Snapshot of Nonprofit Webinar Poll Results on Knowledge Networks

Blog Topic: 
Sustainable Communities

On November 30, 2011 I gave a presentation on knowledge networks as part of the free Nonprofit Webinar series. My talk was called “Beyond Partnerships: Tapping into the Agility of Knowledge Networks and Communities.” (Click on the Video tab to listen and follow along.) My webinar defined a knowledge network (also called a community of practice), its outcomes, healthy network behaviors, drivers of success, and leaders’ critical design decisions to achieve those successes. We also talked about examples from the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. This snapshot summarizes the polls taken during the webinar, from which we learned that most participants felt that "collaboration and trust" were lagging in their knowledge networks, even though "coordination" and "learning/innovation" were their leading objectives. Not a happy scenario! I proposed a follow-on webinar on using the eight design dimensions to build trust and stimulate collaborative behaviors. By Katrina Pugh, AlignConsulting, December 7, 2011.

Bruce Summers, a consultant/volunteer with the Red Cross commented on the November 30th, 2011 webinar on Knowledge Networks:

"One of the best webinars I have participated in. Just the right information at the right time, well delivered, integrated well with the work I have done with communities of practice, great to learn the current theory. Would highly recommend this webinar to colleagues." 

This was gratifying, and I think that the participants would agree that we raised some very relevant (albeit thorny) issues with knowledge networks. In this "snapshot" I’m focusing not on my material (and the results of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded research Larry Prusak and I conducted), but on the results of the webinar participants' polls.

These are not particularly statistically significant.  Yet, the interest and engagement of the participants was significant, and there seemed to be some momentum to go further and learn more. There was a request that we have another webinar on knowledge network leaders' design decisions that are directed specifically toward members' trust and collaborative actions. All eight Design Dimensions (recap’d below) contribute to the dynamics of trust. In future discussions we'll will discuss the subtle balance, for example, of operating model, metrics, facilitation, convening structures, and feedback mechanisms that can bring about trust.

The Polling Data: Coordination and Learning/innovation are key objectives, but they are hampered by low trust and collaboration

At the November 30 webinar 57 people attended, including Red Cross, United Way, Save the Children, Deloitte, Bridgespan, Northwestern, Girl Scouts and IBM (and plenty of gmails and yahoo mails whose affiliations I didn't know).   

We did two polls:

  1. "Which type of knowledge network best describes yours today?" and
  2. "Which of these [productive knowledge network] behaviors is lagging in your knowledge network?"


Type of Knowledge Network

35 of the 57 attendees responded to the “type of network” poll.  51% selected “Coordination,” followed by 40% who selected “Learning / innovation.”  I thought it was remarkable that only about one quarter of these nonprofit managers selected “Practitioner Support,” which is so common in corporate knowledge networks: [please paste into your browser (or click third attachment) if you get an error] 



What was also interesting was how many had multiple network objectives concurrently. This diluted the first two considerably.  35 people named 55 different types, so, on average half of the respondents had more than one: [please paste into your browser (or click 4th attachment below) if you get an error]



As webinar respondents had multiple objectives, we can see that Coordination and Learning/Innovation are frequently an objective alongside others.  Actually, some had more than two: 12 of the 35 respondents had at least two objectives, and five of the respondents had four objectives.

I commented that it is critical to be clear on the dominant objective at any time, so it would be important for those knowledge networks to consider how they communicate about their objectives, and be up-front where there could be a tug at resources one way or the other. For example, money could be invested in compiling insights [Learning/innovation] or building out social media or activity feeds for members [Practitioner support]. This may not be an either/or choice; it’s just a matter of emphasis, and that clarity of emphasis helps members feel a consistency and integrity that could be missing if objectives were too diffuse.)


Lagging Knowledge Network Behaviors

For the poll on Knowledge Network behaviors or "characteristics," we had 32 responding out of the 57 attendees.  During the discussion we explored six behaviors of a healthy network. These Larry Prusak and I identified in our research (collaboration, trust, cohesiveness, using a working platform, connectivity, and commonly agreed upon objectives). These are the results of network leaders’ and participants’ design, care, and participation over time.

