What is a Network Strategy? Why Is Having One So Important?

What is a network strategy?

For those working in the field of social impact, building networks is part of the new normal. Creating partnerships with other organizations lets us share resources and knowledge, coordinate our action, and leverage diverse forms of value like influence and experience. However it is too often the case that networks form to tackle a complex issue without taking the time to carefully consider their network strategy. In fact, many networks don’t know what a network strategy is to begin with. In this article, we’ll walk you through the basics: What is a network strategy, why it’s so important, and how you can start designing one for your network.

What is a Network Strategy? Our Definition...

A network strategy consists of your plan for building and managing a network of partner in a way best suited to meet your shared goals. It includes considerations of HOW you’ll build your network, in terms of what you will do, and won’t do, to align your work with your goals. A well-thought out network strategy answers questions like:

  • What type of network are you building?
  • What is the network’s primary purpose, along with specific goals to evaluate progress?
  • How will the network be governed, informally or formally, and by whom?
  • What is the timeline for the network? Will it go on or end after meeting its goal?
  • How will diversity, equity and inclusion be prioritized and implemented in the network?

Why is a Network Strategy so Important?

Creating or joining a network has costs: time, money, energy and other precious resources that could be spent elsewhere. If you aren’t carefully considering how to spend those resources in a way that maximizes your return on investment, your network approach could actually be very costly. Our research suggests that in extreme cases, taking a network approach with no concrete strategy could rob you of your collaborative advantage, leaving you less effective than you were beforehand. 

For example, many networks get caught in a cycle of thinking “more is better,” in a network: more partners, more meetings, and more integration. In this situation, those leading the network continue to spend more and more time managing relationships, attending meetings, and sending emails, to the point that they struggle to get anything done. You cannot be all things to all people. Without a network strategy, you won’t be as effective a partner as you could be.

What is a network strategy?

A Network Strategy Involves Many Components

A network strategy includes many different factors for consideration, including the network’s structure and type, membership and governance style, timeline, purpose, and more. Used together, they can help to frame a complete plan of action for your networks’s unique background, history and goals. So where should you get started? Here are five or six of the main considerations for creating a network strategy for your partnerships. 

Starting with the Foundation: Network Goals, Types & Purposes

The term “network” encompasses many different types of networked organizations, each best suited for different goals and purposes. For example, coalitions and alliances are best suited for advocacy and policy change, while cohort and communities of practices are better for learning and information-sharing goals. Associations are membership-driven, serving the needs of member organizations, while regenerative networks are fluid and open-ended with fewer expectations of what specifically will be created.

If you don’t have a clear idea of what your network will accomplish, it’s impossible to pick a strategic network type. Consider whether you aim to better understand an existing problem or issue area, create new solutions and innovations, shares and disseminate best practices and data, or other unique goals. Each purpose is better served by different types of networks.

Who Are Your Partners? Network Membership Decisions.

A network is nothing without its members. Deciding who is and should be a member of your network can be a very complex task. Some networks have an informal membership, with partners coming and going without much management. Others have formal membership processes, with rules on who can join, a process for doing so, and former responsibilities that can include membership fees and required meeting attendance. 

Often times a network falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, balancing the need to keep your network open and diverse with the desire to keep members accountable and invested. The most important question in this area is to be able to define clearly who is, and is not, a member of your network. This will make tracking your network in the future easier, as bounding a network can be very difficult later on.

Structuring Your Network Strategically with Network Science

The structure of a network consists of the way in which partners connect, both directly and indirectly. For example, dense, closed networks consist of many direct connections between partner – everyone knows and works with nearly everyone else. Alternatively, sparse, open networks have “structural holes,” gaps between partners, that force them to connect indirectly through intermediaries.

As I mentioned earlier, many networks aim to create a dense cloud of ties, believing that more partnership is better. In reality, this saps your energy and time very quickly. Healthy networks build a structure strategically, taking advantage of network concepts like sub-groups, weak ties, and bridging nodes that help you connect with more partners indirectly. This saves you time and money that can be used to build new partnerships, while still leveraging all the value your current partners provide. 

Designing a strategic network structure is time-consuming and never totally finished, as new partners come and go. However it can make a transformational difference in how you work with your network, making it well worth the effort. The first step is to map your network to see how it exists today, and then begin making intentional changes to move it towards where you want it to be in the future.

What is a network strategy?

Consider Your Network Timeline - Indefinite or Predetermined?

Some networks are created for a single time-based objective, like advocating for a policy change during a single legislative session, or serving as an advisory council for a new community-based initiative. Others do their work indefinitely, focused on problems that aren’t going away anytime soon like homelessness, health inequity, climate change or systemic racism. Being open about this from the very beginning is important or your long term success.

Be sure your partners are all aware and on the same page about the expected timeline for your network. If partners are unaware your collaboration has an end date, they may not be totally aligned with your work, and vice versa if you’re working indefinitely. Everyone in the network should be aware of the network’s intended lifespan to avoid unpleasant surprises down the road.

Governing the Network and Implementing Decisions

All networks require some level of governance – individuals or organizations managing the day-to-day activity of the network, making major decisions, and working to implement them. This ranges in two dimensions. First, network governance can happen within the network (self-governance) or from outside the network (board-governance). Internal governance is often best, allowing the network total autonomy, however external governance can help keep the network accountable, especially to those supporting their work.

Second, network governance can be unitary, exercised by just one or a small number of organizations (backbone-organization), or it can be shared, with most or even all organizations taking part in decision making activity. Shared governance often helps facilitate emergence – the development of new goals, ways of thinking, and innovations seemingly from random interaction among partners. However, a unitary governance model can increase coordination with a single individual accountable for much of the network’s operations. This often comes at the cost of strong network norms and diversity.

Data Will Help You Adapt and Improve Your Strategy

Once you have an idea of what kind of network you want to build, you need a way to track your progress and adapt your plans accordingly. Without solid data on your network’s structure, interactions and quality, it’s impossible to know what’s working, and what needs to be reconsidered. PARTNER is our community partner relationship manager, a system for tracking and mapping your network over time and translating your data into actionable insights for improvement. Learn more about PARTER here.

What is a network strategy?

Learn to Create Data-Driven Network Strategies With Our New Online Course!

All of this information is no doubt a bit overwhelming. Creating a network strategy from scratch is no easy task. That’s why we’re putting together a brand new VNL online course focused specifically on building data-driven network strategies. You’ll get access to online lectures, guides and worksheets, Office Hours with our team, and the PARTNER Platform for tracking your strategy over time. Learn more about the course or sign up to take part here.

What is a Network Strategy? Now You Know!

A network strategy makes all the difference in creating effective collaboratives that help you reach your goals instead of tying up your time and energy. Taking the time necessary to think through each of this considerations in depth will save you a great deal more time later on in the process. For the best result possible, work with your partners closely to develop a network strategy to ensure it take into account varying perspectives and experiences, instead of just your own. Hopefully now you can answer the question yourself: :”What is a network strategy?” Best of luck designing one for you and your team!

About the Author: Alex Derr

Marketing & Communications Manager

Alex joined VNL in 2017, originally supporting our events. He now helps manages our communications and marketing strategy and content development work. Alex creates blogs, infographics, reports, and other content while managing our web and social media presence. He also runs our email marketing campaigns, tracks analytics, and conducts market research to drive our strategy. He supports our entire team with copywriting, graphic design and research, and helps with events, webinars, demos, and other online learning. He’ll graduate from CU-Denver’s School of Public Affairs this fall with a Master’s in Public Administration. Away from work and school, Alex spends his days climbing 14ers (24 done, 34 to go!).

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