Topic: Learning networks Type: Essay

Principles of Network Thinking

Authors: Molly Mowery

If you are a FAC hub, local coordinating partner, or other agency involved in the FAC Learning Network, chances are that someone has asked you what the FAC Network is all about. For some of us, it can be difficult to quickly put the myriad ideas and benefits of a network into context for our peers. We want to explain what we mean by a network, how it is different from other types of professional interactions, and why commitment to it is so important for its success – all within a few concise sentences.

An article from Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) recently shared by Lynn Decker, TNC’s Fire Learning Network Director and member of the FAC Learning Network Coordinating team, helps distill a number of key principles behind network thinking. The article, A Network Way of Working: A Compilation of Considerations about Effectiveness in Networks, provides an introduction to some of the current thinking around the uses and benefits of networks. The article compiles material from network thought leaders to lend perspectives around achieving even bigger impacts within networking that many of us are already engaged in.

A diagram of network structures from the NPQ article.

A diagram of network structures from the NPQ article.

The article covers simple concepts, such as what networks are (entities or nodes in relationship with one another, and the flows/ties that exist between them) and how networks are made up of connected entities and the stuff transferred between and among them. Networks create value for individual participants as well as the network as a whole. They may be experienced in multiple ways – temporary or continuous; spontaneous or planned; requiring heavy or light investment; closed or open memberships. Network structures and types vary based on whether they are action networks, social change networks or others. Networks also encourage principles of openness, transparency, and decentralized decision-making.

Key insights into network thinking stem from the various perspectives offered by the authors and other network thought leaders. For example, the article calls out some of the values that improve the use of networks: adaptability instead of control; emergence instead of predictability; resilience and redundancy instead of rock stardom; contributions before credentials, and; diversity and divergence. This last concept inspires us to encourage variety among network participants who can bring different experiences and perspectives.

The article is packed with many other gems; below are several excerpts that I believe are especially relevant to the FAC Network.

Commitment. “Participation in a network will last as long as the members remain committed.”

Learning. “We are all on the learning curve about the use of networks.”

Discovery. “Discover the hidden networks already in your operating environment and be more intentional about using them.”

These concepts help us appreciate that we don’t need to have all of the answers but can see the long-term value in fully participating and engaging with our peers through the FAC Learning Network.

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