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Published: November 28, 2007

 
 

The Community Network Solution

In reweaving the social fabric of a city or town, relationships trump rank.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

Business leaders are in­creasingly aware that the health of their enterprise is intimately connected with the health of the communities where they operate. As employers, they sometimes find themselves drawn in to help solve local problems. But they are also often frustrated by those efforts, and no wonder. When a community sets out to address complex problems, such as economic stagnation, sprawl, and failing schools, the ef­fort usually ends up going nowhere. Competing agendas surface, members delegate responsibilities to staff, difficult decisions get postponed. Hopes fade and interest flags as the hidden challenges and underlying conflicts become apparent.

The quiet failure of such initiatives is often attributed to human nature, or to some flaw in the process that shaped the effort. But in fact, the problem usually starts when the project organizers compose their first list of proposed participants. The organizers ask themselves: Who are the power brokers around town? Who are the key players? Who from business, government, education, and nonprofits should be involved?

Once the list is compiled, the usual suspects are convened. They assemble with enthusiasm, write a vision statement, sign up for committees, and pledge support. A press release goes out: “Local Leadership Team Sets to Work!”

And already, from the standpoint of anyone who has studied networks, the initiative is in trouble. Most likely, the organizers took care to involve people who hold high positions in the community. Their list may be lifted directly from a newspaper or magazine feature purporting to name the local “Power 100.” Thereafter, the whole effort will operate on the unspoken presumption that influence derives primarily from positional power, and that positional power translates into the ability to get things done.

That assumption is as naive as the belief that a company’s organization chart –– with its boxes and circles, its dotted lines showing who reports to whom — provides an accurate picture of how the organization actually works. Like org charts, “most powerful” lists reveal nothing about the human qualities of those who occupy senior positions, the web of personal relationships upon which they can draw, or the trust they inspire (or don’t inspire) in other people.

Yet relationships built on trust are essential if complex initiatives that rely on voluntary efforts are to succeed. People simply will not put themselves on the line for a sustained period of time unless they trust and feel connected with the leaders of the initiative. Moreover, trust and positional power are often inversely correlated: The higher someone’s position, the less likely it is that others trust that person. An ambitious local undertaking is practically guaranteed to fizzle if it relies on people whose chief qualification is a high place in the pecking order. Whenever change is on the agenda, the power of relationships trumps the power of position.

Therefore, the most effective local initiatives engage people whose informal networks reach broadly and deeply across sectors and organizations. Such people are often unsung heroes in a community. They might include a uniformed policewoman who sets up a system to link diverse services for victims of domestic violence, an assistant principal who runs a small but innovative program for local gang members, a bakery owner who designs training for immigrant employees in partnership with the local community college, or a fi­nance executive who hosts community meetings in his or her com­pany’s conference room. The titles these individuals hold rarely reflect the contributions they have made or their ability to shape local con­ditions and influence the course of events.

Cultural Topography
Identifying such people is a challenge because they fly below the public radar. Finding them requires not compiling a list but devising a new approach — making a map. This kind of map is a diagram of the informal communications links among people; it reveals the topography of the cultural territory by tracing the webs of relationships through which information is dispersed and resources flow. Because the map shows networks rather than hierarchical standing, it is innately more community-enabling than a list, which automatically orders people into rankings or disconnected categories. The map shows both points of leverage (people who can be tapped for their interest and influence) and points of constraint (people who might have reason to shut down or limit an initiative). It identifies the personal connections that can be harnessed in the service of large-scale change.

 
 
 
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