blog post by Karen
What’s in a Network?
One of the things that attracted me to apply for a post in Belong in Plymouth was the job title, Network Connector.
I’d been involved in networking for many years, and although a little bored of the self interest and self promotion that went on, was still convinced of the need to get to know more about what was going on in the city.
Pretty early into the job I discovered, What is Network Weaving? - Q & A with June Holley - NetworkWeaver and decided I infinitely preferred the title Network Convener, or even cooler, Network Weaver.
Is there a difference in the name? I think so.
Network Weaving presupposes that there are people missing in the room that need to be invited in, otherwise you have a Club, not a Network. This certainly appealed to my person centred approach, based on the well known slogan: “Nothing For Us Without Us”.
It also makes sense in a network that people connect to people, rather than simply to organisations; so by definition a Network is a place of equity, where people felt equally important and valued.
Using groups.io as our main form of communication adds to that sense of equal footing; emails are taken out of communications so you may not know which organisation a person is speaking from unless you know them, and people. We’ve also kept our network open and transparent meaning that anyone can read posts, whether they are in the core team sub group or specific sub groups focussed around certain themes.
Relationships are formed in groups small enough to know each other, but big enough to have a range of diversity of thought.
Networking therefore becomes a place where relationships and ultimately trust is built. You get the feeling that someone else has your back and supports your work regardless of whether they directly benefit. And, conversely, it becomes a place where you can be challenged as you don’t need to be seen to agree for the sake of the shared work. Positive, construct give and take challenge also build trust as you can be sure of someone’s honesty when they don’t always agree with you.
This kind of networking has seen a resurgence in communities across the world that identify with youth and a lack of means – the sum of the whole being greater than the parts works with the idealism of youth focussed on the greater good and the lack of funds that is usually associated with youthful efforts. Money may not be the root of evil, but it certainly supports self interest and comfort. Having to share resources definitely helps networking.
Network Weaving’s second precondition is that it exists for the good of the whole - as conditions improve for the whole, all the individuals benefit. This is where it fits nicely with Systems Thinking - the possibility of improving, changing, deconstructing or even overthrowing the system by the power of collective thinking and the strength of relationships and the ability to build a movement as thoughts and ideas ripple out to the edges of our society through the many places the network touches.
If group thought and system change are making you feel uneasy, Network Weaving discourages dictatorships by committing to distributed networks. No Hub and Spokes model here, rather the Fuzzy Maps we began Belong in Plymouth with, showing connections but no centralised leadership.
Some may criticise this as unrealistic – it could be written off as some kind of unworkable utopia or hippy commune. It is faced with many many challenges:
Getting an invite right that neither over complicates or over simplifies the need to connect.
Persuading very busy people to invest time into something that does not directly benefit them.
Figuring out how to share resources and allocate budget
Addressing the terror of just being a talking shop.
Being open about existing agendas and power structures, rising power structures and hidden power.
Encouraging open conversation. “I’m happy to say this to you, but I don’t want to share it in a wider group.”
Finding time and resources to be able to meet regularly enough to prevent cohesive bonds becoming so loose that the Network loses all sense of its own identity.
Setting a tone of conversation that encourages curiosity and inquiry rather than bolstering your own position or opinion.
Challenging self interest whilst remaining neutral.
And learning the skill sets of international diplomats.
There’s also the challenge of “growing the Network”. Initially I took this as my own kpi of success or failure, but then thought that a smaller more engaged network was potentially more beneficially than a larger looser one. Most members of our Groups.io platform do not post and only a portion of people regularly engage in meetings. Does this mean that others who became members are now disinterested? And there are still many people across the city who have never heard of Belong in Plymouth who perhaps should have. Networking tends to leave a lot of activity in the dark, subject to either our overly ambitious or depressingly cynical imagination.
However, if you view the overall city system as one giant network of interconnected human beings, it feels like network weaving has the potential to knit our inhabitants together in many more joined up ways. And that has got to be good for Belonging.