Why communication planning is different for networks: How your network can re-learn communication to make it successful

Networks are able to solve problems that individuals and organizations cannot on their own. Often when we think of them, we think about coordinated resources and activities, but we also need to think about the coordinated flow of information and ideas.

After all, the reason networks are more effective at addressing large scale issues is that multiple clusters of expertise can inform one another in order to be both more efficient and more responsive to needs. Just as human organs are composed of cells and tissues, networks are made up of individuals and organizations working together to perform various functions simultaneously. To do so, they need to be in consistent communication with one another.

Communication in networks is different than in organizations. When we understand this, we can recognize and capitalize upon the incredible opportunities they present. Here are four ways communication is different for networks and four strategies for success.

1. Communication is multi-directional. In contrast to networks, the hierarchical organizations and systems we are accustomed to seek to maximize control and stability by having leaders decide what and how to share information, both inside and outside the organization. Unfortunately, these systems are breeding grounds for miscommunication and poor strategy because those who aren’t leaders also have valuable information that may not be being fully utilized.

Networks have an incredible opportunity to re-think how information and resources can be fully utilized. Instead of looking to an executive, we can look to one another and assess what our goals are and how we might each contribute to get there. Organizations that participate in networks may find that it takes considerable effort to break habits based on organizational norms such as looking for clear directions to follow. Networks that use a collective impact framework may have a backbone organization leading coordination, but this can carry with it a risk that the other organizations will easily revert to the habits of traditional hierarchies that they are accustomed to.

The solution: Develop an internal communications strategy. Sometimes networks put the cart before the horse by thinking about marketing or branding before they’ve focused on group clarity and coordination. Establishing group identity and an internal narrative will help your network progress and it will also help those outside the network better understand what you are doing and why. A strategy should include your network’s shared goals and their coordinated plan for reaching it. A discussion about how resources will be shared should also include how external communication will be supported and executed, preparing the cart for when the horse is really to run.

It is important to remember that communication both reflects and drives culture. One network I’ve worked with developed their strategic plan together but then months later when the network was getting disorganized and losing focus, the plan was sitting on the shelf. A different one continues to reference their shared vision, even sharing best practices with other networks.

2. More people need to reach consensus internally. The strength and potency of networks is not measured by the number of people or organizations involved, but rather whether there is sufficient diversity of thought and experience to create new solutions and maximize their potential for success. Having many different voices at the table can invite unique challenges such as:

  • Members feel confused, especially because they may not be yet versed in one another’s language, terminology, organizational norms, stakeholders, and/or experiences.
  • Members are not getting enough information from one another because attendance is irregular, discussions are dominated by a few members, and/or information is not consistently distributed.
  • Members feel conflicted because of culture clashes and/or competition and because their loyalties and responsibilities are ambiguously divided between their organization and the network as a whole.
  • Members’ commitment wanes because members do not feel heard, important, or that the group is moving forward.

Knowledge-based social networks are all about leveraging what who you know knows, but before we can do that we must first know what each of us knows. Sharing with other network members isn’t always easy, especially because our individual need to belong often eclipses our group need to accomplish tasks. But once many voices can learn to harmonize in unison, their volume will be difficult for anyone to ignore.

The solution: Invest in building trust. Building trust takes considerable time. Networks may have to ask themselves: “Is it more important to accomplish specific tasks within a given timeframe or is it more important to reach our goal?” Doing the latter may require sacrificing the former.

Building trust also requires leaning into discomfort and conflict, which generally we try to avoid. I have found that the simplest, most effortless way to do this is to use a visual communication tool known as graphic recording to support group members in real-time with understanding complexity and feeling included.

For example, one graphic recording I’ve created visually captured a meeting that was a turning point for two networks that had felt in competition with one another. Individuals arrived at the meeting skeptical about even engaging in a facilitated process together, but they used the visual to work through their conflicts and by the following year recognized the graphically recorded meeting as the one during which they came together as one.

3. External communication is essential. Networks present opportunities to break through former communication barriers that impede progress, but they are still at risk of becoming isolated from the input of information they need to be effective simply because our natural inclination is to associate with those we are most like.

Complex networks in nature demonstrate that long-term sustainability depends upon balancing efficiency and resilience. The hitch is that while efficiency depends upon the minimization of diversity and interconnectivity, resilience depends on the maximization of them. Likewise, communication in social networks must balance strengthening existing relationships in order to use current network knowledge and consistently creating new relationships in order to expand that knowledge.

Whether your network thinks of this as partnership building, community stakeholder engagement, or marketing, keep in mind that communication is never one-way. Networks may provide information, but they can also get the information they need, for example about the effects their activities are having or the effects they could or should.

The solution: Create new ties thoughtfully. Your network will need to apply the same patient, realistic, strategic approach that you practice internally to build relationships with external stakeholders. It is worth the careful consideration this takes in order to ensure that the work of your network stays relevant.

Respect the time and contributions of others by thinking about what matters to them. If you seek to build bridges by empowering individuals to voice their concerns, then plan to address those concerns (or better yet to give them the agency to do so themselves) so those bridges don’t then get burnt.

One network I’ve worked with is really great at using deliberate facilitative processes but is less practiced at producing early wins that keep stakeholders engaged and hopeful. Others I know can get so focused on producing certain outcomes by deadlines set by a funder, such as having a certain number of people attend meetings, that progress toward their primary goal, such as having those people inform solutions that will work, is stunted.

4. Messaging (including data) is dynamic. While the organizations that comprise them may focus on offers of services or products that solve concrete needs, networks are in the business of sharing ideas that are often complex and sometimes invisible. Furthermore, networks themselves are fluid, and as more information becomes available messages will need to change.

Networks also have to communicate with multiple audiences, which can challenge individual organizations who may relate differently to them (for example, one organization in the network may rely upon a critical partner who is a perceived threat to another organization).

The solution: Create structures for consistent learning and reporting. As their work ebbs and flows, networks need to stay focused on what’s currently happening. Through thoughtful collection and reporting of high-quality data (both quantitative and qualitative), networks can position themselves to be able to intentionally adapt.

  • Commit to integrated data collection and reporting. Using one another’s data will not only improve the network’s success, but perhaps also generate more at the organizational level.
  • Ask questions that get at the heart of what you need to understand to reach your goals. Are the network’s activities leading to desired changes and are those changes sustained over time?
  • Measure the network itself. For example, assess whether goals are clear, participation is equitable, and information is being shared effectively.
  • Remain focused on what you will be able to act upon. Data is not an ends in itself, but rather a means for thoughtful decision making. Does the data you are collecting help your network work better?

I admire the networks I work with who are willing to dedicate adequate thought and resources to this development. I am saddened by those who get distracted by feeling like they need expensive technical tools when they can start now, even with simple paper surveys, ensuring there will be some data to show change over time.

The ones that I know are guaranteed to make a difference are those who are willing to discover what isn’t working and be open to change. That kind of resiliency is the very reason networks are capable of exceptional results.

This article was originally published on The National Rural Health Resource Center's OnCenter blog.