At the IPAC conference last week I did a panel on creating government networks. Prior to my contribution fellow panelist Dana Richardson, an ADM with the Government of Ontario, presented on her experience with creating inter-government networks. Her examples were interesting and insightful. More interesting still was her conclusion: creating networks is difficult.
What makes this answer interesting is not it is correct (I’m not sure it is) but how it is a window into the problematic manner by which governments engage in network based activities.
While I have not studied Richardson’s examples I nonetheless have a hypothesis: these networks were difficult to create because they were between institutions. Consequently those being networked together weren’t be connected because they saw value in the network but because someone in their organization (likely their boss) felt it was important for them to be connected. In short, network participation was contrived and mandated.
This runs counter to what usually makes for an effective networks. Facebook, MySpace, the internet, fax machines, etc… these networks became successful not because someone ordered people to participate in them but because various individuals saw value in joining them and gauged their level of participation and activity accordingly. As more people joined, the more people found there was someone within the network with whom they wanted to connect – so they joined too.
This is because, often, a critical ingredient to successful networks is freedom of association. Motivated individuals are the best judges of what is interesting, useful and important to them. Consequently, when freedom of association exists, people will gravitate towards, and even form, epistemic communities with others that share or can give them, the knowledge and experience they value
I concede that you could be ordered to join a network, discover its utility, and then use it ever more. But in this day and age, when creating networks is getting easier and easier, people who want to self organize increasingly can and do. This means the obvious networks are already emerging/have already emerged. This brings us back to the problem. The reason mandated networks don’t work is because their participants either don’t know how to work together or don’t see the value in doing so. For governments (and really, any large organization), I suspect both are at play. Indeed, there is probably a significant gap between the number of people who are genuinely interested in their field of work (and so who join and participate in communities related to their work), and the number of people on payroll working for the organization in that field.
This isn’t to say mandated networks can’t be created or aren’t important. However, described this way Richardson’s statement becomes correct: they are hard to create. Consequently, you’d better be sure it is important enough to justify creating.
More interestingly however, you might find that you can essential create these networks without mandating them… just give your people the tools to find each other rather than forcing them together. You won’t get anywhere close to 100% participation, but those who see value in talking and working together will connect.
And if nobody does… maybe it is because they don’t see the value in it. If that is the case – all the networking in the world isn’t going to help. In all likelihood, you are probably asking the wrong question. Instead of: “how do we create a network for these people” try asking “why don’t they see the value in networking with one another.” Answer that, and I suspect you’ll change the equation.