Networked Community Solutions

Stephen DeAngelis

January 21, 2008

I have tried to keep several threads running through my posts, one of them being connectivity. Connectivity shows up in discussions of national security in the form of globalization. It shows up in the discussion of Development-in-a-Box™ in the form communities of practice. It shows up in the discussion of innovation as discipline clusters. Connectivity of course is central to the discussion of Web 2.0 in the form of social networking. It was, therefore, natural that an article by Karen Stephenson caught my eye since connectivity was central to its message [“The Community Network Solution,” Strategy + Business, Winter 2007]. Her assertion is that “in reweaving the social fabric of a city or town, relationships trump rank.” She begins her article with a point I’ve made about Development-in-a-Box: employers, whenever possible, are drawn to places where working conditions are good. When they can’t move their business, employers sometimes try to help improve the conditions where they are doing business.

“Business leaders are in­creasingly aware that the health of their enterprise is intimately connected with the health of the communities where they operate. As employers, they sometimes find themselves drawn in to help solve local problems. But they are also often frustrated by those efforts, and no wonder. When a community sets out to address complex problems, such as economic stagnation, sprawl, and failing schools, the ef­fort usually ends up going nowhere. Competing agendas surface, members delegate responsibilities to staff, difficult decisions get postponed. Hopes fade and interest flags as the hidden challenges and underlying conflicts become apparent.”

She notes that people often point to human nature or bloated bureaucracy for such failures. Faced with such immovable obstructions people tend to give up, leaving the situation to stagnate or become worse. She insists, however, that the road to failure or success begins when list of those who should participate is drawn up. Most organizers seek leaders from government, business, and community groups.

“And already, from the standpoint of anyone who has studied networks, the initiative is in trouble. Most likely, the organizers took care to involve people who hold high positions in the community. Their list may be lifted directly from a newspaper or magazine feature purporting to name the local ‘Power 100.’ Thereafter, the whole effort will operate on the unspoken presumption that influence derives primarily from positional power, and that positional power translates into the ability to get things done.”

Stephenson writes that anyone who works for a large company knows that how things really get done has little to do with how the organization’s chart is depicted.

“Like org charts, ‘most powerful’ lists reveal nothing about the human qualities of those who occupy senior positions, the web of personal relationships upon which they can draw, or the trust they inspire (or don’t inspire) in other people. Yet relationships built on trust are essential if complex initiatives that rely on voluntary efforts are to succeed. People simply will not put themselves on the line for a sustained period of time unless they trust and feel connected with the leaders of the initiative. Moreover, trust and positional power are often inversely correlated: The higher someone’s position, the less likely it is that others trust that person. An ambitious local undertaking is practically guaranteed to fizzle if it relies on people whose chief qualification is a high place in the pecking order.”

Although her point about large company organization charts makes sense, I suspect her point about positional power is not as easily swallowed. The old aphorism, “if want something done, find the busiest person you know to do it,” often describes people in power positions. Stephenson’s argument, however, is subtler than that. She believes the types of activity that keep powerful people busy are the wrong kind of activities needed to reach a community goal.

“The most effective local initiatives engage people whose informal networks reach broadly and deeply across sectors and organizations. Such people are often unsung heroes in a community. They might include a uniformed policewoman who sets up a system to link diverse services for victims of domestic violence, an assistant principal who runs a small but innovative program for local gang members, a bakery owner who designs training for immigrant employees in partnership with the local community college, or a fi­nance executive who hosts community meetings in his or her com­pany’s conference room. The titles these individuals hold rarely reflect the contributions they have made or their ability to shape local con­ditions and influence the course of events.”

Finding these kinds of people is difficult, Stephenson notes, because they are discovered only through mapping connections.

“Identifying such people is a challenge because they fly below the public radar. Finding them requires not compiling a list but devising a new approach — making a map. This kind of map is a diagram of the informal communications links among people; it reveals the topography of the cultural territory by tracing the webs of relationships through which information is dispersed and resources flow. Because the map shows networks rather than hierarchical standing, it is innately more community-enabling than a list, which automatically orders people into rankings or disconnected categories. The map shows both points of leverage (people who can be tapped for their interest and influence) and points of constraint (people who might have reason to shut down or limit an initiative). It identifies the personal connections that can be harnessed in the service of large-scale change.”

Stephenson knows of what she writes because she has spent the last ten years helping local communities create such maps. She discusses two such experiences; one in the U.K. and the other in Philadelphia.

