16 Nov. Webinar: Network Lifecycle & Approaches to Network Metrics/Evaluation

Overview: We looked at network assessment through the lens of lifecycle and the corresponding metrics. Gale, Tom and Mayur will share insights from the AEA Think Tank on networks and evaluation.

Presentation Material:

Pre-Webinar: Click here to see the pre-webinar assignment participants had completed

Conversation highlights:

At the beginning of the call, we shared top of mind thoughts about the Lifecycle and Metric materials reviewed in preparation for the call, as well as reflections from the American Evaluation Association (AEA) annual evaluation conference in San Antonio Texas November 10-13, which several participants attended:
  • The majority of reflections on the pre-read materials focused on the Lifecycle diagram:
    • Networks of individuals go through transitions (the last phase in the Lifecycle diagram).When network members graduate from the network and move on to something else, what does this do to the network itself?
    • It seems that our NNF network is at the “growing the network” phase. Some of the activities in the previous phases are ongoing. You never stop working on other phases of the lifecycle.
    • Lifecycle and metrics tools are applicable both to networks of individuals and organizations. However, some aspects appear much more relevant than others.
  • Other top of mind questions/reflections:
    • Can types of networks (e.g., social media networks) be assessed as a group, or should this be done on an individual basis?
    • How much of our internal group knowledge development should be for others / the field versus for our own internal use and quality improvement?

After sharing top of mind thoughts, the three NNF participants who attended the AEA conference shared their experiences from these sessions
  • Participating in AEA offered a great opportunity to work not just with other funders, but also with individuals with evaluation backgrounds.
  • We were hoping for more concrete concepts – it remains easier to talk about principles rather than practice.
  • Conference attendees included some very impressive individuals and organizations, from both the US and abroad. Attendees / organizations participating included:
    • Ricardo Wilson-Grau
    • Julia Kaufman
    • Claire Reinelt.
    • Issue Lab
    • National Endowment for Democracy
    • Irvine Foundation
    • Social Interactive: Working on global peace building dialogue, with Ciouch Surfing
  • Questions raised included:
    • What, when, how is it appropriate to evaluate?
    • Should there be different metrics for different sized networks?
    • Cases / examples of what others are doing
      • Identifying concrete cases / examples appeared challenging for AEA participants. Everyone at AEA was looking for great cases, and none had any to volunteer. This could present an excellent opportunity for contribution from our NNF group, to identify and share strong cases.

After the AEA debrief, we discussed the Lifecycle framework, focusing first on its application to the experiences of Lawrence Community Works:
  • Lawrence Community Works (LCW) is a CDC in Lawrence, MA which also functions as a membership network organization. The organization’s focus is on community revitalization, housing, and commercial properties, as well as emphasizing the importance of building social and human capital and the connectivity of neighbors, staff, etc. with each other. LCW now has 5,000 members, and was founded in 1999. For more on LCW and Bill Traynor check out Bill’s blog: Value of Place
  • LCW is solidly in the “growing the network” phase of the lifecycle framework, but laying groundwork and moving into the “transforming” realm.
    • Growing participation, building trust
    • Spreading and deepening through a technical assistance program
    • Now laying out a systematic approach to monitoring, learning, and continuous improvement.

Using the chat function, Maine Network Partners (MNP) also commented on their experiences with network metrics:
  • Maine Network Partners has focused on developing network strategies in Maine over the last 8 years. Now working with 30 networks, both nonprofits and funders.
  • MNP is in the growing the network and transforming phase. MNP is finding that a key is reinforcing the value of this way of working by looking at what is happening. Metrics and comparing and contrasting the other approach: i.e. top down versus bottom up or peer to peer.

Following the discussion of cases, we turned to a more general discussion of the Lifecycle framework.
  • Observations focused on the difficulty of using a two-dimensional model to talk about a complex and dynamic subject.
    • In some of the networks we are working, they go through this lifecycle in different ways – we are at different points with various subnetworks within the network. The chart does not do justice to the dynamics / stages of a network, which are more three-dimensional.
    • Perhaps there is some diagram in systems theory that would show more a more dynamic picture.
    • Aspects and members of the network can each be at different places at the same time
    • However, most agreed that the Lifecycles model serves as a good starting ground. To try and reflect the true complexity would be paralyzing.
    • Positioning constantly evolves. Aspects of each phase continuously move and change, but placing the network at a particular phase is possible in aggregate
  • Discussion of the dynamic nature of networks, and its implications for metrics:
    • What happens when individuals leave a network? Is this a positive outcome? It is also highly disruptive, making it difficult to frame and appropriately measure these changes.
      • e.g., One network funded by a participant is attempting to create a strong base for individuals, to support their growth and well-being over time. During this time, these individuals will evolve socio-economically, and may take on greater leadership roles as they progress. Eventually, they may move out of the network – what are the implications of this?
      • Can you build a network that is sufficiently resilient that sizeable departures do not disrupt the network too badly?
        • Networks of alumni tend to be more stable. Alumni never leave, but new individuals come in. Others could be much less stable.
      • There is almost a continuum, with equilibrium on one end and constant change on the other.
        • Embracing the dynamic nature of networks is key. Having the systems and habits in place that allow for this.
        • Good practices of network management. A weaver or coach may be critical in enabling this equilibrium? Or can you create the habits such that intensive management is not necessary?
  • The Lifecycle serves as a tool for tracking progress and measuring health. But ahead of this, we must gain clarity regarding the inherent qualities of a healthy network required (dynamic, movement of individuals in and out, etc.)

Post-Webinar Reflection:
Post a reflection on a way you might apply and/or improve upon the lifecycle model or metrics

Name: Audrey Jordan -- AECF/LCW
Reflection: The discussion we had about the dynamic nature of the life cycle, going across the phases and what happens within each phase that is also so very dynamic is a train of thought I'd like to continue talking/learning about. Also, Mayur's question about equilibrium... very interesting question I'd also like to discuss more/learn more about.

Name:Warren Cook-Me Network Partners
Reflection-as I expressed on the call and in some of my chats one of the exciting things about networks and the more ecological approach to solving problems(albeit sometimes very frustrating to describe and carry out) is that you cannot fix it in a diagram or implement it one way. So the depiction/description/teaching of the model needs to be dynamic(quantum physics if you will). That said you also need to build a framework(ie the life cycle) with the needed the trusted connections so you can get out of that fixed environment. Good coaching and weaving is key. We did not get into metrics but they can be good to a point-remember the great article in SSIR sometime ago "Drowning in Data". My view is the metric needs to be a commitment from the network first.