Engaging your network is a very powerful and cost-effective long-term strategy that can have a major impact on your organization. Having been a network weaver and coached network weavers for almost two decades, I have seen many organizations succeed and a fair number fail.
You may be asking: Where and how should I get started? What kind of investments do we need to make? What are best practices for success?
Below is a free assessment tool that can help you make the important strategic decisions about how to get started or move your network to the next level.
Thank you to the Military Families Learning Network for serving professionals who support military families, understanding their unique needs and interests, and helping them thrive.
The Military Families Learning Network (MFLN) engages military family service providers and Cooperative Extension educators in the exchange of experiences and research to enhance the professional impact and encourage professional growth.
MFLN encourages the formation and expansion of a skilled and collaborative network of professionals who support significant positive outcomes for military service members and their families.
“I am a nervous wreck, I am way behind on my fundraising, my staff is not getting along, I don’t know how to support them, I lost a major donor, and I feel so alone,” said Aron, an Executive Director of a nonprofit, a few months into COVID.
After almost eight months of the pandemic, leaders like Aron continue to face shifting contexts and ongoing stresses as they try to move into the new normal. Never before have leaders of Jewish organizations had to address questions like making working spaces safe from COVID and working entirely virtually. It’s lonely at the top anyway, but facing challenges further isolates leaders. “I must be the only one to experience this,” they think and therefore hesitate to share struggles with others, who could help. At this juncture in our communal lives, and as the Jewish Federations of North America 2020 General Assembly convenes virtually this week, we see professional networks are critically important to support leaders.
As Bill Gates writes, when tackling a big challenge he begins by asking, “who has dealt with this problem well? And what can we learn from them?” As guides and facilitators to groups of leaders – Ziva organizes leadership development cohorts and Naava guides Communities of Practice – we see the power of networks for leaders in both the Jewish and non-Jewish sectors. Peer support offers leaders practical insights as well as inspiration and hope, through seeing the successes, failures, and resilience of others. Therefore, a combination of peer community and access to an ongoing flow of information and solutions provides leaders with what they need to face the dynamic and ongoing challenges that COVID presents. Aron, for example, had a network but he had not used them much before. They had monthly webinars that provide interesting case studies. But that’s about it. And, while it’s tempting to hope that information is enough to address leaders’ needs, there are a few key pitfalls in that approach.
Overcoming the Challenges of Stress and Isolation
We are learning from new market research by the Schusterman and Jim Joseph Foundations that the key to successful virtual events for young Jewish adults is to provide community and connection before content. We argue that for leaders and other professionals, a similar approach applies.
So much of today’s pandemic challenges are outside of leaders’ lived experience, with a learning curve compounded by a paucity of best practices and continually changing guidelines. Supporting leaders must begin by attending to the human, the need for connection, and the emotional needs of leaders. Attending to the emotional is not a touchy-feely aspiration; stress is real and has a physiological basis. Stress causes the body to release cortisol, which inhibits the brain’s ability to proliferate dendrites and create new circuits. In other words, stress inhibits the brain’s ability to learn. So, to unlock learning, begin by addressing the human elements.
Research on professional learning shows the most powerful professional learning occurs in the context of work itself and solutions come from ongoing access to and informal conversations with peers. Only a peer understands the depth of what it means to stand in those shoes and has the shared language to describe it. Being able to reach out to the right person at the right time can be invaluable. In our experience, leaders are expressing a hunger to speak with each other about how they are handling COVID related challenges. And, thanks to Zoom, Teams, Meet, and more, we have unprecedented opportunities to bring people together.
By bringing people together, we give Aron a space where he feels understood, sees others dealing with similar challenges. His stress levels drop, unlocking his capacity to learn. But from whom? There are no experts on leadership in times of a pandemic. Aron and his peers need to co-create their knowledge together, writing the playbook themselves. Our own experience shows – and research validates – that participants in a well-facilitated networked model of learning can – in close to real-time – identify emerging challenges, deal with complexity, learn from experiments, share resources, create and spread innovation, and move a field forward.
Following, are a few success stories about ways the pandemic is providing new opportunities for organizations and individuals to find peers. We also share tips about how gathering differently can create stronger outcomes.
Find Your People
Example: Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools
When COVID hit, Jewish day school professionals serving in nine different roles – ranging from Jewish studies teachers to school counselors – reached out to Prizmah, the network for Jewish day schools across North America, to support them in convening. Prizmah used their existing infrastructure to form these new online communities, including professionals they had not previously convened, like the gym teachers who were suddenly faced with offering online gym class.
