Network Mapping as an Effective Learning Tool

by Anna Saltzman, Meghan Hunt, and Jeff Mohr of Kumu

Nonprofits and their funders are increasingly exploring the power of networks as a strategy for achieving social change. Networks catalyze action by weaving ties between a diverse range of players, building on each other’s resources, ideas, expertise, and initiative. Because such efforts are emergent and embedded in cultural and political contexts, they call for creative approaches to helping funders and partners design, evaluate, and adapt strategies for improving these social change networks.

One of these approaches is the use of social network analysis (SNA) surveys and visual network maps. Engage R+D and Kumu share a belief that network maps are a powerful tool for documenting and learning from network-building activities. Each of our organizations has experience creating network maps in a variety of contexts. In this post, we share how we used network mapping as a learning tool on a recent project, as well as a network mapping user guide to support your own efforts.


Network Mapping in South Asia

In 2017, Engage R+D and Kumu partnered with Ending Pandemics, a global nonprofit working to find, verify, and contain infectious disease outbreaks, as they initiated the South Asia One Health Disease Surveillance Network. The purpose of this network is to improve cross-sector and cross-border communication and collaboration related to disease surveillance and response across the eight countries of South Asia. We worked with Ending Pandemics to document the baseline network and produce visuals to facilitate dialogue and learning between network members. Engage R+D surveyed close to 30 network members, including health officials in each of the eight countries, about their perceptions of the network and how they were connected to one another. Kumu used this information to create a series of network maps displaying relationships between members and analyzing various aspects of the network. This analysis showcased how information flowed between members and identified key players who could help to further strengthen the network.

Through this work, we surfaced four important lessons about how to harness network mapping to support group learning:

1. Measure what matters.

At the outset of the project, we spoke with Ending Pandemics staff to understand what types of relationships and activities were most essential to building a healthy network. Developing trust among network members was seen as critical given how essential trust is to effective cross-border communication in the face of disease outbreaks. Thus, we developed survey questions that captured whether people were interacting with others in ways that would help them build trust over time. If our findings suggested that members weren’t even on the pathway to developing trust, Ending Pandemics staff could examine their network-building activities to ensure that participants were given adequate opportunities to engage with each other. Given differences in language, culture, and political contexts, establishing trust within this network required a patient and intentional approach.

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2. Stand the test of time.

By repeating network surveys at regular intervals, network mapping can measure how connections develop, strengthen, or change over time. For this baseline survey, we were mindful of selecting measures that would capture the current state of the network while staying relevant as it matured. Thus, when we created a scale to measure the strength of members’ relationships with each other, we included low levels of interaction (to reflect the current state), while also making sure the upper level of the scale captured the optimal scenario as the network matured and interactions deepened (that participants were working jointly together on disease surveillance and response activities). Our findings suggested our scale indeed left room for growth, as most of the relationships were not at the highest level of interaction at the time of our baseline survey. At the same time, the Kumu maps revealed areas where some individuals were already collaborating, and open-ended survey responses suggested specific ways that people were working together. When this information was shared with network members, it helped them to see in concrete terms how a network approach could allow them to work together more effectively over time.

3. Shed light on what is not easily visible.

Kumu’s robust data visualizations can help reveal trends amid complex network data. Through its online platform, Kumu created interactive, web-based network maps which allowed us to easily toggle between different ways of viewing relationships within the network. This capability helped us clarify key takeaways and visually identify trends that were not as readily apparent from our quantitative analysis of the survey data. For example, one functionality within Kumu allowed us to view only those relationships that are strongest within the network, or conversely, only those that are the weakest. While the vast majority of individuals had the strongest relationships with others from their own country, we also found several individuals who forged strong connections with others across multiple countries. The latter group of individuals could serve as important bridges in the network, helping to bring together disparate players and strengthen cross-country collaboration.

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4. Work in context.

Network-building efforts are deeply embedded in the context of their members. While our team has experience applying network maps in a variety of contexts, this was the first time we did so in South Asia. In this new setting, we benefitted from pilot testing the survey instrument, which revealed important wording changes to bridge the cross-country context. As outsiders to the region, we were also mindful of practical issues, such as time changes and holidays, to ensure our communication about the online survey was well-timed. While some of these points may seem obvious, we learned the importance of building them into our approach early on to keep our work on track and ensure that our communication was appropriate and sensitive to the context in which we were working.

When network members came together for an in-person launch meeting in Thailand, our analysis and maps helped them to see existing strengths within the network. For example, the maps showed the ways in which members were already communicating with each other effectively, as well as areas where relationships could be strengthened. Members reported that the visual display of their relationships inspired them to see the network’s future potential. They were thus more motivated to stay engaged in the network and use it as a mechanism to improve their communication and collaboration in the face of disease outbreaks.

Ready to get more out of your network mapping? Here are some next steps:

Download the Network Mapping User Guide to plan your own evaluation

Read Kumu’s post on building intentional networks that drive impact