Weaving healthy networks: the role of people

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The first Peer Networks Community of Practice online session focused on the different roles people take up to make sure their networks work thrive.
14 Jul, 2021

The community business sector relies on healthy and effective networks. Its resilience is dependent on community businesses’ appetite for mutually beneficial partnerships, their flexibility to quickly refocus their activities to meet local demand and on their capacity to lean on their communities for support.

Network experts say that carefully managing roles helps keep networks healthy and thriving. “When members make clear commitments to the network, they can act and interact without coming into conflict or performing redundant work”, says Patti Anklam, author of Net Work.

So how can community business networks harness their potential? One potential answer is: by managing roles effectively and by roles we mean the activities and tasks people and/or organisations carry out so their activities can thrive. We discussed this previously with Community of Practice (CoP) members first residential in November.  While most of them described themselves as facilitators, many expressed a need for further roles in the network that specialised in strategy and engagement. Understanding the nature of roles and how they serve networks became the topic for our first on-line workshop in December.

Why is it important to understand the role of roles and what can we use roles for?

Well-managed roles can achieve a variety of results. During our session we focused on two impacts in particular:

  • Self sustainability. With more people joining, networks can become more prone to conflict. Assigning clear roles can be a key step in reducing this possibility. Additionally, by organising projects into smaller ‘clusters’, responsibility can be spread across different members, building skills and motivation.
  • New, good ideas tend to emerge when networks have a diverse membership. Bonds usually tend to form between similar people, so it can be very valuable for someone to ‘weave’ connections between diverse groups so that knowledge and ideas can spread more easily.

The ‘messy’ side of network roles

However, networks of people are never simple and are shaped by interactions, expectations, perceptions and all the other role dynamics that a human centred network would entail.  CoP members brought the theory to life by exploring how role dynamics are affecting their own community business networks. The more complex and ‘messy’ side of roles seemed to be the one that most reflected reality in practise.

However, in the same way that networks can be ‘messy’ they are also not static. Taking up and passing on roles seemed to be a particularly complex but essential part of growing a network and understanding the nature of roles was a crucial part of this development.  While organisations and network managers may lack the time or capacity to evolve, or the confidence to take on new role responsibilities, others may enjoy their roles and find it hard to pass them on. Crucially however, when working with expanding and growing networks, paying attention to role transitions become vital because they prevent power from being accumulated in the hands of a few key individuals.

So how do we incentivise people to take on roles and pass them on when the time comes? Trust can be one key driver. When network members trust each other, they feel more confident in taking on responsibilities and passing on roles on when necessary.

Managing roles

In response to the ‘messiness’ outlined above, network practitioners such as June Holley, Gideon Rosenblatt and Valdis Krebs have come up with a few key tips to manage network roles:

  • Know your network: map out where people are, what activities they carry out
  • Un-bundle and weave: prevent duplication and join up complementary activities
  • Each role has benefits and disadvantages: transitions are key in preventing burn-out and stress

After exploring the theory, CoP members will now test which of these ideas are most useful to making the most of roles in their own networks. Stay tuned for updates on their progress by using #peoplesCoP.

For more information about roles and networks download the briefing paper [link to the briefing paper].

Isabella Coin and Esther Foreman, Conveners of the CoP



Further reading

On building networks

On the importance of social capital and trust in organisational networks:

On organisations as part of movements and networks: