Networks for Learning Systems

The learning system is centred on a network approach: connecting the right people with the right activity. 

To support any Learning System good communication channels will always be crucial. There are many ways to share learning and communication through people and across learning systems including:

  • conferences
  • events
  • meetings
  • 1:1 conversations
  • small group discussions
  • blogs
  • online forums; and
  • networks

Any of these channels can be achieved through virtual or face-to-face methods. Most learning systems need a range of communication and information sharing methods. Deciding the most appropriate approach at a particular time is key to success.

HIS places a network approach at the centre of any learning system. This means that groups of people and organisations agree for themselves what the best approach is to sharing information, communicating and keeping in touch with each other throughout the lifecycle of the Learning System.


What are the unique and defining characteristics of networks?

Using networks to support a learning system differs from traditional hierarchical or governance structures. It is less likely there will be a group overseeing the work or a network of representative leads. It is more likely there will be a self-organising group of people with significant interest in the agreed topic. The person initiating the network can influence who joins the group and their roles. Diversity of membership increases creativity.

Networks will feel different to typical ways of working in health and social care. Networks are about joint decision-making, shared responsibility and leadership. To get the most from the group remove "levels of control". No one person or organisation can impose direction or actions or coerce individuals into something they do not volunteer for. A person can only influence, suggest and steer the network from their own perspective. Spread of knowledge is not dependent on a single source and this unity of knowledge encourages a safer space for honest contribution.

The defining characteristics of networks include:

  • cooperative structures
  • interconnectedness
  • diversity of membership
  • distributed leadership
  • reciprocity and exchange
  • common purpose
  • instability
  • adaptability; and
  • sharing of knowledge

Adapted from Effective Networks for Improvement (citing Malby B, Mervyn K)

When a networked, collaborative approach is achieved then ownership, engagement and participation rates can be much higher than with other approaches.

When all individuals are valued and trust their peers the sharing of learning, knowledge and support increases. This provides the platform to create a system that learns for itself and can become a longer lasting and self-sustaining way of continuing improvements into the future.


Types of networks

For most learning systems a “Developmental or Learning Network” is most likely to fit best. This is not always the case though and you may find that the best fit for a learning system evolves over time. For example, a Managed Network may be required in the early stages, evolving into a Developmental Network when the system is established and finally, a decision to move to a Social Network might be made when the formal work of the learning system is complete.

A learning and developmental network where group members work collaboratively to solve problems and share knowledge and experience may be the best approach. Alternatively, it might be a network primarily set up to share resources or campaign for a particular point of view. Types of network can vary between formally managed to loosely held together social relationships.

The main types of networks are:

  • developmental or learning networks
  • agency network
  • advocacy network
  • managed network
  • social network; and
  • social movement

Adapted from Effective Networks for Improvement (citing Malby B, Mervyn K)


Purpose of networks

An important question to ask when beginning to think about setting up a network to support a learning system is “What will the network primarily be designed to do?” It might be about building a community and focused on relationships and connections. It may be about identifying and disseminating information, spreading new ideas or increasing numbers of participants.

It is likely that most networks supporting a learning system will perform all of these functions at various stages of development. It can be helpful to understand what the main function is at any given time and what it might be in the future.

There are generally six discrete functions of networks:

  • community building
  • filtering
  • amplifying
  • facilitating
  • investing/providing; and
  • convening

Adapted from Effective Networks for Improvement (citing Malby B, Mervyn K)

It is likely that most networks will perform most of these functions and do more than one at any time. Working with the network to identify its primary functions both now and in the future will be helpful.


Establishing networks

When establishing a network to support a learning system it might be helpful to start with a larger group to accelerate progress. If doing this make use of a small group of critical partners to identify and influence the key people required to make the network effective.

What is important is that those people that can help most at a particular time are involved. Everyone should be engaged and, at different times, take on different roles. If it’s too small the pool of knowledge and creativity may not be enough to sustain and provide solutions. If it’s too big then people will struggle to feel involved and make a valuable contribution.

In the early stages of establishing a network, it may be worthwhile helping others to understand why a network approach is being taken and the potential benefits of doing so:

  • rapid and expansive growth
  • rapid diffusion
  • “small world” reach
  • resilience; and
  • adaptive capacity

Adapted from Effective Networks for Improvement

When establishing a network there are 5 key areas which it would be helpful to pay attention to:

  1. Articulating a clear common purpose
  2. Developing a co-operative structure
  3. Building critical mass
  4. Maximising the benefits of collective intelligence
  5. Building a meaningful sense of community

Adapted from Effective Networks for Improvement

Articulating a clear common purpose is one of the most critical and first things to do. Without clear and articulated purpose, the network will have little direction and people will not see the value of being part of it. Purpose may change over time and that is okay, if it agreed with the group on an ongoing basis.

Developing a co-operative structure is about ways of working. This involves agreeing a collaborative, non-hierarchical approach where responsibility, roles and workload are shared across members.

Building critical mass is about finding the momentum of the group. Finding the motivation and drive that encourages network members to talk about the work and advocate for change and bring in new and influential contributors.

Maximising the benefits of collective intelligence. Pooling resources, organising its knowledge and communicating that to the wider world to achieve its purpose.

Building a meaningful sense of community is essential, group members need to trust each other. To cooperate and share people need to feel safe and work through disagreements or differing points of view.


Network growth and evolution

There are four basic stages to network evolution; pre-emergent, emerging, established and dormant. Assemble a small group of interested parties when working in a new area. Explore your approach using the three questions:

  • what is this learning systems purpose?
  • who needs to be involved and how?; and
  • how will you make sure this reduces inequality?

At other times, and this is often the case, there will already be some form of network or interest group in place. Consider these people "champions" of the future work. This needs time and commitment from everyone involved to redefine and re-purpose what may have been the norm for some time. 

Adapted from Leading Networks in Healthcare

Once the network is established, it is worth considering who is doing what and what each individual brings to the group. It may be helpful to consider four key roles which help both establish and nurture networks:

  • Connector/catalyst: the person who knows the people who might be interested in working together. Someone with a broad range of contacts and knowledge, not always tied to one particular organisation or area of work. They will spark the early 1:1 connections and suggest who else could be involved in the conversation as it evolves.
  • Network Guardian: has an overview of the network and is able to provide direction on structure, what is needed, skills development, what communication channels are needed and looking to the future and anticipating next steps.
  • Co-ordinator: provides crucial support infrastructure including organising group meeting spaces (face-to-face or virtual) and helping the whole group organise into smaller groups at certain times.
  • Facilitator: brings people together and ensures everyone has an equal voice and opportunity to participate. Looks for opportunities to encourage others to take on roles, responsibilities and actions to ensure the group is collaborative and cohesive.

Adapted from June Holley, Network Weaver Handbook

It is worth noting that multiple individuals will occupy multiple roles at different times. Most people will take on more than one of these roles at different times.

It isn’t necessary but it can be helpful to raise awareness of these roles and encourage people to think about where their strengths are and how they might contribute to the group.

There are other roles that might be taken by various group members and these will depend on and change with the evolving structure and purpose of the network, for example:

  • Expert – someone invited or joining to contribute specific knowledge, skill or experience
  • Sponsor/Connector – someone who can bridge to another set of key people to further the work or expand the network membership (e.g. Government, other sector lead)
  • Organisational representative – someone who participates in order to be a conduit to their wider organisation or disseminate the work of the group to their colleagues
  • Participant – not everyone needs to have an active role all the time, sometimes people can contribute more than enough by just being present and contributing their wisdom, creativity and spark.