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Published: November 28, 2007

 
 

The Community Network Solution

For the past decade, I have been helping local communities create such maps. My first efforts were based in the United Kingdom, for a project sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and later by the Young Foundation, a social innovation–oriented foundation based in London. Beginning in the early 2000s, we set up 13 pilot programs in four U.K. regions, each based in a local township, county, or district, including Devon in the southwest, Nottinghamshire in the east, and the Newham borough in London. Each project was intended to address community-related aspirations such as reducing burglary levels or domestic violence, dealing with antisocial behavior, improving neighborhoods, or building better youth services. There were already as many as 40 public–private partnerships, involving hundreds of organizations and thousands of people, all working on these problems, but with no coordination. Our assignment: to identify the kinds of links that could help accelerate the flow of information, to reduce redundancies, and to help the groups achieve more substantive success.

In 2005, I applied the same approach with a community affairs group called Leadership Philadelphia (www.leadershipphiladelphia.org). The organization’s ambitious goal was to bring a group of citizens together to develop a plan for the urban landscape, provide oppor­tunities for the disenfranchised, increase neighborhood renewal, and enhance civic leadership. At that time Philadelphia was a demoralized city: Conflict between government and business, and between business and academia, had helped shape a 40-year-long slide into economic lethargy and political corruption. With few exceptions, local leaders had a poor record of cooperation and trust; they either ignored or actively undermined one another.

This sense of fragmentation and malaise was particularly disturbing to me when I walked in and around the majestic buildings of the “city of brotherly love,” where representatives of the original 13 colonies had once gathered to draft the U.S. Constitution. Benjamin Franklin had exhorted the Founding Fathers to “unite or die” here. Collaboration was Philadelphia’s heritage, its gift to the nation. But now its civic leaders couldn’t even agree on how to tackle its major problems.

Both in the United Kingdom and in Philadelphia, the civic leaders who brought me in understood from the start that this initiative would require businesses, government representatives, nonprofit organizations, and education institutions to put aside competing agendas. Indeed, that’s what attracted them. But it was a tall order. There were many subtle obstacles. For example, many of these organizations and agencies were awash in data and metrics. Some of them used as many as 400 measures to support their claims of success. They tended to count processes rather than outcomes; for example, a mental health counseling agency might track the number of people visited rather than any changes in behavior. This made verifiable assessment and accountability difficult and fostered ever-higher levels of mutual suspicion.

The first step toward renewal, therefore, was to identify those in the community who had the capac­ity to collaborate in a fruitful way. This is where my work came in. In years of working with corporations, government agencies, education in­stitutions, and the military, I have developed a reliable and replicable system for helping people understand and improve the quality of their professional and social networks. We often start by identifying “connectors”: individuals who have inspired enough trust to build lasting, meaningful relationships across a broad range of economic sectors and organizations. Connectors don’t always hold high positions, but they wield significant power because they provide the adhesive that binds people together and makes things happen. They are the essential catalysts for change.

Triads of Trust
Our method for identifying connectors has two stages. In Stage One, we conducted a modified “snowball sample” survey (in which respondents suggest other people to interview). In Philadelphia, this involved requesting nominations from Leadership Philadelphia members and former members, and putting out a call through local media. We prompted nominations with questions that included:

 
 
 
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