“Both in the United Kingdom and in Philadelphia, the civic leaders who brought [her] in understood from the start that [their] initiative would require businesses, government representatives, nonprofit organizations, and education institutions to put aside competing agendas. Indeed, that’s what attracted them. But it was a tall order. There were many subtle obstacles. … The first step toward renewal, therefore, was to identify those in the community who had the capac­ity to collaborate in a fruitful way. This is where [her] work came in. In years of working with corporations, government agencies, education in­stitutions, and the military, [she has] developed a reliable and replicable system for helping people understand and improve the quality of their professional and social networks.”

Stephenson then goes on to detail how her process works:

“We often start by identifying ‘connectors’: individuals who have inspired enough trust to build lasting, meaningful relationships across a broad range of economic sectors and organizations. Connectors don’t always hold high positions, but they wield significant power because they provide the adhesive that binds people together and makes things happen. They are the essential catalysts for change. Our method for identifying connectors has t
wo stages. In Stage One, we conducted a modified ‘snowball sample’ survey (in which respondents suggest other people to interview). … We prompted nominations with questions that included:

  • Who do you consider highly innovative?
  • Who brings ideas about the ‘big picture’ to his or her efforts?
  • Who has the integrity, concern for the common good, and guts needed to get this project done?
  • Who would roll up his or her sleeves in order to see this project through to the very end?
  • Who would you depend on to help bring together local resources?

… Stage Two represented an effort to understand why connectors had become connectors. … We asked them to describe their life stories, identify their mentors, and tell us whether they saw themselves as connectors, and if so, why. We asked them to think about the other people in their network who seemed to ‘know everyone,’ and to describe what all those connectors had in common. We asked them to rate themselves on a scale that ranged from pessimistic to optimistic, and to indicate how comfortable they were at starting new friendships. And we asked them to describe a local civic initiative in which they had participated that required that they connect across sectors. … Our interviews revealed other significant findings. We noted that connectors had been drawn to the community by their desire to make a difference. Not surprisingly, we also found that connectors were nonconformists. Finally, despite the small number of connectors in academia and the lack of connections among university people, the connectors told us that they had gotten their start as informal leaders through people they met within the university crucible.

… Finally, we asked them to respond to a very different kind of survey — one designed so the responses could be easily analyzed by map-generating software. We showed participants a list of the other connectors and asked them to put a check next to the name of:

  • Everyone they considered to be a part of their local community.
  • Everyone they believed had the expertise to put ideas into action.
  • Everyone with whom they would like to work.

With these answers, we were able to map correspondences that showed potential as well as actual paths for collaboration.”

Identifying connectors is important, but it is even more important to get them engaged in a desired project.

“There’s no question that connectors have the potential to change their community landscape. They have the collaborative skills to get re­sources flowing. Their connections across sectors can inspire a wide level of trust. But we have learned how much more powerful they can be when connected in a deliberate fashion. … Once we had our map of connectors, we began to work with local groups to shine a light on these individuals and to connect them with one another. We did this by developing a mentorship program, a set of workshops on leadership, and a competency profile for civic leaders. And we developed a new high school leadership curriculum to identify and coach the next generation of connectors.”

Stephenson made another interesting discovery. In both the UK and Philadelphia, she found that new groupings emerged.

“We found a recurring pattern I came to call ‘heterarchies’: high-trust connections among particular groups of three or more organizations. These groups did not share ownership or governance structures — sometimes public agencies, private companies, and nonprofit organizations were in the same heterarchy — but the people involved all felt they needed each other to get things done. Thus, instead of staying within the boundaries of their workplace hierarchies, these highly connected people kept closely in touch with one another and collaborated regularly. I soon came to realize that, in the increasingly small, flat world in which we live, these heterarchies are fast be­coming the rule, not the exception. … Networks of trust in heterarchical structures are the key to collaborative success. By contrast, when agencies and sectors retreat to their organizational silos and do not work together, local inertia tends to take hold.”

Even in heterarchies, however, it is individual connectors who make the difference.

“The ability to succeed is contagious; if success is rooted in connection, it can spread virally across organizations and communities. But people with high positions are not the connectors who transmit these capabilities to others. … Until we build better networks in our communities, lack of trust will corrode the democratic process. Conventional leaders can’t move us out of this situation. Community connector projects offer a modest template for returning to the collaborative methods that were the best practices of long ago.”

You can’t always say that “people with high positions are not the connectors,” because sometimes they may be. The fact is, however, that connectors are a very special breed of individual. They seem to come by this talent naturally and, as Stephenson suggests, they are people to be treasured.