As an organization dedicated to connecting people with peers, experts, and resources, Prizmah already had monthly facilitated peer-to-peer gatherings for heads of school from across North America. At the start of COVID, heads of school requested more frequent time together and shifted to meeting weekly to get the support they needed. The nine new online communities found support through Prizmah, who had the infrastructure and staff in place to transition immediately to gathering more often with more groups. By listening to network members and building on their network of resources, Prizmah was able to serve a timely and critical need.
Networks are a Long Term Strategy
As illustrated by Prizmah, networks are a long term sustainable strategy. As Debra Shaffer Seeman, Prizmah’s Director of Network Weaving describes, “Investing in relationships makes all the difference. During periods when time is of the essence, pre-existing relationships allow for open sharing, trusted feedback, and quick input without the need for formal introductions or starting from scratch. Once a trusting relationship is formed, it is there to be easily activated when the necessity arises.”
Once you have found your people, we believe the realities of COVID require thinking differently about gathering. The goals of gathering in many professional development contexts have been focused on knowledge transfer, bringing in guest experts, or sharing case studies. We argue that during COVID, professional gatherings should provide space and opportunities for social and emotional support as well as stimulating learning and we provide an illustration and resources below. In addition, with the right facilitation and convening strategies, we see significant upside potential to stimulate innovation and catalyze collective impact.
We understand there is significant resistance to group time and energy focused on the ‘touchy-feely stuff’ of relationship building. Yet, profound learning occurs when professionals feel safe enough to ask questions, reveal their vulnerabilities, and explore what they do not know. Gathering differently means balancing a group’s intellectual growth with growing the relational underpinnings and trust that support network members.
Example: New England Hemophilia Association (NEHA)
Before COVID, NEHA had run in-person sessions for members with a format of the guest expert followed by Q & A. With the start of COVID, Sarah Shinkman, NEHA’s Program Director, realized there was a need for something more and started experimenting with Zoom breakout rooms. Sarah explained, “Breakouts in Zoom let attendees see each other, see facial expressions, and have stronger connections. The discussion becomes more meaningful, intentional, people are inclined to share more about their experience because they feel the energy, emotions, and connections from each other. It allows people to be more vulnerable.” Sarah’s insight and responsiveness increased her members’ learning, as well as their confidence in the support offered by the network.
Gathering Differently Requires Excellent Design and Facilitation
Excellent facilitation is essential for a strong network. Unlike a hierarchy that has a clear chain of command, we believe partnering with a network is best accomplished through facilitation. A facilitative stance allows the creativity and out of the box thinking of a group to emerge.
We recommend conveners build their facilitative muscles by undergoing training and watching master facilitators at work to continuously expand their repertoires. In the example above, COVID motivated a simple tweak in gathering – breakout rooms – that enabled more sparks of connection and intimacy, enriching and deepening network connections thereby creating social and emotional support for participants.
TIP: We recommend systematically using breakout rooms after a presentation to help participants synthesize what they heard, hear other perspectives on the topic, and think about how to apply what they learned to their own experience.
Resources for Gathering Differently
The new zoom client, released in late September, has an option that allows attendees to move across breakout rooms on their own creating many new and exciting formats ranging from a virtual cocktail party (Rae Ringel) to Open Space.
Other resources we have found to be useful in gathering differently include:
Troika Consulting from Liberating Structures – In quick round-robin “consultations,” individuals ask for help and get advice immediately from two others via peer-to-peer coaching triads. The virtual hack is to turn off your video instead of turning your chair around (Tanja Sarett).
This is a time that calls for learning together. After speaking with Naava, Aron reached out to his umbrella organization and reached out to his peer network. When we last spoke with Aron, instead of feeling overwhelmed and isolated, he felt supported, engaging with his network (and other supports) and knowing that his network was there for him.
Do you have a story of gathering differently in the pandemic? Learning differently? We want to hear it!
*Aron’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.
Naava Frank is Institutional Giving Manager at Honeymoon Israel and leads the Network of Network Leaders – an initiative founded by Cyd Weissman of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that brings network facilitators together for support and to learn from each other. As Director of Naava Frank LLC/Knowledge Communities, Naava has devoted her career to enabling nonprofit organizations to maximize the outcomes of Communities of Practice. Naava lives in Riverdale, the Bronx, New York.
