Photo Credit: Birds on a Wire by Flickr.com user Kiwi Flickr

What's So Special About Networks?

Neighborland helps organizations, agencies, and residents connect to improve their communities. Photo by Mike Lydon, featured in his new book Tactical Urbanism. Neighborland helps organizations, agencies, and residents connect to improve their communities. Photo by Mike Lydon, featured in his new book Tactical Urbanism.

Reposted from the Connecting to Change the World blog with permission. What networks can do especially well—better than organizations—is what makes them attractive to organizers and investors. It boils down to four “network effects” that  a network’s decentralized structure and social capital among members are remarkably good at producing: Assemble novel and flexible combinations of human talent. Networks can aggregate talent that would be difficult or impossible to pull together in a single organization. The aggregation can come from organizations or individuals that align their capabilities and coordinate their efforts and, in the process, create a new and powerful ability. This combined talent is especially valuable when seeking innovation, because it brings together a fresh diversity of people and ideas and can be highly responsive to opportunities and other changes. This is because a network draws on small increments of people’s time for episodic use, rather than locking them into full-time, stable work. Small amounts of hundreds of people’s time. Enable efficient access to new resources. Networks can make it possible for their members to connect efficiently with a great many people—network members and their networks—and thus gain access to information and other resources. In an effective network, each member is connected to many other people, and through them to yet more people. When a member searches for help in the network, it’s just a connection or two away. Thanks to this multiplier effect, a network can potentially provide its members with efficient access to thousands of other people and their knowledge, skills, and resources. Grow rapidly to “critical mass.” Networks can grow rapidly because of what’s called the Law of Increasing Returns. In a nutshell, it’s naturally in network members’ interests to have more members with whom to connect and transact. A network may expand explosively when its members bring some or all of their networks into the network—an instant infusion of new members. This growth potential and the critical mass it can achieve is one reason that foundations investing in large-scale capacities for long-term policy advocacy favor a network model. Move and test ideas and information widely and swiftly. In networks, information flows between members through the numerous links they have established, instead of having to go through a central hub or the top of an organization chain of command before being sent out to the troops. This unmediated exchange facilitates the fast dissemination of ideas and the collection of feedback across a large and potentially diverse number of members. A network’s “collective intelligence creates a ‘cloud’ of information that many people can distribute for use,” explain Beth Kanter and Alison Fine in The Networked Nonprofit (2010, page 107). In chapter 1 of Connecting to Change the World there’s much more about what makes networks tick and what types of impact they can have.