Tag Archives: networks

Mapping your service network

Every good direct-service social worker has go-to people for resources for clients. They used to be in Rolodexes. Now we have contacts in our phones and (if you’re like me) lists up on the walls around my desk, too.

These connections are essential, many times, for getting what our clients need, and they personify the truth that–in social work, as in advocacy and in life in general–relationships matter. A lot.

I have often thought that there should be a better way to share these resources. I mean, I know that some of the appeal is the whole ‘inside hook up’ angle, but that’s really not a very efficient or effective way to run a service delivery system.

And, oftentimes, there’s nothing intentionally opaque about these connections in the first place; we just don’t have a very good mechanism for communicating things like, “So-and-so in billing is really great about connecting clients to payment plans” or “XYZ agency has bus passes”.

In our community and in others around the country, nonprofit social service agencies have instituted computerized databases to coordinate information among organizations, but, in my experience, these are more commonly used to make sure that clients aren’t receiving duplicate services in multiple agencies, rather than to increase the number of linkages among the various hubs in a social service network.

And that’s what we need, stronger connections to bridge the gaps in a fragmented system–linkages strong enough to be bridges for the clients trying to navigate resources.

I think that network mapping holds a lot of promise for this challenge. Our ability to analyze and visualize how different ‘nodes’ are connected, how strongly they are linked, and where organizations are isolated within the network has improved dramatically in recent years, with both technological advances (there are free network mapping software add-ins that are really easy to use) and with evolving theoretical understanding of network function.

What if case managers and therapists and all who have responsibilities for navigating the service delivery system came together, not just to give program announcements, like at many coalition meetings, but to really map to whom they are connected, and how, and on whom they most commonly rely for help?

What if we pulled those go-to people out of our contact lists and mental Rolodexes and put them up on the wall, with sticky notes that show who’s central to the network, who’s on the periphery, and who connects us best?

What if we used that information not just to improve our referrals, highlight those individuals doing the best work to facilitate access to the system, and figure out ways to work around gaps and inadequacies in the network, but also to get a better sense of how these coalitions and loose affiliations could be leveraged for advocacy?

What if we could solve some of the problems–the gaps and the apparent duplication and the communication breakdowns–in our social service delivery system, without building new organizations or adding services, just by weaving a network that covers the chasms?

In search of elusive collective impact

This summer, I spent a lot of my time working on a sort of landscape assessment of the advocacy capacity–individually and collectively–of organizations working to combat obesity and support healthy eating and active living in the Kansas City area.

It was a tremendously exciting project, for me–a chance to learn more about work happening in an area that I care about but have relatively little experience in, and an opportunity to try out some of the tools I’ve been reading about, like a new network mapping system and a different method of analyzing coalition advocacy capacity.

For me, that passes for absolutely thrilling. Seriously.

I may have some other insights from this work to share in the future, but, for today, I want to highlight what was an unexpected development:

Everyone was talking about collective impact.

OK, so not technically everyone.

But, where I was expecting to have to prod folks into thinking, not about what their own capacity looks like or how they leverage that towards policy change, but, instead, how their capacity fits with that of others in the field, for greatest combined impact…

They were already there.

Several informants (I interviewed almost 40 people working in the field) talked about things like the need for shared metrics and a common vision, the importance of a network mentality so that individual organizations’ capacities were truly available to others, and the need for ‘backbone’ organizations that can catalyze a field approach.

They didn’t have the answers, certainly. It’s one thing to know that we need complementary skills and strategies AND the will to use them collaboratively, and another thing to really make that happen.

But they’re thinking about it. And talking about it.

And hoping for help–from foundations (who can fund in ways that encourage consideration of combined contribution, rather than individual attribution), from consultants (who can help them to map the capacities of others and focus on their best ‘niche’ in the network), and from each other (because impact is, after all, what we should all be in this business for).

I can’t definitely prove that this attention to collective impact comes from this Stanford Social Innovation Review article, although more than one informant mentioned it (and one even emailed it to me after we spoke).

It’s definitely worth reading, though, if you haven’t.

And I’d love to hear from you, today.

