A Step Change in Our Thinking
Within this century, network theory (NT) will radically change the way we think and work in the community sector, creating a new paradigm for the development of policy and practice. Does this sound like a bold prediction? On the contrary, it is likely an understatement: it will be a cascading revolution and it is just about to start.
The pace of research on network theory is remarkable and both the concepts and their possible applications are under continual development. Unfortunately, until now it seems to have largely passed by those of us who are front-line practitioners in the community sector (there are a few notable exceptions to this such as Alison Gilchrist). In contrast, the health sector, amongst a wide variety of others has been incorporating and using these theories and models for some time now.
- An example of the power of this work in the health sector is the research that shows that using NT they could, in some cases, inoculate as few as a third of a population and get the same results as inoculating everyone, by accurate modelling of whom to target.
- Another example is that they could use NT to engage key individuals who would act as an early warning system for epidemic spread of infectious disease– information of incredible value for prevention efforts which can save countless lives and a fortune in cash spend.
The current Connected Communities project of the RSA is a very useful step towards bringing network theory into the area of community building, though at present, my sense is it is itself largely unknown within the field, and it is limited in scope to community development. This paper outlines some aspects of NT and some initial thoughts on its’ possible application in the wider community sector.
I am a community worker, not a scientist or researcher and my understanding of network theory is at a basic level and yet I can already see many areas where we are able to learn from and utilise the advances in NT and network modelling. In fact it is hard to think of areas where it can’t be applied. Unfortunately much of the work in NT ranges between rather dry and totally incomprehensible, written in jargon that is hard for a layperson to understand. I have, where possible, made up my own definitions to the many technical terms (which include things like “preferential attachment”, “topological robustness”, and “clustering coefficient”) and am attempting to put this into as plain English as possible.
What is Network Theory?
A brief overview: NT is the collective name for the theories that have emerged from the study of patterns in complex networks – it is the result of a global multi-disciplinary effort of research. NT is not the same as networking. With the power of modern computers we can now study ever-larger networks, identifying patterns by breaking down and analysing how these networks are structured. This then leads to greater understanding of (for example) information flow (“diffusion”) and the relative strengths and weaknesses of different types of networks (“optimal network structure”). What has emerged are some striking models that apply to networks of all sizes and across an astounding array of fields, from the spread of disease, to the internet, to the networks made up of groups of friends. They also can be applied to community cohesion, social capital, engagement and educational attainment amongst many, if not all, other aspects of the community sector.
We are all part of a multitude of different networks: our friends and families; our work networks; online networks and offline networks. Social networking sites are now one of the fastest growing communication devices and are already having huge impacts on how knowledge is shared and actions organised. Anyone who doubted this previously only has to look at the role of networks within the revolution in Egypt. Multiple network living is a fact of our modern lives and will likely only get more and more important. The map of our personal, individual networks would be a beautiful, intricate, interlinked 3D web, rather than a linear 2D drawing.
However, within the community sector we are not remotely close to making best use of the networks we already have to strengthen our communities and work collaboratively. There is massive room for improvement in this area that will predictably yield significant increases in effectiveness as well as cost savings. In the current climate this will be needed as never before.
A few of the Concepts
Some concepts from NT have already crossed the divide from the halls of academia to popular culture and common knowledge. Perhaps the best example of this is the idea of “6 Degrees of Separation”. In NT speak this is the “Small World Theory” which illustrates that even in large systems there are a surprisingly small number of degrees of separation between the members of the network. This can be seen in networks such as Linkedin where a small number of 1st degree connections lead to huge numbers of third degree connections. We need to make much better use of extended networks to encourage partnership working and collaboration. But take Linkedin – how acceptable is it to out of the blue contact 2nd and 3rd degree contacts? And while there are reasons for this, we are clearly missing out on a great chance to access new networks.
A couple of bits of terminology might be useful (my definitions):
Networks: are any group, or system, that can be seen as a whole even though it is made up of small individual units.
Hubs and Nodes: Hubs and nodes are the building blocks of networks. They are the individual component parts. Hubs are nodes that are much larger than the others and act as junctions and connectors of nodes. A community association could be a hub in its own community and a node in a network of national VCS organisations.
Links: are the connections between nodes. If you know someone, then that makes a link in the network of your social connections. If two organisations work together they are linked. Hubs have lots of links, whereas nodes only have a few links.
