For me, the definitive paper on “network weaving” is this one:
Building Smarter Communities with Network Weaving
– by Valdis Krebs and June Holley.
Network weaving creates “smarter networks” (defined below). It works for all types of networks, including networks of organizations or independent individuals, and including all sectors: Business, government, and civil society.
Valdis’ and June’s paper walks through the basic steps of network weaving, which consist of a) mapping and assessing the network and b) building strategic connections to make it more effective. Their paper is 17 pages, and includes great illustrative network maps.. If you haven’t read it, it’s really the place to start.
In this post, I’ll point out how networks (and organizations) can use LinkedIn to make network weaving easier and more effective. But first, here is a bit more background on how and why network weaving works.
What Makes Networks Smart
Networks are generally made up of semi-autonomous entities where participation is largely voluntary. Networks thus rely heavily on building and using effective personal relationships. (This is also true for organizations of course, but especially true for networks.)
You can tell if a network is “smart” by looking at its results. But you can also tell a lot by looking at the structure of the network itself, using methods of social network analysis, and visual maps of the network that analysis enables.
A smart network is one in which information, resources, ideas, and effort can be most effectively shared and exchanged to get things done. So an un-smart (dumb) network basically consists of deeply fragmented clusters which don’t really know what’s going on: Who knows what, has what, needs what, is willing to do what, etc. A slightly smarter network has ways to get some of this information through, some of the time, and so such a network may think it’s just fine, thanks, but in reality there are still a lot of gaps and inefficiencies – which network analysis can uncover.
Structurally a smart network is one in which there may be many clusters, but where the clusters are efficiently connected by multiple hubs. In addition, in a smart network the average personal connection paths between any two nodes is relatively short. Smart networks also avoid bottlenecks or crisis breakdowns by frequently having multiple connection paths between clusters. Smart networks also provide readily accessible connections to diverse skills, knowledge, and perspectives that exist mainly on the edges or entirely outside the network. These kinds of diverse external connections give networks the ability to continually adapt and innovate.
An effective network weaver first starts by acting as a kind of super-connector (hub) for the network, by making connections to as many of the fragments as possible, and learning what’s going on, what the needs are, etc. This potentially can give the network weaver a great deal of power to control the network. However, network weavers aren’t interested in controlling networks (and thus keeping them weak), but in weaving them so that they’ll get stronger. So a good network weaver then begins to use his or her personal connections and knowledge to start doing these things:
a) Identifying natural connectors within clusters.
b) Making mutually useful connections between the natural connectors in different hubs.
c) Training promising and interested connectors to act as additional network weavers, to take some of the burden off the network weaver and to also speed up the weaving process.
Tools that make Network Weaving Easier and more Effective
There are (at least) two types of tools which help network weavers do their work. The first are tools for analyzing and mapping networks, which have already been mentioned. (See the paper linked above for more examples of use.)
The second type are social networking tools for professional use like LinkedIn. Facebook and other platforms with a heavy focus on social life simply don’t work as well for network weaving, primarily because they don’t include effective tools or data for discovering professional expertise and affiliations, or for discovering extended network connections to specific targets. There are also a few enterprise-type social networking platforms which can be used. However, LinkedIn’s advantages are that a) it is free, and b) its network of 27,000,000+ users is many times larger than other professional-use platforms. This second point means that in most professional networks, many members are already using it – especially the natural connectors in the network, that is, the people who need to hire new talent, make deals, raise funding, create partnerships, find influential people, etc. It also means that network members can make, share, and use connections that are outside of the network, something which is difficult to do with enterprise platforms.
LinkedIn can be used in both stages of network weaving: Getting to know the network, and making strategic connections to make the network smarter.
Here are some of the basic steps that a good network weaver can take:
1. Sign your network (or organization) up for a LinkedIn Group. This will:
- Give your network a presence on LinkedIn, and let members easily find other members, as well as promoting your network to non-members.
- Give your members additional tools and capabilities for using LinkedIn.
- Give you a way to more easily explore who your members are, and what they offer and are likely to need. (From your LinkedIn group’s ‘home page’ you can easily browse all members’ profiles in one place, and quickly see how many connections they have.)
- Provide a container (group identifier) for potentially creating reports and collecting data to generate useful network maps.
2. See who in your network is already on LinkedIn, and which ones have the most connections. Especially look to see which of the natural connectors in your network are apparently active on LinkedIn, and which are not. Encourage the active users to encourage the others they know to be more active. LinkedIn’s viral tools will help with this.
3. Explore the LinkedIn profiles of your network members, again, especially the natural connectors who will benefit most from being part of a smarter, more accessible network. LinkedIn’s profiles are an excellent way to get to know your network members – and the needs, interests, and capabilities of its members.
4. Encourage your network’s members to connect to more people whom they know, both in their own organizations, and also to reach out to people in other organizations in the network, as well as to people and organizations they know outside the network who can help people and organizations inside the network. Use your knowledge, from talking to your network’s connectors, and also from their LinkedIn profiles, to suggest specific connections between connectors in different organizations.
5. Encourage network members, especially the natural connectors, to use the network, by making use of LinkedIn profiles and tools to achieve their goals. This will reinforce the value of the network by creating tangible results, which others will learn about and want to emulate.
As a result of all of these steps taken together, the number of strategic connections in your network will grow, people will begin experiencing the results of having a smarter network, and the process of network weaving will more quickly begin to take on a life of its own.
A group of colleagues (Lisa Kimball, Michael Lewkowitz and Duncan Holmes) and I are currently working with a few organization networks to help demonstrate these and other methods for making networks smarter. We’re also seeking other networks who want to try these methods and join the demonstration. We’re especially interested in working with networks of entrepreneurial organizations, and especially those with a significant social purpose.