The Power of Our Collective Professional Networks and Transdisciplinarity Learning | Beth's Blog

The Power of Our Collective Professional Networks and Transdisciplinarity Learning

Instructional Design

Earlier this month, I had an opportunity to facilitate a full-day innovation lab for an amazing group of network thinkers using human design methods to inform the design of a leadership network.    It has been exactly a year since I have committed to practicing the methods from Luma Institute as part of improving my facilitation practice.   It was a great learning experience from both a process and content perspective.

Since we were working on how to integrate networked leadership principles into the design of a program, I wanted to incorporate an icebreaker that helped us visualize our professional networks and see the interactions.    As part of the workshops I have facilitated to teach nonprofits to become networked nonprofits,  I created an exercise called “Creating the Me to We Network.”  I first used this exercise in 2011 in Lebanon to kick off  E-Mediat project that brought trainers and capacity builders from 5 countries in the Middle East to be trained on curriculum based on my book, the Networked Nonprofit, and interactive training techniques.    In this case, I used the exercise to help the teams from Yemen, Morocco, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Jordan see a visualization of their collective expertise.   The idea was that if they knew each other’s knowledge and skill related to the project, it can help everyone can be more effective in delivering the social media training because one person or team doesn’t need to know everything.  Building a solid core,  participants can use social media tools to easily connect NGOS with new people who have knowledge, resources, and ideas to share to help with the project goals.

The first step in the exercise was to ask participants to write down three things about themselves that are important for others to know for this project, including skills, knowledge, interests, or learning goal.  Then each person introduced themselves to the group using the sticky notes and added them to the wall.    Each country was represented in a different color.  Once we mapped the network on the wall before our eyes, we reflected on the following questions:

* What are the points of connection?
* What are the opportunities for reciprocity?


I’ve subsequently have used this exercise in many different contexts for different purposes.   I have found it especially useful to do this to kick off a longer-term peer learning experience as in the example below illustrating the knowledge and expertise of a cohort of NGOs from Pakistan that I worked with during my time as Visiting Scholar at the Packard Foundation.

For the design lab earlier this month,  the exercise was to create a network map of all our professional networks – a network of networks and see where the connections were.     Each person drew a self-portrait on a sticky note and then wrote the names of three or more networks on shaped sticky notes.   The networks they selected were to represent their own particular lens to the design challenge.    Everyone introduced themselves and their networks to the group with their self-portrait and shaped sticky notes and as the facilitator I drew the connections between nodes.

I asked for the first volunteer to introduce him or her self to the group.  Then I asked for a volunteer to make a connection with one of their networks to introduce themselves.  We did this one by one as each person did their self and network introduction.  We ended up with a powerful visualization of the networks and interconnections and diversity of thinkers in the room.

Connecting people in a network involves more than just making an introduction.  That is the first step toward building trust of each other’s intentions.   Trust is the lubricant for the sharing of information, ideas, and ultimately leads to working together.   In Connecting to Change World,  the authors have a diagnostic for measuring the intensity of connections between people in an network.      It looks like this:

  • I have introduced to this person, but do not exchange information with them on a regular basis
  • I exchange useful information with this person on a regular basis, but I have not worked with them on a project
  • I exchange useful information with this person on a regular basis and I am working with them on a project
  • I depend on this person regularly for important advice and have worked with them on more than one project

To take the exercise deeper, you could  map out the intensity of connections, perhaps with different types of lines – thick lines for a more intense connection and dotted lines for a less intense connection.

There are two different lens to think about network mapping.   You can do a whole network analysis which looks at organizations and people in specific geographic or social change area.  But I am really interested in the second lens or what has been called the “ego network.”  I don’t like the term, but it describes when you create a network map of your professional network.  You do this to consider who to connect and engage in your professional network for learning or help your organization address social change goals.  I think mapping and visualizing your professional networks and going deep – can help you see if your professional network is too much of a silo that is connecting with people who are similar to you in where you work, how you think, etc.    It can help you make connections across disciplines and think outside your network box so to speak.

Learning from Adjacent Practices

It is easy to focus on our area of practice, our comfort zone and continually deepen our expertise.   However, when we map our networks, there may be adjacent practices and professionals who can stimulate our own learning, give us a new view with which to reflect upon our own work.   Nancy White has called this process “triangulating professional development” or learning from adjacent practices. In elementary school, these are called “transciplinary” skills that can help us learn in all subjects (Communication, Research, Critical Thinking, Self-Management, and Social Skills).

When we visualize our networks, we can also ask if it is diverse enough?   Diversity correlates with innovation!  Are you getting new ideas from your network?   If you find Twitter or LinkedIn boring, perhaps you are following wrong people.    It is time to tune your network and add new connections by exploring the edges.

Have you visualized your professional network to help see connections and inform your own learning?  How do you engage in cross-discipline learning?  How do you get out of your silo and comfort zone for professional learning?

11 Responses

  1. I think this should be a required element of an opening retreat for a community-based leadership program like Coro’s. Any suggestions how to document the network map so it can remain a useful and accessible tool for the participants when everyone returns to the busyness of their work.

  2. Excellent post Beth! Lots to think about! Must reblog with my audience! TY!

  3. Beth says:

    Scott: You can take photos of the sticky notes and you could actually transcribe it to a spreadsheet that could be imported into a network mapping software!

  4. Theresa Reid says:

    This is really interesting work, Beth. A couple of things occur to me: Did mapping social networks uncover duplicative work being done by different nonprofits and reveal ways they might collaborate to reduce redundancy? I’m thinking right now about the proliferation of nonproifits in the US, and am wondering about the impact of this on your work — and vice versa. Also, I’m interested in hearing how, concretely, participants in your workshops used the information they gleaned from this work. Seems like it would create an excellent platform for constructive action.

    Thanks for your generosity!


  5. Jonas says:

    Excellent post Beth! Lots to think about! Must reblog with my audience! TY!

  6. Tim Gardner says:

    Networth is directly correlated to your network!

  7. Dawn Carter says:


    Once again, what you’ve shared is gold. Have seen the value of cross-pollenating first hand and the value of repurposing learning. Appreciate your generosity.

    Dawn Carter

  8. Beth says:

    Dawn, thank you so much for your kind words. The cross polinating is so much fun!

  9. […] The Power of Our Collective Professional Networks and Transdisciplinarity Learning Beth’s Blog (Beth Kanter) “exercise… “Creating the Me to We Network.”… write down three things… important for others to know… skills, knowledge, interests, or learning goal… What are the points of connection?… opportunities for reciprocity?…” […]

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