January 20, 2007

The importance of creating a network

 From individual professionals to cohesive pressure groups, from advisory bodies to national project boards: creating and knowing how to harness your network can prove the difference between toddling along and excelling in whatever you are setting out to achieve.

On Wednesday I was invited to give a small presentation to Scotland's Maths Advisory Group, a representative committee of around 20 Advisors and Principal Teachers who meet every so often to:

  • coordinate their efforts on changes in teaching and learning;
  • find out more about national projects;
  • and, hopefully, exert their influence upon them to some degree.

All professional bodies like this exist for these same reasons. Glow, Scotland's national intranet, will offer collaborative tools that sell the idea of networking being a natural thing to do. However, Glow's networking will, to some extent, stop in Scotland, and many of the proposed collaborative tools have been around for several years yet still have relatively low use in education.

I wanted to show them the principles behind good networking and how the humble wiki, the blog and the Technorati watchlist could help them achieve their three aims better than ever before, and leave more time to talk about teaching and learning.

Understanding different types of network: The London Underground
In the end, knowing your network and harnessing it can mean the difference between getting what you want, getting it effectively and efficiently and, well, not. But knowing this network isn't as easy as it sounds. Take these very different images of the same thing: The London Underground.

The original map of the London Underground is barely recognisable by today's version. You could still use it and probably find your way to your destination, but you take longer, some stations will have changed name and, of course, many modern lines taking you to new exciting places can't be seen on this old, browning map. But, of course, many professionals today tend to use outdated maps in the form of the computer they use, the internet tools they know about and their means of gathering information.

Sometimes, of course, one believes one is not only using the best tool for the job until, on closer inspection, you don't recognise any of the stations any more. This map of the London Underground looks familiar but then you realise the stations are written in a tongue you don't understand. This is how people feel as they discover the internet whose coloured lines of Google (the red Central line), Microsoft (the blue of Piccadilly), MSN (the black Northern line) and Amazon (Hammersmith and City) they can recognise but the stations of blogging (the popular Kensal Rise), Technorati (the Marble Arch through which we can see the world move by each second), wikis (the ever-changing Canary Wharf) and podcasting (White City, of course) are only things they know exist, somewhere, but not sure exactly where, on the map.

Letting them know that the map is no longer about how many metres apart the stations are (or how popular a page is on Google) but how long the stations are going to take to get to (like the 'most recent content on the web' from Technorati) can confuse the matter once more.

Make that map global, and it's easy to see how creating and understanding an ever-changing, global and four-dimensional network might just be a huge turn-off.

Local Networks
Probably the easiest networks to understand are the Local Networks we have within our school (maths) department. This is somewhat a lone island, autonomous but without large impact, simply getting the proverbial food on the table. Even then, communication can be difficult to manage and, when the inhabitants of this network do meet, it's to discuss how many sheep have been eaten that week instead of how best we can multiply the flock (i.e. we talk admin instead of how we can improve the teaching and learning in our classrooms). Here, the simple use of a web page anyone in the department can change to coordinate the humdrum during the school term and keep everyone informed of changes would free up face-to-face time to talk about what really matters: teaching and learning.

One step further, by showing people how they can automatically be informed of changes to that wiki by subscribing to the page's orange RSS button, you can spread out 30 mins of weekly admin over a few seconds here, a few seconds there, as and when the need arises.

Regional Networks
The image says it all for me: Regional Networks in Local Authorities are often small fortresses, looking after their own affairs first, coordinating with other fortresses later. Of course, once a fortress has set its path it's difficult for it to change tack when other fortresses have decided on other approaches. This is somewhat a necessity, of course, since Local issues often need sorted out first but, again, if Local Authorities use a wiki to not only coordinate but simultaneously report back out to everyone else what is going on then small, subtle changes can be made as the fortress is being built. When a national group such as the Maths Advisory Group do meet up face-to-face they have so much more in common and can concentrate on their homogeneous efforts to effect change for the good of mathematics, rather than each other's differences.

East Lothian has used wikis for a couple of years now, with more effort being made to concentrate the efforts of all those in the Local Authority in one place. The eduBuzz Training and Support wiki is a nice though young example of a regional network coming together to take care of details so that face-to-face meetings or courses can be used to further "chalkface" teaching and learning issues.

