ones seem to be:

  • Exposure to technology (content management tools, skills in HTML etc)
    • Of late, level of proficiency and involvement in Social Media
  • Level of expertise in MS Office tools
  • Competencies in managing content
  • Communication skills

While I do not undermine the skill sets listed above, I think a network facilitator needs a few more skills and I will try to explain why.

 There is a growing recognition that knowledge cannot be managed easily. It is characterized by ‘change’ and is too slippery to be captured and put into use in a seamless manner. Hence, we see a shift from the earlier efforts of capturing all that people know into a neat little database to recognizing that often it is more effective to promote a platform where people find others who know what they need to know. This flow of information across the network needs intervention from someone, and that is exactly where the network facilitator steps in. Owing to the people driven approach, the network facilitator needs to be a good people person. Some of the key soft skills that the facilitator needs to possess include:

  • Ability to listen
    • Good network facilitators are those who are able to filter what they hear into categories i.e. good to be informed about, can be replicated (especially with regards to possible solutions to issues, clarifications against queries, mistakes made and which should not be repeated etc), too specific to an issue / instance etc
    • Look out for opportunities and connect the dots when an opportunity comes by (leveraging from what was heard and stored in the mind, spreadsheet or whichever other medium or tool the facilitator prefers to use)
  • Influencing skills and tenacity
  • Ability to keep network members engaged (it is quite critical to think out-of-box and learn from what others – within and outside the organization – are doing)
  • Develop relationships in line with the principle ‘what you know is who you know’
    • Developing relationships with network members is the first step towards the right direction. It is critical that the facilitator attempts to nurture these relationships. It is important that they recognize that this is a time-intensive process. One of the tricks of nurturing relationships is to go beyond responding to conversations and queries. At times it is required to start them as well
  • Ability to respond quickly
    • There are times when answers to queries may not be readily available. However, a quick response, even if it acknowledges that the answer is not available at the moment makes an favourable impression in the mind of the network member who posed the question. However, the net needs to be spread wider within the network in an attempt to seek if anyone else has the answer or knows someone internally and externally who can shed some light
  • Show respect to others and display inter-cultural skills
    • Most of the virtual networks that we come across today have members who represent different cultures. One of the must have attributes for a network facilitator is the appreciation that individuals from different cultural backgrounds will have different cultural norms, practices and expectations. It is critical that the facilitator is not bogged down by his/her own ‘cultural spectacle’ i.e. tendency to see the world though one’s own assumptions and beliefs
  • Develop a genuine interest in the network’s activities
    • A case in point is the role played by me for an International Development network for one of my erstwhile organizations. While I was not even remotely connected to International Development before I joined the team that maintained the network, I developed an interest which lingers on even today although I do work for a very different kind of network. Interest is intrinsically linked to passion and without passion it is difficult to go beyond the paper based job description which are shared with facilitators when they are recruited
  • Learn from others
    • A network facilitator is often left with a choice between – do I stick to my role of keeping the information flowing like water in the network (without tasting the water) or do I evolve into a greater and more challenging role. If the second option is chosen it is critical that the facilitator uses his / her stint as a learning curve and learn as much as possible
  • Be prepared to work from the background
    • A network facilitator is not often the first person to be recognized when a network achieves its objectives and is perceived to be successful. However, with time, the facilitator’s role and contribution are acknowledged by individual members who keep the network going and that is probably the greatest satisfaction that the facilitator can derive (it is much sweeter than financial rewards)! A facilitator also need to remember that while many of the initiatives are started by him/her it is at times important to step back and let the network take the credit. Thumb rule: the network is more important than me…..

Many networks face the challenge with regards to loss of interest among its members after a period of time. This is often attributed to the fact that the members are initially driven by the lure of collaborative technologies which support today’s networks. However, with time, the novelty of the new kid on the block wanes and there is a dip in interest and involvement. The situation can be addressed though by having in place a facilitator who can keep things exciting by getting the members involved and push them to highlight issues and concerns that can be met through the network.

My experience has taught me that performing the role of network facilitator isn’t an easy one. It takes skills, tenacity, desire to learn and know people and a lot of patience to be successful.

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