We are learning that networks as a means of conducting business or creating social change cannot be treated like our traditional "bricks and mortar" organizations. This is true for both networks made up of individuals and those composed of member organizations. It is important to understand how networks differ from traditional organizations. This, in turn, leads us to changing the way we respond to networks in our efforts to help develop and improve them. Thinking of networks in terms of their value propositions can be very helpful in working effectively with networks.
One way in which networks differ from traditional organizations and even traditional knowledge organizations is that the roles are dispersed and not organized in a definitive manner. There are no departments, no functions, no bureaucracy. In a network operating at its optimum, the roles (and the people in them) can join together in various combinations in order to do the work of the network.
In traditional organizations, we could plot how the work of the enterprise is performed. We have called this "plot" the work process, the transformation process or the value chain. Traditionally, it was a linear sequence of activities that added value to preceding activities leading to the completed output that was handed off to customers. Even in more knowledge-driven organizations, there was some high-level sense of sequence though work was carried out in deliberations that might not necessarily be in sequence.
I believe that the value chain approach used in traditional organizations has less applicability in understanding and acting upon a network. This is not to say that a sequence of activities cannot in particular cases be identified. It is to say that such a sequence can no longer be generalized as an operational blueprint for the network enterprise. In fact, such a formalized approach is antithetical to a network and the unique value that can be gained from a network.
A useful way of thinking about a network is in terms of its value propositions. For any given network, there is an overarching purpose. Purposes are then translated into value for customers, members, society and the network itself. The value proposition is an articulated statement of benefit to each interested party. There could be one value proposition or several value propositions. A given value proposition could cover one or more groups of interested parties.
The value proposition becomes an organizing mechanism for the network. The value proposition becomes an embedded intangible structure that influences or governs what emerges or is planned within the network.
Ideally, value propositions influence planful activities. They also catalyze conversations in networks. Conversations can occur spontaneously or as the result of facilitating actions by network weavers or coordinators. These conversations can result in ad hoc configurations or more planful configurations to carry out the work of the network. We could call these configurations clusters, communities of practice, or committees. They can be in existence short-term until a new idea runs its course, longer-term to deal with a common grouping of ideas though with varying membership, and can spin off into other initiatives.
A network can be assessed in terms of whether its actions and factors like relationships, trust, inclusion, interactions, funding, convenings, etc. further the given value proposition or not. We can ask, is desired value being provided to interested parties; are we being innovative in how we pursue the value proposition? We can take action to bring alignment to these factors and the given value proposition.
In one network, my data indicated the following candidates for value propositions:
- Improve professional competencies and effectiveness.
- Transfer skills and theory.
- Build interpersonal competencies.
- Create good relationships among members and clients.
- Build a better world.
In another network, an educational consortium, some aspects of the stated value proposition were:
- Through collaboration and cooperation provide greater academic and intellectual opportunities for students and faculty members than could be offered at any single campus, and
- Achieve greater efficiency in operations and administration and greater opportunities for innovation.
What can a network do to create greater alignment between a given value proposition and network actions and factors?
One step is to be explicit about these network value propositions. Think about them and even rethink them. Publicize them, talk about them, and create greater awareness throughout the network. Discuss whether the network has the most desirable balance among its different value propositions. Assess the impact that the network is having on interested parties and create network conversations about how to increase positive impact in line with these value propositions. A network can also share amongst its members what is working well in advancing these value propositions.