Unfortunately I could only have five choices in the poll, rather than six, so I chose to put collaboration and trust into one item. (I reasoned that collaboration included willingness to suspend one's needs for the group and invest in the shared outcomes. To suspend their needs or judgments does require trust.) Respondents felt "cohesiveness" (loyaty) and "collaboration and trust" were close, followed by a somewhat more distant "working platform" and "connectedness," with "commonly agreed-upon objectives" a distant fifth: [please paste into your browser (or click first attachment below) if you get an error]



I found it interesting that “Collaboration and trust” is lagging in participants’ networks for over 50% of the respondents.  And I was pleased to see that the fewest (though still 28%) said that "Commonly agreed upon goals and objectives" was lagging.

Upon examination of the data, selecting "commonly agreed-upon goals and objectives" did not correlate with having multiple network types in the previous question. Ironically, respondents lacking common agreement had one objective (e.g., "Learning/Innovation" or "Practitioner support"), but they appeared to be struggling with common agreement for even that one objective.

When we look at all of the items identified (equally counting multiple responses) we can see that "Collaboration and trust" gets diluted: [paste into your browser (or click 2nd attachment below) if you get an error]

In fact, from this poll, you could conclude that of the lagging behaviors, “Collaboration and Trust,” "Cohesiveness," and "Using a working platform" are equally likely to be issues. 

Another observation is that over 80% of those who named "Collaboration and trust" also named other characteristics as lagging, so we could conclude that "Collaboration and trust" are connected to things like loyalty, willingness to try out the given technical platform, and courage to offer one's personal network up to knowledge network members.


Where from here

There appear to be interesting directions in this small poll. We are seeing an earnest desire use knowledge network as a model to coordinate knowledge-creation across different organizations ("Coordination" objective), and to develop knowledge or content products as a reflective entity ("Learning/innovation" objective). Yet, we see that that "Collaboration and trust," "Cohesiveness" (identification with the network), and the poor "working platform" are hindering those very objectives. Clearly our behaviors are not going to get us to our objectives:

  • The network cannot have intense coordination unless participants can bend their project plans, communications, or program investments to align with the larger network’s objectives. Larry Prusak eloquently defines "collaboration" as submitting some of one's selfish outcomes to the will of the group. When we hold back, it's very difficult to coordinate. We don't invest our precious resources for the common goals unless we "trust" that shared action will result in better outcomes for all of us.


  • The network cannot fully learn unless experts (academics, policy makers, veterans) can suspend their certainty, and welcome surprise insights that might come from the average practitioner or from the real-time discussion.  This requires "trust" down to the core, because it requires the experts to willingly be vulnerable as new ideas and perspectives are explored. Such learning challenges the very identity of the experts. (This is one reason we include explicit language around the expert-learner duality as a leadership responsibility in the Design Dimensions, below.)


  • Finally, coordination and learning are constrained when "cohesiveness" is compromised. If I don't identify with the network, I'm not going to take the extra step to coordinate my program schedule, investments, or messages with others. And, if I don't identify with the network, I may not have the patience or the will to listen closely to the network's evidence. I get blaze about the network's learning. (This is just like my overload of LinkedIn Groups: any one group's eureka may be noise to me if I get feeds from eight LinkedIn groups every day, and don't particularly identify with any one of them.)


So, where from here?  We found in our research that network leaders typically looked at eight design dimensions to build an enduring network foundation.  These result in leaders' shared perpectives, their making the expert-learner balance decisive, their aligned operating model, their choice of reasonable and inspirational goals (not four equally weighted ones!), their vibrant and productive network member gatherings onine and offline, and their routine measures and celebrations. Here are the eight, divided into strategic, structural, and tactical categories: [please paste into your browser (or click 5th attachment below) if you get an error]


In a future webinar we’ll further discuss what it means to make design decisions to power specific network dynamics that, in turn, lead to the effectiveness behaviors (collaboration, trust, cohesiveness, using a working platform, connectivity, and commonly agreed upon objectives) -- and outcomes like coordination and translation of network ideas into new geographies or industries.  Trust will be the first among those behaviors. Without such a foundation outcomes are fleeting.

Finally, we'll discuss how politics, resource constraints, and technological developments can inform our design decisions. And we'll select measures -- and celebrations -- to keep the momentum going. Stay tuned for the Nonprofit Webinar time and sign-up details.


Katrina Pugh is author of Sharing Hidden Know-How(Jossey-Bass, Wiley, 2011), on the faculty of Columbia University’s Information and Knowledge Strategy Masters program, and president of AlignConsulting.  Knowledge Network research, performed by Larry Prusak and Katrina Pugh in 2011, was underwrittend by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Connect with Katrina Pugh on Twitterand LinkedIn.

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