Considering Community: The Connect-Align-Produce network model for social-impact networks

Posted by Lou Woodley, Community Engagement Director – Trellis and Program Director – AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program

This post originally appeared on Social in silico.

Cartoon with arrows pointing from human face to human face
How many people in your network are connected to others in the network? Image credit: Jurgen Appelo on Flickr

For regular online communities, such as those hosted by an organisation, we looked at the four stage model of the community lifecycle described in Rich Millington’s “Buzzing Communities”. Last week, we considered a different type of community – a social-impact network where the emphasis is on group members working together for a social good. In “Connecting to Change the World”, the authors discuss three different stages of a social-impact network – and how it’s possible to transition between them. Let’s consider this connect-align-produce model.

1. Connectivity networks

It’s possible for social-impact networks to belong to any one of the three stages of the connect-align-produce model, but the first stage is always to form a connectivity network. The emphasis at this stage is making connections between members of the group for the purpose of information-sharing – and nothing beyond that.

Some examples of connectivity networks are a summer mentoring program to connect under-represented students with scientists or career placement programs where students are given access to professionals either in their workplaces or in the student classrooms.

The aim at this connection phase is for members of the network to get to know one another and build trust. The creation of this knowledge about others and trust in them is especially crucial if the network is intended to move on to generate outputs of any kind.

As the community architect or network manager, you’ll need to schedule both individual level activities to introduce members to one another (what the authors call customized weaving) and macro-level or mass weaving activities for the network as a whole.

Customized weaving involves personalized outreach to individuals or small clusters and might include:

– Building triads of members by finding a member who knows two others who don’t know each other and asking them to close the gap by making an introduction

– Supporting the members who act as “bridgers” – these are the people who may work within one cluster of the network but be interested in sharing out to another cluster to help spread information through the network more efficiently

– Engaging the unconnected – identify members who haven’t yet connected with another and personally reach out to make an introduction or ask them to help with an existing activity or conversation so that they can begin to integrate with one of the growing clusters.

Mass weaving is about creating opportunities for all network members to get to know one another which might include:

– Producing member directories

– Sharing a newsletter or other updates about members’ activities within the network

– Using ice-breakers to learn more about one another’s interests, personalities and preferences – this is all good information to have before embarking on a more time-intense project where greater commitment is likely to be required

A big challenge at this stage as the network coordinator is to avoid becoming the source of all activity. If you are consistently the route through which all information exchange occurs, this will likely make it harder for the network to self-organise and move to the production phase. Likewise, if this phase is exit-ed too quickly, there won’t be the necessary trust and density of connections between network members for them to mobilise into groups that want to work together on a shared project.


2. Alignment networks

The second phase of a social-impact network is alignment. This is where members move from learning about one another and exchanging information to reaching shared understanding about their ideas and goals. This typically looks like the formation of working groups or other sub-groups with smaller numbers of members interested in more specifically focused topics.

This could be an involved process that benefits from facilitation as it requires members sharing and synthesising information and maybe revising their viewpoints to reach an agreement. This is more time-consuming than the connectivity phase of the network and so there’s a greater risk of members dropping out.

One method for helping this alignment to occur is to convene everyone in person. I could imagine a situation where a group is brought together for the initial connectivity stage, nurtured over some months, more new members are added and then the resultant core members could be brought together again to work on alignment. Clearly this requires budget and a significant time investment though. I’d be curious to hear whether anyone has successfully achieved aligned solely through online communication and if so, what that looked like.


3. Production networks

The final stage of a social-impact network’s possible evolution is the production stage. This is where the network engages in collective action to produce outputs specifically for social good. The formation of working groups can be a good way to lead into the production stage – maybe starting with pilot projects or small scale experiments.

At this stage, what was once a single, initial hub may have diversified into several hubs with some interconnections between. The network architect now needs to ensure there are adequate communication tools and channels in place such that the overall network and each project group are able to share information as they need.

Much like in stage 4 of the community lifecycle model that we discussed earlier, at this stage there’s also a possibility  of working groups breaking away from the main network. One way to prevent this is to ensure that network members still find as much value from belonging to the overall group as to their individual project team.


Do you belong to a social-impact network? At which of the three stages is your network? What about some of the major communities in the science/open access space – how would you describe Open Knowledge, FORCE11, ESIP, OpenCon, Mozilla Science Lab, March for Science etc?