National Networks
For groups like the Maths Advisory Group this might seem like the most important group to take care of, although I hope that the importance of local and regional networks in a national network's success is clear now. The image of Jodhpur viewed from its fortress (Scotland viewed from within a Local Authority) reflects the complexity of the national network along with its attachment to the Regional Network (the fortress). Most people in Local Authorities leave foraging through that national network to the advisor or managers in the Authority HQ. But can you imagine one or two people sustaining life in the maze of Jodhpur? The city would fail, become a dangerous and daunting place. It's important that we all take part in the national network.

How can we keep that together? Well, this is where personalities, leaders of some description have to show the way. They might be bloggers in the internet. Bloggers tend to fall into one or two of three (Malcolm Gladwell) types: the mavens, the connectors or the salesman.

Every Local and Regional network has its mavens, people who have the experience to know all the right people, all the best resources and all the best ways to procure the best equipment. They should be blogging these ideas publicly for the local community all the time, simultaneously leading others in the National Network, even if they don't know they are leading them.

Every Local and Regional network also has its connectors, the people who themselves may not be in a position of traditional power or decision-making but who represent enough of the teaching population's great ideas to bring that collective force together. They should definitely be blogging, too, giving a public representation of the views which might otherwise be missed by those in HQ who don't have the time or opportunity to listen. By blogging, you make them listen.

Sales people
The salesman or saleswoman may, in fact, be the regional representative at the Advisory Group or the Local Network's Head Teacher on the teaching and learning group of the Regional Network. They might not blog, they might not edit the wikis themselves but they are constantly reading, constantly picking out the most important details and bringing those to tables who would otherwise not listen. They sell it. They garner influence.

The International Network
If a country is to succeed in the International Network, having its finger on the pulse, contributing to debate, having influence and raising its profile globally, it needs all the networks and types of contributor within it. If there is just one missing or all-too-quiet link then it's difficult to use the international network as it is so large and so fast-moving. Tools like Technorati help us pick up on the noise from the international network but only if the Connectors and Mavens know how to listen to the right voices will we be able to gain from others' experiences around the world, picking it out from amongst the noise. It is, perhaps ironically, the job of those locally based Connectors and Mavens, not the those trying to coordinate things nationally, to pick out those experiences.

National organisations such as the Scottish Executive and Learning and Teaching Scotland are often the first to send officials to international conferences, for example, but may, in fact, be the worst placed to have maximum impact unless those representatives are also highly plugged in to Local, Regional and National networks.

In Learning and Teaching Scotland we are working hard to make sure that our learning organisation is among the most plugged-in in the world. The Maths Advisory Group also appear to be taking the notion of networking seriously, not just for the cynical raising of profile or increasing influence, but for the more effective working of their group.

What about you? Where do you fit in the networks? What type of contributor are you?

Tools worth using:
Wikis: PBWiki or Wikispaces
Blogs: edublogs.org or, if you're in East Lothian, eduBuzz
Technorati: allows you to create watchlists on topical issues, keeps your finger on the pulse
Finding Scottish blogs: ScotEduBlogs (the wiki or nascent dynamic listings service)


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Ewan, I found this piece very interesting - following the download you sent me a while back ( re rationale for new technology in education )- I have begun a small campaign with the Welsh Assembly Government ( in particular Jane Davidson our Education Secretary ) asking why they have not been as proactive as you have been in Scotland - do you mind if i quote you in some of my correspondence with them ??

Go for it - the more profile for social media the better, I say.

That's all so true, Ewan, thinking back to my school Education days, but it's equally true of other UK networks in HE, business, health, you name it.
Social Media is already doing the job of plugging the gaps and will do more and more of that. One example - became aware of a guy in my own institution today through a link from another blog - probably no way we would ever have even been aware of the guy without social media. The outlook is rosy! (in that small,way)

I have been building a network of people and organizations who are involved, or should be involved, in helping kids living in high poverty big city neighborhoods connect with adults and learning that helps the youth move through school and into jobs and careers. I call this a "network of purpose"

In the Tutor/Mentor Institute section of http://www.tutormentorconnection.org you can read a few essays related to this idea.

I've hosted a conference in Chicago every six months since 1994 to bring members of the network together, and to build public attention that draws others to the network, or the information on our web sites.

I'm now trying to create blog exchanges, connecting people involved in this work, during the same time frames as our May conference (http://www.tutormentorconnection.org.)

Since big city poverty is an issue for London and other European cities, I hope t hat we can connect networks across continents through such events.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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