Network Strength and Weaknesses
Research is indicating that there are a few classic shapes or structures for networks (“network architecture” or ”network topography”) with consistent strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few examples:
- The “star” or “centralised” shape – this is when the shape of the network is like a star or a hub and spokes of a bike tyre. You have one huge hub in the middle that everyone is connected to. There is lots of central control but this is a very weak form of network, because if something happens to the central hub then the whole network fails.
- eg a political dictatorship; or a charity where all the generating is done by one person
- “De-centralised” or “multi-hub” network – where there are a number of large hubs but not very many, in amongst lots of nodes. This is slightly stronger than the star but has a significant weakness as the removal of a hub/s can make the network break up into small networks (“fragmentation”).
- eg: if you only see people because they are friends of your partner and then the relationship ends, you often may not continue to see them
- “Distributed” or “Core and Periphery” Network – this is where there are lots of hubs, large and small and the network will survive when a hub/s are removed as there are lots of interlinks between the network members. In this type of network research has shown you can remove up to 80% of the nodes and the network will still survive.
- eg this is what we might call a resilient community with high social capital. This could be a leadership model in a school of distributed leadership where the Senior Management Team really share the responsibilities and leadership. If any particular member of the team is off on long-term sick it will have a less severe impact on the school than in a “centralised” or “de-centralised structure”.
- When very developed, this is sometimes called a “web without a spider” as in a distributed structure the web expands and grows organically rather than being under central control and no single hub is so powerful that its removal would make the network fail.
What can Network Theory do for us?
So how can we start to apply this? By analysing and understanding the networks we operate in we can identify weak structures and build in capacity to be resilient to change: we can foster positive patterns and avoid weak ones. This could manifest in a myriad of ways; here are just 10 examples to illustrate my thinking:
1. Inputting on decisions about which services and funding to cut, and which to continue to fund. Some organisations and services are more central to the community resilience and capacity than others. Protection of key hubs ought to be a priority when funds are scarce.
2. An individuals’ relative ability to access networks for advice and support is already being shown to impact on employment, health, welfare and a variety of other areas. By mapping networks it would be possible to achieve more effective prevention and targeted treatment. This is a key area that is being developed with great success in the health sector. If you sow seeds in fertile ground it is much more effective than in barren lands – this is common sense and NT can help us identify the fertile ground.
3. NT provides a model for consultation and engagement that would capitalise on the ability of hubs to reach a massive number of individuals. The Obama campaign made great use of NT, and the potential use of NT generally in engagement is massive. From input into strategic engagement planning in terms of using networks to spread info, to how to put together a representative user panel or online sounding board, to the development of genuine multi-layered consultation processes.
4. Mapping the network of important positive relationships for a young person in the care system could encourage foster carers to put more emphasis on the development of a larger network of support for both the young person and themselves. My assumption would be that larger and more distributive support networks would have fewer placement breakdowns.
5. The network of outside school educational support for school children will directly impact on learning outcomes. It could be that schools would give extra support and guidance to students with families where there is less active parental or carer support.
6. Building more cohesive communities through fostering the development of links between members of different networks. This will apply to organisations as well as individuals. The models demonstrate how so called “gatekeepers” hinder true community involvement because they act as a star network that stifles diversity of view.
7. By mapping the connections between organisations or services, we can identify where there are weak links and build strength in those areas, filling the “structural holes”. If this was done across all the providers for a particular service (eg youth provision) in a Borough, huge improvements in partnership working and sharing could be achieved.
8. Spreading and sharing of information of any kind within a community. This could range from informing people about a proposed planning application, to a call to action eg a school looking for new governors. This also includes spreading of good practice so we aren’t constantly re-inventing the wheel, leading to greater innovation and the ability to improve the work we do.
9. Umbrella organisations could develop their role to include fostering the construction of a strong, distributed network. Many such networks are currently actually of the star formation where the link between members is through the central organisation itself. Instead they could act as a form of an introduction agency where they aim to build independent links between members. This would likely impact on levels of partnership as well as protecting the network from breaking up if the umbrella organisation collapses. With the current squeeze on umbrella groups due to the economic crisis this work urgently needs to be taken up.
10. Behaviour change programmes of all kinds can use networks to model and foster positive behaviours, making use of the power of networks to influence how we act. Research indicates, though this is counter intuitive, that we can be influenced by people who can be up to 3 degrees of separation from us (our friends’, friends’, friends). The scope to exploit this is huge and can impact on areas as diverse as obesity and attitude to volunteering. I have not yet been able to find any research on the influence of imaginary rather than real network links though I expect it to be even more dramatic – I am talking specifically about celebrities and TV characters who whilst we don’t actually know them, are a part of our personal network in terms of how they influence us.
