Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Are there best practices in creating problem-solving networks? Passion and motivation of a sponsor and champion are important, but studies offer practical answers to common questions such as "what type of network is most appropriate?" and "what are the ta

There have been a series of studies providing lessons on how to effectively create a collaborative community. For example, having a catalyst (like Lucas) and have a convening place to share (like the OpenGovPlaybook wiki), are great starting points. Russ Linden, an author who is an astute observer of collaborative approaches, recently wrote about the importance of a collaborative mindset. And being passionate and motivated matter too, as this Dan Pink video playfully demonstrates:

But there is more to it than a mindset or being passionate. Here are some pointers addressing some key questions around creating collaborative networks that have been addressed in some recent studies sponsored by the IBM Center:
What type of network is most appropriate? A study by Brinton Milward and Keith Provan identifies four types of networks:
  • Information diffusion networks, that create informal ties between agencies and people. These can be designed (top-down) or emergent (bottom-up). This can evolve, for example, among disaster preparedness experts (such as the All Hazards Consortium).
  • Service implementation networks, whose members jointly deliver services. For example, the Service Canada network delivers a range of social services on behalf of a consortium of government agencies.
  • Problem solving networks help set agendas for a policy area. They tend to focus on problem solving rather than relationship building.
  • Community building networks develop social capital among its members. They tend to be focused on long-term capacity-building. 
What are the tasks of the network managers? Milward and Provan have an answer for this, as well. They say there are five main tasks for network managers – who can be managers of networks or managers in networks:
  • Manage accountability
  • Manage legitimacy
  • Manage conflict
  • Manage design (Governance Structure)
  • Manage commitment
What are the structural elements of a Community of Practice? A study by Xavier Briggs and William Snyder outlines the key elements of a community of practice, which is most useful n fostering learning and innovation in a specific topic area. It tends to focus on building and sharing knowledge, as opposed to delivering a product or service. It tends to rely on informal phenomena, such as shared passion, informal relationships, and shared experiences – as opposed to formal rules, contracts, or defined job descriptions. Briggs and Snyder say there are four elements:
  • Community: Members are at various levels: conveners, core members, active members, and peripheral members.
  • Domain: a focus on a specific area (such as Open Government) and a collective passion for an issue and how it can contribute to society. Oftentimes, there is a political context that gives legitimacy to this domain and those affected by it.
  • Practice: Techniques, methods, tools and professional attitudes, along with learning activities to build, share, and apply the practice.
  • Sponsorship and support: This could be done top-down or via a professional association from the outside. This would include logistics (such as meeting space), communications, and coaching for network leaders.
What are the key factors in successful cross-sector collaboration? A recent study by John Bryson, et al uses a traffic congestion-related case study in Minnesota to describe a set of key factors. These factors include:
  • Understanding prior initiatives and the overall environment in which the collaborative network will be working. Whenever possible, leverage existing (rather than creating new) networks.
  • Developing effective process, structures, and governance mechanisms so participants understand their scope and roles.
  • Understand the role of key players, such as who has decision authority. . . and this will likely shift over the course of a collaboration process, especially if the role of the network changes.
  • Demonstrating leadership and key competencies. . . typically the network sponsors have formal authority and the on-the-ground network champions lack formal authority but have legitimacy in the eyes of the other members of the network to be their convener.
  • Creating an outcome-oriented accountability system by collecting data on the inputs, processes, and outcomes of the network and relies on transparency and relationships among the network members to self-enforce behaviors.
If you were being asked for advice on developing a collaborative network, are there elements that you think are missing or insights you’d add?