Ziva Mann is the Director of Learning and Development at Ascent Leadership Networks, where she helps leaders understand their capabilities, and guides development for individuals and organizations. Ziva is also faculty at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement for the 100 Million Healthier Lives initiative (100mlives.org), working with a network of change leaders to improve equity, health, and wellbeing. She is also the director of ZMM Consulting, LLC. Ziva lives in Massachusetts with her husband and sons.
Michelle W. Malkin saysOctober 29, 2020 at 8:33 pmThank you for this important article! For those working or volunteering in congregations, the National Association for Temple Administration is having their annual conference virtually for not only learning but networking with others facing the same challenges you are. We hope you’ll join us and gain some needed resources to keep you going strong!https://www.natanet.org/greetings_from_the_chairs.php
Lisa Colton saysOctober 30, 2020 at 8:18 pmThank you for this – while I already knew many components of what you’ve taught here, you’ve compiled it, and highlighted causation in new ways for me. And, the curated resources at the end are GREAT! I wonder if you have any suggestions for “facilitation training” – both light and deep – that you recommend? I find a lot of people are newly aware that they could use more training in this area (Yay!) and looking for recommendations too share. Thanks!
Thanks so much for your response and excellent question and I love hearing about the interest in facilitation.
In addition to the individual’s I listed in the links, one of my favorite go to’s for facilitation for social change is the Interaction Institute for Social Change
I don’t want to leave others out – I am sure there are many excellent providers I don’t know about – and perhaps crowdsourcing some resources could be valuable.
I see the facilitation of a network or community of practice as a sub-specialty of facilitation that uses many generic skills but requires some specialized understandings. Given COVID – another important sub-specialty is virtual facilitation like https://www.trybalgatherings.com/bootcamp. And there are differences between long term vs. one-off facilitation, for example, ‘meeting facilitation’ or ‘collaborative decision making’ can be tools in a facilitator’s toolkit.
My advice for someone who is interested in growing their facilitation skills is a) think about whom you would like to facilitate, in what context, toward what outcome b) learning any process from therapy to sailing, takes practice and time, you learn by doing, (and making mistakes) which is fine, watching master facilitators, as well as building up your toolkit c) jump into the pool – its fun!
Having been bitten by the facilitation bug — as so many of us are — its so rewarding to see what possibilities, commitments, and innovations can emerge from a group that is well facilitated.
The good news is that technology has created unprecedented opportunities for people to meet like-minded peers to learn, collaborate and support each other. The bad news is that so many of these well-meaning and inspiring projects that have enormous potential to help people and strengthen causes, are failing. Not just in the Jewish community, throughout the nonprofit world, hundreds of thousands of dollars (at least) have been spent over the past decade on designing systems that ended up not being utilized. I don’t mean to point a finger – my guess is most of us have participated in, dreamed of, sponsored, or funded one of these projects. And there is no simple answer to explain what went wrong. What I would like to present today is a way of thinking that in my experience has helped communities succeed.
The idea is that when we focus on building a technology infrastructure, we often neglect to build an accompanying relationship infrastructure. The word community can be defined as “a group of people with a common background or with shared interests within society.” Those interests may be shared geography, affiliation, values, purpose, enemies or problems.
When you bring a group of strangers or acquaintances together for a gathering, a party, you don’t expect them to suddenly bond, reveal their secrets or foibles, or become best friends. So why do we expect that if we build a website or community platform which is even more remote than an in person gathering, people will jump in and participate? An online space has fewer social clues such as age, clothing, body language or accent than a face-to-face gathering. When we go online the only social clues we usually get are an email address or name, and if we are lucky a small image of the person. We all know how resistant we are to completing the profile section of online social platforms, even though it would help a lot.
So what would you do if you were a host or hostess at a cocktail party? You would circulate and get to know people, introduce people to each other that have shared interests, maybe set up some games or some interesting conversation pieces. You might encourage a few of the more gregarious folks to help make people feel comfortable. There might be some people you would not invite because they cause trouble.
In order to make online communities successful we need to pay attention to the relationships not just the technology infrastructure. We need to help people find each other and connect around shared interests.
What does relationship infrastructure consist of? Roles, protocols, norms, expectations, motivations, mission and purpose and other social structures. (Think about Daniel Pink’s work on motivation.) Note I said motivation – not incentives – research has demonstrated that incentives are only good for simple tasks not for complex knowledge based tasks. So let me be concrete about what relationship infrastructure looks like:
This past week I was working with the Helen Keller National Center – they are just finishing up a platform for a national community of practice that includes representative from 50 states. They want to introduce the platform to their 20 staff members. We talked about the usual approach – a technology training – letting staff get in the site and press buttons. The focus was on technology. Then we asked ourselves, how can we do this in a way that develops relationships – both relationships between people and relationships to the mission of the organization? We came up with the following protocol.