Another important theory in NT is called the “strength of weak ties”. This comes from a landmark sociology study from more than 30 years ago. In short, it showed how weak ties (links) are hugely important in sharing information, and making things happen. The people with whom you have the strongest links share much of the same information sources as you, as you are in the same network. People who are further away from your close circle can help to access vital information that is new or different. This has an important role in supporting people into employment, in terms of finding out about job opportunities.
- This theory relates strongly to the idea of social capital – the more connections you have the easier things are for you as an individual. If you can always say, “I don’t know, but I know someone who does, then you have more options available.
- An application of this could be that a key role of a local authority could be to ensure that the VCS and local government mini-networks become inter-connected. This would help to counter silo mentality and make co-working much more likely. Fostering inter-connectivity could become a key role for Local Authorities.
- This also highlights the importance of generalists as well as specialists. The generalists are able to take learning from one sector and apply it to another (which is what I am seeking to do here!) even, as in this case, when the sectors are not closely connected.
Some Conclusions and Ideas
Some of the insights from NT tell us what we either already know or instinctively grasp; some open up new ways of looking at things, that in turn lead to new possibilities and actions.
NT can give us:
1. A coherent theoretical understanding for why something happens eg: why distributed leadership is a more resilient structure than a star shape.
2. A structure to assess and frame where we are currently at and where we aspire to be.
3. New ideas about things we can do to strengthen the networks we are in, or our position and role within them.
4. New tools and insights to help make better decisions on how to allocate resources and work better together; hugely important in times of budget constraints.
I hope that our sector can start to make use of the wealth of research in NT and that this can help us to work smarter and get better results. The aspects I mentioned are only a miniscule few of the widespread insights and possible applications of NT.
For those wanting to read more about NT in the community development field I can recommend the recent RSA paper ‘Connected Communities’ and Alison Gilchrist’s book ‘The Well-Connected Community’. For more general coverage of network theory the book ‘Linked’ by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi is pretty accessible though a bit technical in places. Also, here are 2 links to TED lectures by Nicholas Christakis, on the application of NT https://bit.ly/d0lZCz & https://bit.ly/abJrAJ . Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have also written an informative book on social networks, called ‘Connected’.
I was delighted to recently come across the RSA project and the report on their first year of research. This type of work needs to be replicated across the field, with much wider scope, and then translated into plain English and made accessible to the field. My hope is that a large number of individuals and organisations from across the breadth of the community sector will explore NT so we can really take the most from this exciting and enlightening discipline.
Given what we know from NT of the role of hubs to drive behaviour change and spread information, it is the key hubs across the community sector that we really need to step up and engage with Network Theory – to use their position in the centre of the web to drive learning and development. I believe that a broad partnership of hubs from across the entire sector should be created to support the incorporation of NT. This partnership would be the inspiration and the catalyst for this incredible process of refinement of our knowledge and practice that we are about to undergo. This may already be happening, or under development but if so, I have not heard of something like this.
5 Ideas of what we can do
1. Establish the multi sector partnership mentioned above (this could largely operate online) to support the understanding, spread and implementation of NT. This could include big funders, community groups and other hubs, academics, and of course government.
2. For funders and trusts to take on the importance of this work and make substantial sums available for projects that expand our knowledge and the spread of NT. We need the information presented in plain English, aimed at front line staff not just academic papers in technical NT jargon.
3. Engage the trade journals, bloggers and other key communicators across the community sector, so that they can actively spread the knowledge and new ideas.
4. Set up a web forum where ideas can be discussed and collaborations forged. For this there is an ideal existing Network as a simple solution – creating a Linkedin group.
5. Implement small changes in our projects, even if all that means is we start getting in the habit of asking ourselves, “is there anything that I can input from NT to help improve this design/project/intervention?” The process of enquiry will result in new thinking.
NT will clearly in the future become a key factor in the development of our understanding of individual and society. What is in not certain is the speed with which it will be incorporated by front-line practitioners here in the UK. We can collectively sit back passively or we can actively engage with it. Leadership from the key hubs (organisations and individuals) in the sector will likely make the difference in the speed of spread. In these bleak times, with the worsening impact of the cuts to the sector, NT provides the potential of a credible route to get more from less. We must seize this opportunity with both hands.