The art of the network effect
By Heidi Marttila-Losure
What does a network of rural change-makers look like?
Hugh Weber of OTA helped to answer that with a visualization of the network of RuralX participants—a map that, by the end of the event, Weber described as a “pretty good start” to understanding where the connections between these rural change-makers are strong, and where they need to be improved.
The computer-created visualization started with a circle filled with evenly spaced dots—the default after the list of RuralX participants was uploaded. Each of the participants was asked before the event to list three people who influence their work in rural communities; not everyone responded, but when the answers from those who did were added to the visualization, the picture changed. Some dots connected to just the others they named; some had been named by many others, and so they formed the center of a hub of spokes on the map.
Weber explained that most network mapping ends up with a bias of some sort—in this case, staff at Dakota Resources were connected to a greater share of people in the room.
The visualization had a deeper purpose: Build on those initial connections to make a much stronger network overall. Then we can better harness the benefits of networks, Weber explained, which have way more power than we realize.
We expect that we have an influence on the people around us—good moods and bad moods can spread, for example. But influence goes farther than that.
“Research shows that your influence (extends) not only to your friends, the first degree; not only to your friends’ friends, the second-degree ripples; but to your friends’ friends’ friends,” Weber said. “Which means that on everything from altruism to obesity, you have an impact on everyone around you.”
So if the goal is making rural communities better, change-makers will have more energy, creativity and motivation to succeed if they are connected with others who share those goals.
By the end of the event, after participants had shared more about the connections they had made at RuralX, the connection lines in the visualization started to look more dominant.
Weber pointed out, though, that the hubs still remained. And that suggested a potential problem: If the person at the center of that hub decided to leave, as people in our mobile society often do, the network very quickly reverts to disconnected individual dots.
The power of networks is in its redundancies, Weber said. “You want to make sure there are multiple connections in every direction.”
The challenge for RuralX participants is how they can continue to strengthen those connections now that they’ve left the RuralX-perience.
Weber said networks and friendships are maintained the same way.
“If the relationships matter, if they add to our work or are vital for our community, we need to invest in them,” he said. “Remember birthdays. Send thank-yous. Check in for no reason at all. It’s easier said than done, but it may be what transforms a small town.”