3.3 How can a network support collaboration and problem solving in communities?
By now you understand a little more about networking but may also have questions about how it fits in with tackling community issues or solving problems. Here are three key ways that networking is useful:
- Ensuring you understand the context of events
Networks help provide you with information about underlying activities and changes in the community, such as who is involved in local health, education and care provision, the local business environment or changes to housing provision and the residential make-up of particular neighbourhoods. For instance, at a formal community group meeting it is likely that there will be as many ideas shared between network members during coffee, as during the formal meeting itself.
Online social media channels like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram make it possible to connect with people who you might never meet in another way. Many community groups and services have set up online networking activities using one or more of these. They can help keep track of the ongoing concerns of those community members who are proactive on social media.
- Helping you to get things done
Community activities such as school fetes, voluntary neighbourhood projects or organising support services for vulnerable community members often depend on strong underlying networks. Community leaders and service providers have to work closely with parents, volunteers, and residents to initiate and coordinate these activities. All of this will depend on the mutual exchange of information, local knowledge and skills which characterise strong networks.
However, this is not always as easy as it sounds. In a complex world, getting things done often requires working with people outside the immediate network and influencing them to help. For instance, it might not be possible for one small local organisation to establish a community garden, but by working in partnership with other groups and the local council this could be enough to get it off the ground.
- Finding creative solutions
Networks also provide a way to increase personal creativity and problem solving ability because they allow you to see things from another’s perspective. While many organisations benchmark themselves against their industry competitors, they might learn more by comparing how they do things with an organisation in a very different sector.
Optional Activity: Exploring creative problems using network contacts
This is quite time consuming so you may want to try it in your own time when you have finished the course. In addition to networking, you will need to think about how you use some of the skills you have started to develop like active listening.
Anyone who has spent a long time thinking about a particular problem or is immersed in a culture that tends to approach problems in particular ways is likely to find it difficult to break out of a mindset which constrains their creativity. Using someone from our personal network who is not involved in the problem itself can offer a fresh pair of eyes to help unlock this mindset.
Try the following process with someone from your network who you can trust will work with you:
- Write down a problem that you are trying to solve as clearly and simply as you can.
- Show your problem description to one or more people who have no direct experience of the problem and ask them to think about it for a day or two, writing down any questions or ideas they have about it.
- Sit down with them in a mutually comfortable environment – it may a café or just a quiet corner of your workplace – and ask them to go through their questions and ideas while you make notes. It is likely many of these ideas are quite ‘naïve’ given their lack of familiarity but is important that you listen respectfully.
- Now try to feed back your own thoughts on how their questions and ideas could be useful to moving your thinking forward.