Book review - Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact, by Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, & John Cleveland

By Robyn Kalda

This 2014 book delves into what makes networks tick. How do networks start? How do they stay healthy? How does a network approach to work differ from an organization-based approach? Lots of real-world examples help keep this a very readable book.

The authors divide networks into three categories: connectivity, alignment, and production networks, each with its own characteristics and purposes. (They may also be phases: a single network may go through more than one of these categories over its lifetime.)

  • Connectivity networks link people for information exchange and learning.
  • Alignment networks link people to help them share ideas, goals, and strategies.
  • Production networks enable members to work together for social impact.

A strength of this book is its emphasis on network maintenance as work, and as necessary, highly skilled, challenging, time-consuming work. Often people have the impression that, once they're established, networks steam on effortlessly towards their goals, but there's inevitably a great deal of background effort necessary to produce that impression.

So what does the wizard behind the curtain do? This book gives a good overview. Network establishment and maintenance tasks are clearly spelled out; appendices provide useful tools, checklists and resources. There's even a gentle list of lessons for "network engineers" -- funders and others -- who wish to launch networks for their own purposes, encouraging them to do so in a supportive versus a directive way.

I appreciated the emphasis on the need for adequate, appropriately-chosen IT tools for network members and on human support for their use:

"Facilitation and coordination at any of the levels we've described also require tools for supporting communication among members. A network's communication infrastructure is essential to the network's success because it will enable or impede collaboration. ...

Whether it's using e-mail, listserves [sic], or scheduling and collaboration software, there has to be a human touch to help things along. We've seen start-up networks in which members had access to commuications software but almost none used it. Some members didn't want to deal with having yet another website to go to and another password to enter. Some weren't comfortable with learning how to use the new site. Some tried the site and didn't find anyone else there, so they dropped it. The lesson seems to be that you can't just provide everyone with an online communications tool and expect they will start to use it. You have to encourage and support them."

A note on language: the authors use "value proposition" in an unusual (and slightly distracting) way, to refer to both something that is offered and something that is wanted. It can take a while to parse their meaning as a result. But this is a minor quibble.

Recommended for those new to network work, but the book is also full of useful tips and resources for those already enmeshed in the network way of thinking and working.