“Knowledge networks” are collections of individuals and teams who come together across organizational, spatial and disciplinary boundaries to invent and share a body of knowledge. The focus of such networks is usually on developing, distributing and applying knowledge. For-profit and nonprofit organizations of all sizes are seizing on this model to learn more quickly and collaborate productively. However, for every successful network, others have lost steam due to poor participation, goal ambiguity, mixed allegiances or technology mismatches.
The authors sought to better understand the leverage that network leaders have. Their initial research, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, focused on how knowledge networks could improve the spread of evidence about childhood and maternal nutrition. The authors used that research to develop a model of knowledge networks and later validated that model in organizations outside the international health space. In that process, they developed case studies of ConocoPhillips, the world’s largest independent exploration and production oil company, and Women’s World Banking, a global nonprofit operating in 28 countries.
The authors identified eight network design dimensions that leaders of knowledge networks should
1. Leaders’ Shared Theory of Change Successful knowledge network leaders can describe the mechanisms through which network activities will have an impact on members and organizations.
2. Objectives/Outcomes/Purpose Leaders help to define the network’s purpose and target outcomes.
3. Role of Expertise and Experimentation (also called the expert-learner duality) Leaders need to be clear on how the network makes it safe for even the expert to be vulnerable and learn and for the learner to speak of bold possibilities.
4. Inclusion and Participation The networks’ core team explicitly defines what types of members they seek and actively recruits them.
5. Operating Model Knowledge network leaders decide what roles, responsibilities and decision processes are needed for optimal network operations.
6. Convening Structures and Infrastructures Network leaders understand how online and real-time or live convenings serve to build cohesion, connectivity, collaboration and engagement.
7. Facilitation and Social Norm Development Knowledge network leaders take on the roles of facilitators and change agents, not just project managers. They convene members in meetings, discussions, games, events and other interactions.
8. Measurement, Feedback and Incentives Network leaders look for evidence of success or failure in network participation, as well as ways to incentivize people to join, participate and engage.