07891 277310

Leaders for Leeds Default Image

Networks poorly understood but the lifeblood of any place…

Networks are one key way of organising across a place, but they are not always well understood. We have been reviewing the evidence about networks and have a few top tips for how to lead networks that are sustainable and effective, given that networks inherently have an ebb and flow, and some are designed to be temporary. But first off lets just get clear about what we mean by networks here.

Networks are cooperative structures where an interconnected group or system, gather together around a shared purpose and where members act as peers on the basis of reciprocity and exchange (based on trust, respect, mutuality). Networks form and reform continually in a dynamic way. Leadership emerges from different parts of the network for different work, and leadership of the whole is usually temporary. Networks are creative, innovative places where resources are shared for the ‘common good’. Networks vary in terms of their permanence from adhoc and temporary through to sustainable and legitimate.

The distinctiveness of networks lies in:

  • Their ability to be innovative and creative and their reliance on diversity
  • The distribution of power and leadership across members
  • Reciprocity and exchange as the defining relationship between members based on mutual interest around a common purpose.
  • Fluctuations in their member engagement and impact
  • Their adaptability to survive and thrive
  • The centrality of the knowledge function

Networks need to be managed in collaborative, non-hierarchial ways and the time taken to do this can be underestimated. Networks are high creativity, high maintenance forms that form and re-form all the time. There is a whole other set of evidence about social network that I will come back to in my next piece. For now I’m concentrating on networks that have an identity like DisPov Leeds; our own CIHM; Advocacy networks like the Parkinson Action Network.

Networks are primarily innovative, creative places. They are useful for rapid learning and development, and helping members’ be more effective or more visible. Networks can also be useful for advocacy on behalf of their membership; for delivering services in ways that makes the most of network members’ capability and resources. Networks are good for:

  • Community-building: The network functions to promote and sustain the values of the individuals or groups.
  • Filtering: The network functions to organize and manage relevant information for members.
  • Amplifying: The network functions to help take new, little-known, or little-understood ideas and makes them public, give them weight, or make them understandable.
  • Facilitating: The network functions to help members carry out their activities more efficiently and effectively.
  • Investing/providing: The network functions to offer a means to provide members with the resources they need to carry out their main activities.
  • Convening: The network functions to bring together different, distinct people, or groups of people with distinct strategies to support them

Mendizabal and Hearn, 2011


Leadership of networks is different from leadership of hierarchies or systems. Networks organise through cooperation and peer based relationships. Leadership to establish a network is often different from that needed to sustain it. Network leadership is facilitative, distributed, democratic and inclusive, whilst making the most of difference for creative ends. Network leaders need to focus persistently on membership and impact.

Network members are critical to networks purpose. Members preferences determine the use of resources, where power lies, and are based on peer relationships. Members can be very active or passive, with their benefits in correlation to their participation.

Effective Networks pay significant attention to understanding their own internal functioning (e.g. member engagement, nature of reciprocity), taking action to adjust, and persistently seeks impact and improvement.

Networks fail because of one or more of the following:

  • Fails to reach common understanding across members of purpose and direction
  • institutionalisation,
  • over-management cementing relationships and structures that need to be dynamic and evolving,
  • mistakes in initial design or ongoing management,
  • over expectation of network member’s willingness or ability to collaborate which damages creativity of the parts,
  • predicating network some members over others,
  • constraining network member’s independence,
  • not recognising when leadership needs to change / rotate,
  • not having capacity to adapt
  • lack of impact in terms of network member’s purpose.


Effective Networks[1]have the following characteristics:

  • Shared purpose and identity: members of effective networks display strong network awareness. They feel ownership and they know why the network exists. They are clear on shared purpose. Members also share a common language and collective narrative.
  • Address big issues/ has a compelling purpose: effective work-based networks that sustain themselves normally address big/compelling issues that are a high priority for key ‘sponsors’ or stakeholders/members. They are focussed on issues that keep network leaders awake at night and therefore (in some way or another) are likely to receive support.
  • Meet member needs: while effective networks generally address big issues, they also have to be of day to day benefit to members in the network. They ultimately have to link back to either helping members to do their job or helping them to create a change they are passionate about.
  • Adapted leadership: leadership of networks is different to other forms of leadership. Power does not come from organisational hierarchy. Effective networks benefit from leaders that have well developed skills and aptitudes that have the time to perform their role.
  • Strong relationships and ties: effective networks are characterised by strong personal relationships, high levels of trust and awareness between members. Leaders can play a key role in developing trust and a culture of sharing, with face to face events a key aspect in maintaining relationships and ties.
  • Generate helpful outputs: as well as ‘connecting people’, effective networks tend to generate outputs that are helpful to other network members.  Outputs are often developed or co-created based on experience ‘on the ground’.

This post is based on a brief literature review undertaken for the Health Foundation by CIHM.

Becky Malby, Director, CIHM University of Leeds. April 2012

[1] Malby B, Anderson-Wallace M, Archibald D, Collison C, Edwards S, Constable A, Dove C. Supporting Networks that Improve the Quality of Healthcare. A developmental diagnostic process to support network development. The Health Foundation. 2011

7 Responses

  1. Reading through the characteristics for an Effective Network made me think the Yorkshire Mafia seem to have most of these points. The only one I couldn’t readily identify was ‘Address big issues’, unless you count their aim of business helping business thrive ‘…a compelling purpose’.

    1. admin

      Personally I think that helping business to thrive is a fine and compelling purpose. But it needs some caveats. It should be sustainable in a single planet economy and it should provide everyone the opportunity for a life of dignity and respect (essentially pay and working conditions, but also impact on the supply chain and the consumer).
      Historically businesses have been able to thrive by externalising costs, minimising wages, and organising work in ways that don’t encourage people to be fully human. It will be interesting to see whether the Yorkshire Mafia embraces any these caveats in its efforts to ‘help businesses thrive’.

      1. I note your wider point about business, but looking strictly at the Mafia as a network, and using Becky’s list of characteristics for an effective network, it does look like the Mafia have all these, right?

  2. Shaibal Roy, @SR_Disrupt

    Thank you so much for sharing this work, it resonates on so many levels. Would you be interested in having a tweet-up/conversation about how the DH’s crowdsourcing work on maps and apps could be studied as an example of a network?

    It strikes me that the collision/match up of your synthesis above, and the NHS Change Model could be explored through the #mapsandapps story, which would be a compelling story to take back to the mapsandapps community and other fora, e.g. future forum.


    1. admin


      Mike Chitty here! We met at Claire Jones social media conference. I will see if there is much enthusiasm for this….Perhaps one for Becky to consider….