First, what about collective impact? What would it look like, in the field where you work? What would it take to get there?

And, second, has there been an article that has really ‘echoed’ where you work? A particular way of thinking about organizational change, or capacity, or advocacy, or, really, anything, that has shaped how you and your colleagues see what you do, and what you need to do differently? I’d love to see it.

We mostly face complex problems that have multiple potential intervention points, in this world.

It seems that most of the quick ‘technical’ fixes already have been. Fixed, that is.

So it’s going to take thinking, and working, collectively, in order to get to the scale where we can make a difference.

Connected Citizens in the New Year

I read the Knight Foundation’s Connected Citizens report (subtitled, “The Power, Potential, and Peril of Networks”) a few months ago (it came out in late April, I think, but, giving birth kind of put me behind in my reading this year), and I’ve been thinking about it more lately as I look to the future, especially since the report is, itself, in part an effort to predict where and how networks may change our lives and our efforts for social change, in the years to come.

I expect that some of the questions the report poses, and some of the hypotheses it suggests, will filter into my thinking and writing about advocacy (especially in the online context) and community organizing over the coming year, but here are my reactions as we straddle this period between the past and the future, at the (almost) dawn of 2012.

  • Do we truly have greater transparency today? Or does the proliferation of information mean that it’s that much easier to hide the important stuff, in the midst of a lot that doesn’t matter? I’m torn about this, really–on the one hand, there’s the demise of traditional investigative journalism, with all that that means for our ability to uncover the truth and publicize it; on the other, there’s the rise of citizen-supported journalism and independent cataloguing of so much that happens in our world. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s like “the truth is out there,” but will we be able to find and recognize it, in the middle of so much…stuff? And what does that mean for our efforts to be megaphones for the voices that are so often silenced, as we know we must, in order to truly empower those whose stories need to become part of our policy narratives? Since policymakers are vulnerable to this same information overload, how do we push past the noise to be heard?
  • Will technology enable us to turn ever-more inward, or seek and build alliances with unlikely partners? Or both? How do we resist the tendency towards silos, or, indeed, is such homogeneity all bad, in terms of building strong identity? Since, again, policymakers are people, too, how will their increasing reliance on what their “friends” prefer, in terms of policy approaches, and, indeed, even what their social networks hold as “truth” and “information” impact our ability to construct policy solutions that can cross rigid ideological lines? I’m not too optimistic, really.
  • How can we engage our crowds so that the barrier to participation is minimal but still meaningful? As the default for “participation” becomes quick engagement, how do we invest in the deeper relationships that are truly transformational?
  • Social workers know how to “design for serendipity.” From our direct practice experiences, we get the idea that we cannot predict outcomes flawlessly but must, instead, create the spaces (physically and, more importantly socially and psychologically) for real magic to happen in people’s lives. This makes us, I believe, champion “network weavers”, if we can leverage those clinical skills into social change work.
  • Anyone who has ever read the comments on an online newspaper article about immigration policy knows the link between anonymity and the deterioration of dialogue in a public sphere. The challenge here, as we increasingly shift to broader conversations detached from a local, identified context, is to figure out how to cultivate relationships that breed accountability while taking advantage of the boundary-less nature of online networks.
  • We can all get excited about the rise of mutual support and the tremendous potential of networks to address real, pressing need. But we should also be very afraid of the parallel risk that such indigenous resource provision becomes an excuse for abdication of our collective (read: public) (read: we still need taxes) responsibility to uphold the social contract and provide for the needs of those without strong networks in the first place (because such network resources are, like nearly everything else in this world, not evenly distributed).

    Again, there’s more there than what I’ve captured here, including some thoughts relevant to my work with the Sunflower Foundation, particularly this question of whether measuring network health and strength can tell you how close you’re getting to a desired change, given that networks are, by definition, rather uncontrollable and certainly dynamic entities. But, in chiming in so late on the conversation, I’m partly hoping to restart it a bit, since we know that we’ll be dealing, increasingly, with networks in our work in the years to come–indeed, they may become the default way of approaching our shared concerns–and we need to understand how to engage them effectively, how to critically evaluate their roles and their shortcomings, and how their existence will shape ours.