We paired people up – intentionally thinking about who might benefit from doing this work together – make sure someone who is technology averse is paired with someone who is technologically comfortable. Maybe pair people who work on the same team? Or maybe pair people across teams?
We sent them into the platform with an assignment. While they are in the site and “kick the tires” we helped them imagine what it would be like driving the car. We gave them some guiding questions to think about.
Name 3 ways this platform can help you forward your mission.
Name 2 technology improvements you would like to see for this platform.
Name 1 surprise from this experience.
We asked everyone to post these responses in the site so that others can see how their peers respond to the experience. (Thereby giving them another opportunity to get to know others – by reading their responses.)
Relationship infrastructures have to be carefully matched to the culture of the community, stage of development of the community (how well do people know each other) and many other factors. Just like technology may need to be revisited and upgraded, the relationship infrastructure needs to be revisited and changed as the community changes.
So next time you think about designing a technology platform for a community – don’t forget to take the time and effort and get the expertise you need to build the accompanying relationship infrastructure that will ensure the success of your investment.
Naava Frank, EdD, is a consultant and researcher focused on the impact of communities of practice and networks. She can be reached at naavafrank1@gmail or knowledgecommunities.blogspot.com
Kevin Martone saysMay 2, 2013 at 4:54 pmNaava-Thanks for posting this. Great insight to think through the relationships at the outset and actually have people connect in the physical world and in the community to start building relationships immediately.Where possible, connecting at in person get-togethers (or online video calls with a subset of participants?) with the launch of a community could also help connect people in constructive ways.Kevin
Miriam Brosseau saysMay 2, 2013 at 5:19 pmSo simple and so poignant and so important. Love it; thank you, Naava.I think we all need to remember that social platforms – however shiny, however cool – are just trying to catch up with the depth and nuance of real human relationships (think of Google Plus introducing Circles to better reflect the way we think about the different groups of people in our lives, or Twitter not requiring a “mutual follow” because not every relationship is equal in the real world – why would they be online?). So we need to teach the tech, yes. But it’s even more important to learn how to bring the humanity into that technology, and not confuse/conflate tools and strategy.
Rabbi Hayim Herring saysMay 2, 2013 at 6:24 pmThanks for the lucid reminder that it’s more important to be enamored of people than technology if we want to build online communities. Especially appreciate the concrete example of how you provided an experience of how technology could serve the needs of individuals.
Jennifer Weinstock saysMay 2, 2013 at 8:20 pmNaava-You make such excellent points. As a Community of Practice facilitator for development professionals I tried to make sure we had at least one annual face-to-face meeting. After the opportunity to build personal relationships we were much more likely to maximize our virtual ones!
Dave Neil saysMay 2, 2013 at 10:25 pmNaava,Thank you for such a wonderful article- so on target and so helpful! When building websites which aim to create community, rally people to a particular cause or help professionals in the same fields connect you really hit the nail on the head- the difference between success and failure will often amount to how much time is developed in helping to foster the relationships behind the scenes- in real time phone follow-up conversations etc. to help real people connect to one another… that is the way these websites which aim to accomplish so much will be successful and without that behind the scenes personal investments- many of them will fail. I’m really glad you brought this to light as one of the most effective benefits for improving Jewish education both formal and informal- is encouraging teachers and informal educators to share their best practices… but the lesson applies to any other area in the professional world where best practices can be shared by collegues.
Naava Frank saysMay 2, 2013 at 10:39 pmSo glad this was helpful and appreciate all the wisdom added by each of the comments. In the Kehilliyot CoP funded by Covenant Foundation we asked for volunteers to be welcoming buddies. Whenever someone joined the community they received an email welcome with someone offering to help them get comfortable. At a well-planned party, we would expect to have someone greet us, take our coat or show us where to put it, point out the drinks the restroom. We talk about doing that for members at congregations. And we can all use that same wisdom online. Look forward to continuing our learning together.
Our featured guest at our August 23rd session was Naava Frank who is Director of Naava Frank, LLC/Knowledge Communities. This session was held at EMPath’s Seccomb Room from 2:00pm-3:30pm.
Here’s what Naava says:
“A Community of Practice brings professionals with shared interests together to learn with and from each other. Communities allow you to share ideas, so you don’t have to “re-invent the wheel” thereby saving you time and money. Finding others with similar challenges can help you solve problems that are too difficult to solve alone and keep you from feeling isolated. Recent research confirms that communities support individual professionals and help organizations tackle ‘systems change’.”
