Photo Credit: Birds on a Wire by user Kiwi Flickr

Is it a Network?

Only one type of network. Photo by Sean MacEntee, used under Creative Commons licensing. Only one type of network. Photo by Sean MacEntee, used under Creative Commons licensing.

Reposted with permission from the Connecting to Change the World blog There are many structures for organizing collaboration among individuals and/or organization. But they are not all the same–and we’re often asked if a particular structure is or isn’t a network. So we’ve taken the time here (and in more detail in chapter 1 of Connecting to Change the World) to identify and differentiate some of the main structures that social activists and philanthropic funders use and support. In general, the differences fall across a spectrum related to how structured/organized the form is. Some (like professional associations) are too organized; others are not organized enough.  As we’ve said in other contexts (and explain more of in chapter 5): networks are on the “edge of chaos,” with enough organization to stay together, but enough freedom to creatively evolve; they contain autonomous agents who share common rules.  In some of the collective forms we look at, the agents aren’t autonomous (too much structure); in others, there aren’t really common rules that bind them (not enough structure).
Type of Collective Organizing Typical Distinguishing Features Difference from a Generative Network
Coalition/ Alliance of Organizations A temporary alignment of organizations to achieve a specific objective such as electing a candidate or securing adoption of a new public policy. Usually disbands when the effort has been completed. Narrower in purpose/scope than a network. (Some alliances reorganize as a generative network once their campaign is over.)
Membership- Based Association or Organization Organized mainly to pool resources and provide dues-paying members with services, often for professional development or representation within public-policy arenas. Association/organization staff does most of the work. More staff-driven, less member-to-member relationship driven, than a network. Focus is on serving members rather than members collaborating with each other.
Community of Practice Organizations and individuals loosely align and coordinate around development, adoption, and spread of innovative practices and/or policies to address a particular set of problems or opportunities. Participants typically lack a firm sense of “membership identity” and do not make explicit reciprocal commitments. Communities of practice often have many sub-networks.
Movement Large numbers of people loosely aligned around a large cause (e.g., civil rights, environmental protection), their passion ignited by a personal desire to right a wrong. Less coherent, focused, and coordinated—and much larger, sprawling—than a generative network. A movement may contain networks; networks may spawn a movement.
Social-Media Web Alignment is around a passing cause. Online; open membership; enables many “weak ties” among participants. Less coherent, focused and coordinated, with no clear membership expectations.