Networks are everywhere. We are all part of networks

Last Saturday morning I travelled to a hotel in central Jakarta to participate in the opening of the annual meeting of the Alumni Reference Group (ARG) organized by Australia Awards. There were about 150 people attending the meeting. These 150 people represent more than 6500 Indonesian alumni who received a scholarship to pursue a postgraduate degree in an Australian university since the 1950s.

As this is the first annual meeting, the aim for ARG is to think about how to develop further the wide network of alumni. I was asked to share some ideas on networks: how they work, what to keep in mind when developing one, etc.  It has been a nice opportunity to get back to some of the papers that colleagues at ODI’s RAPID programme published few years ago: Ben Ramalingam (here), Simon Hearn (here), Enrique Mendizabal (here).

Here few things that can be useful to keep in mind when starting or developing a network of individuals or organizations who want to pursue a common purpose such as policy change or social change.

Purpose: why do we want to work as a network? It is important to plan how the network carries on its activities (see Function below). However, before doing that, it is important to clarify or validate the purpose of the network. In other words, work on a clear mission and vision.

Role: broadly speaking networks can have two main roles. They can support their members with, eg knowledge, information, data, resources, etc. The members then implement their own plans and activities helped by what they get out of the network. This is for example the case with knowledge sharing networks. Networks can also have an agency role. The network itself (with the input, support, and contribution from its members) aims at producing and influencing change. This is the case with advocacy and activists’ networks lobbying for policy changes. The choice between the support role and the agency role is not an either or. Networks have to find the balance they need between support and agency.

Function: what does the network do? Ramalingam and others have identified five main functions that network can have. 1) Knowledge management: store, mange, share and make available knowledge and evidence to its members; 2) Amplification and advocacy: take or develop a message, a policy proposal and amplify through the membership to reach a wider audience such as informing public opinion and contribute to policy changes; 3) Community building: these networks bring together individuals and/or organizations who are brought together by shared values, interests, and ideas. They building trust and social capital but may not be interested in reaching out to other networks or a wider audience; 4) Convening: these are networks that bring together individuals and/or organizations that would otherwise not come together. This is the case of international networks or national networks in a country as large and diverse as Indonesia. These networks allow bringing together individuals and organizations working in different sectors and disciplines. Researchers and policy makers’ forums can be an example of this type of networks; 5) Mobilize resources: networks have more possibilities than individuals or organisations to access funding.

Form: networks need an organizational structure to reduce the risk to loose steam due to the challenges of finding consensus, define and agree on strategies, have only few members who are active, etc. It seems to me, looking at the five functions described above, that as we move from the knowledge sharing function to the resource mobilization function increases the need for more complex structures and systems to manage what the network does. It is just an impression, but I think that being able to mobilize resources and therefore prepare proposals, financial reports, budget, monitoring, etc. requires a more structured management structure than with sharing knowledge.

This was the first annual meeting of the ARG. It was quite interesting to  hear how the ARG members have already started to organized thematic sub-groups/sub-networks with clear vision and mission statements. Moreover the thematic sub-groups are aligned with the policy priorities identified by the new administration led by President Jokowi: health, bureaucratic reforms, poverty reductions disadvantaged and post conflict areas, infrastructures, for security, environment and natural disasters, energy and innovation technology, and investment and business climate.

While listening to the presentation and observing the lively interaction between the ARG members, I thought about the fact that the network function described by my colleagues at the RAPID programme did not go in depth into the potential and opportunities provided by data innovations. Ben Ramalingam has mentioned that during the last 20 years networks and boomed at the risk of becoming a buzzword in programmer and project plans.

What is the impact that social media and data innovation have on networks such as the one that ARG is developing? 1) We are all part of many networks, especially through digital platforms. This may reduce the time to interact in new networks. I, for example, am on Twitter, Outcome Mapping Learning Community,, Facebook, Google+, Bike to Work Jakarta, etc. etc. Not easy to find time for more networking; 2) Digital platforms allow the network members to develop networks using digital tools and social media that people are either familiar with or are already using. This  reduces the time and resources required to develop and learn using a new network platform to support discussions, knowledge sharing, and contributions.

Nice morning with the ARG network. Interesting to follow how they will develop their work.

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