Networks for Improvement

Characteristics of networks

When working with networks it can feel different from the usual way of operating within a traditional hierarchical organisation such as those found in Health and Social Care. To get the most from the full range of people engaging in a learning system it may be necessary to let go of the levels of control usually experienced. Networks are about joint decision making and shared responsibility and leadership. No one person or organisation can impose direction or actions or coerce individuals into something they don’t volunteer for.

As a network creator or leader, it is possible however, as much as anyone else in the network to influence, suggest and steer the network from their own perspective. Diversity of membership increases creativity, knowledge is spread across the wider group, not dependent on a single source and this unity of knowledge encourages a safer space for people to contribute honestly.

The defining characteristics of networks include:

  • cooperative structures
  • interconnectedness
  • diversity of membership
  • distributed leadership
  • reciprocity and exchange
  • common purposeInstability
  • 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

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

There are generally six discrete functions of networks:

  • community building
  • filtering
  • amplifying
  • facilitating
  • investing/providing
  • 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 it’s primary functions both now and in the future will be helpful.


Establishing networks

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:

  • articulating a clear common purpose
  • developing a co-operative structure
  • building critical mass
  • maximising the benefits of collective intelligence; and
  • 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 which leads to action 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. How does the group agree to work in a collaborative, collegiate way which is non-hierarchical and equally share the responsibility, roles and workload across all 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 is how the network pools its resources, organises its knowledge and communicates that effectively to the wider world to achieve its purpose.

Building a meaningful sense of community is essential, group members need to trust and be trusted. In order to cooperate and share meaningful people need to feel psychologically safe and know that when there are disagreements or differing points of view that is respected and worked through.


Network growth and evolution

There are four distinct stages of development that networks move through:

  • pre-emergent
  • emerging
  • established;
  • dormant

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 grou pto 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.

Supporting infrastructures

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© The Learning System, Healthcare Improvement Scotland, (draft) 2020. We expect to refine this over time as we learn more from the development and delivery of multiple learning systems. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to share your feedback.