This workshop will allow you to:
Take stock of professional Communities of Practice you sponsor and belong to – are they meeting your needs?
Utilize an assessment tool to understand what is working and not working
Learn about best-practices fixes for the most common errors in Communities of Practice
Collaborate with your peers and the facilitator to discover ways to apply the learning to communities you sponsor and belong to
Walk away with a tool, a new framework, practical tips, and strategies to start or move your community of practice to the next level
Please note that this session will be tailored to the needs of any nonprofit professional who is tasked with making strategic decisions for a mission-based organization. If you would like to benefit from the wisdom of peers and encourage others to do so, you should attend this. No previous experience or training is necessary to participate in this session.
PLUS: Follow up office hour call for the Roundtable session on how to design an effective community of practice with Naava Frank
I got a lot of concrete strategies and tools for implementing a CoP
It crystallized something important for me around this work AND is connecting me to someone I can learn more from!
The PowerPoint slides were useful – the definition of CoP, the job description for a community manager, etc.
Good thinking about people’s motivations to participate in Communities of Practice
I learned all about COP’s and what is involved in creating a COP and how helpful COP can be.
Learned more about different COP models
Here’s a little more about Naava:
Naava Frank is Director of Naava Frank, LLC/Knowledge Communities. Naava consults to foundations and non-profit organizations on communities of practice, networks, professional development, and program evaluation. Naava is a nationally recognized expert in the use of communities of practice and networks. She holds an Ed.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a B.A. from Barnard College/Columbia University.
If you facilitate an online professional community or group, this strategy can help you increase the engagement, trust, and sharing of your group by allowing members to get to know each other. Utilize a “Work Out Loud” prompt.
1. Post a prompt to group members asking them to share what they are working on – Encourage them to simply list what they are doing. A prompt might be:
“Share one to three things you are working on today / this week. List a project you are working on, a meeting you will be attending or a conversation you are planning. Make it simple, you don’t need much detail. I bet there are others in this group who are thinking about and working on something similar.”
2. In advance of posting, find a few people who will agree to respond to your prompt — this sets an example and encourages others to participate. Repeat periodically, perhaps weekly or on whatever schedule works best for the group.
3. Once participants begin to share what they are working on, the facilitator should monitor the flow and respond to opportunities to follow-up:
Encourage participants to connect with others working on similar projects
Share relevant resources or encourage participants to
Follow-up and ask someone, privately or publicly, about how a particular project is progressing.
Celebrate successes when participants share them
Help participants overcome challenges they share with the group
Many participants find this public sharing to be helpful in supporting their own progress and accountability
4. It may take time to get started, but over time momentum builds, and over time participants begin to:
Feel more comfortable sharing
Get to know more each other’s work
Learn from each other
Begin to rely on each other
Collaborate and create and innovate together
If you would like to learn more about Working Out Loud, below is a link to a short article from the Community Roundtable, an organization I am affiliated with.
Reflecting on the long-term power of networks. Today I have been learning about chatbots https://tinyurl.com/yccq2rcc from my colleague Joitske Hulsebosch. I met Joitske well over a decade ago when we both took a CP Square course with John Smith https://www.linkedin.com/in/smithjd8/ and Etienne Wenger and have been following each other on linked in etc.
Joitske’s article THERE’S A CHATBOT FOR THAT! CHATBOTS FOR LEARNING AND REFLECTION piqued my curiosity and I followed one of her suggested links to
this article ARE ALL CONVERSATIONAL USER EXPERIENCES EQUAL? https://tinyurl.com/y9dhpfg8 claiming that ” A well selected chatbot has the ability to increase user engagement and satisfaction, boost sales, accelerate brand awareness, and take a company to the next level.” It seems that it is going to be increasingly hard to tell when we are speaking with a person versus a chatbot. If chatbots can produce personalized engagement – what does that mean for us as community managers? Do they have any role in community? What about producing connections like me and Joitske? What are your thoughts?
From the Jim Joseph Foundation Website. “Please find linked here a groundbreaking piece of research entitled “Jewish Virtual Learning Networks: A mapping of online ‘Communities of Practice’ in the North American Jewish institutional world”. This work, led by Bar Ilan University’s Dr. Erik Cohen, is dedicated in the memory of the remarkable Jack Slomovic.” Jewish Virtual Learning Networks dedicated to Jack Slomovic