Networks: When and Why

The strategy to “build a network” often sounds like a magical solution—the seemingly boundless and viral power and speed of networks is regularly cited. However strong and effective networks do not materialize out of thin air.  Effective networks require care and attention to the relationships within them. Equally importantly, they require clear definitions of infrastructure components essential roles and shared responsibilities of the individuals in the network.

In today’s complex work, there are specific types of problems that require network solutions. In general, networks are widely regarded as effective for:

Wicked problems. Rittel and Webber first described wicked problems in 1973, identifying 10 “distinguishing properties” (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Since then, many people have researched and written about the best strategies for tackling wicked problems. Almost always, some form of collaboration is offered as a possible solution. Recently, network thinkers have begun to hone in on networks as the type of collaboration that will work most efficiently in such situations.

For example, Steve Waddell, lead steward of ecosystem labs at GOLDEN for Sustainability, and his colleagues note that, “Networks offer many benefits for tackling wicked problems, in contrast to traditional hierarchal organizational approaches. Perhaps foremost, they can be formed as a “co-owned” space by stakeholders in the system (Waddell, McLachlan, & Dentoni, 2013).”

Problems with a non-linear solution. Traditional large-scale organizations can be optimized to implement step-by-step solutions efficiently. However, when addressing problems that will not yield to sequential and incremental progress, agile and adaptive efforts are required. Networks work best on non-linear solutions because the structure iterates and innovates in multiple directions simultaneously, giving space for the problems and solutions to evolve together.

For example, the 2014 Ebola outbreak quickly exploded into a complex, chaotic and unpredictable set of interdependent challenges that overwhelmed all efforts of central planning. The problem in Sierra Leone and Liberia began to evolve more quickly than could even be communicated via a central office. At the height of the growing epidemic, during a December 2014 briefing, front line workers pushed for more agile network responses from the global community. A briefing paper from Doctors Without Borders noted, “All actors involved in the response…must take a flexible approach and allocate resources according to the most pressing needs at any given time and place.”

The on-the-ground voices were more sensitive to when action was needed, what was needed and the solutions quickly emerging to a very complicated situation. They needed a more networked approach to match the shifting threat of the epidemic. The World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders and other partners were able to ultimately organize just such an approach that played a major role in controlling the outbreak.

Problems that require a multi-leader solution. Collaboration is a core ability of network structures. When done well, networks can bring people together from across disciplines and areas of work. Dr. Doug Easterling, a professor of social sciences and health policy at Wake Forest School of Medicine, stated, “A network allows a broad range of people and organizations to identify their shared interests, to deepen their understanding of the systems they are seeking to change, and to find a shared framework from which to act.” (Easterling, 2012)

A report from Network Impact highlights that funders have largely caught onto this idea already. “Funders have different motivations for supporting networks. Some recognize that many of today’s challenges are too complex and interdependent for individual organizations to address effectively; solving them requires sustained cross-sector collaboration that assembles and deploys a critical mass of capacities and resources (Network Impact, 2014).”

The article “What’s Next for Philanthropy: Acting Bigger and Adapting Better in a Networked World” (Fulton, Kasper, & Kibbe, 2010) offers several case studies of effective networks that highlight these circumstances; see the bibliography for more information. The Rockefeller Foundation also produced a video explaining these concepts


[1]  Netcentric Campaigns’ founder Marty Kearns’ first writing, “Network-Centric Advocacy,” came out in 2003. Since then, the organization has worked with RWJF and other foundations to build, evaluate and make strategic recommendations for advocacy networks on a range of topics across the U.S. More information at www.netcentriccampaigns.org.


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