[This article was originally published in the OTT Annual Review 2019-2020: think tanks and technology on March 2020.]
Information, a community, and connections may have once been enough to keep network members engaged (and possibly paying dues). But now people can get these things through social media and other technology-facilitated platforms and tools. Networks face more competition. Potential members can shop around, join with minimal commitment until they see that it’s worth their time (and possibly money). As a result, I’d wager that networks and informal groups have a much shorter life cycle than in the past.
To survive, it’s not enough for networks – and especially those dependent on dues – to change just once to this new context. They not only must understand their members, but also develop the capacity to monitor a faster-evolving environment and adapt. And some may have to change their business models completely, including finding other ways to fund activities.
Here I present some of my top observations about how technology is impacting networks. This is based on about 20 networks that I’ve worked with or studied as a funder, consultant, or investigator. I’m also drawing on my experience as a member of five networks, as well as talking to many members, network staff, and observers about these issues. Some of these changes vary across geographies or sectors, but given the increase in internet access and the fast uptake of social media, any regional or global network may face these issues soon… even if not now.
First, these days anyone can start an online group network. Low-cost networks and loosely-organised groups can easily use technology to supply tailored information, build community, facilitate collaboration, and amplify shared values. Even more formal research networks can be built around a robust listserv, like the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Research Network. Many thinktankers are likely members of multiple issue networks on Facebook, LinkedIn, email groups, and other platforms. Members may be faster to join these groups, but also to exit or go quiet than to use voice (using Albert Hirschman’s term). With functions like information sharing covered by others, membership network can take a positive view and specialise more or try creative approaches (more on this below).
Second, existing networks may see other players entering their space and seeking partnerships. As networks seek relevance, some seek to expand their geographical coverage, membership, or influence. With more overlaps, more strategic partnerships or even mergers may be warranted – and this is enabled by technology. In an OTT webinar on global think tank networks, Adanna Shallowe from the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) talked about how RSA formed a group for strategically-aligned institutions from several countries to ‘have a common voice’. And in the NGO world, InsideNGO, LINGOs, and Mango merged to form Humentum, with 330 organisational members serving the operations and finance staff of nonprofits. The merger not only helped reduce costs through economies of scale but also enhanced its global reach.
Third, technology can offer new opportunities and make change easier. Many network leaders see technology as offering more options for what they can do. Networks can recruit new types of members that were harder to reach in the past, allow them to enter new types of partnership, engage with their members in more creative ways, and consider new kinds of advocacy. For example, the think tank network Southern Voice is amplifying its members’ research at the global level through social media, its email newsletter, website, and online media partnerships. It is also extending the reach of its members’ policy influence through global networking and events. And in 2019, Independent Sector (a US-based network of NGOs, private foundations, and corporations that meets at an annual conference) launched a new way of working called Upswell. The network rebranded itself ‘as a community, not a conference’, holding a series of community-based events, prototyping of solutions, and online dialogues, as well as an annual conference.
Fourth, some networks are under more pressure to change than others. Networks dependent on membership dues need to respond to these developments now, while networks with external funding, high-level policy access, or other specific advantages may not feel much pressure. In general, membership networks should pay attention to technology for communications, recruitment, partnerships, and other key functions, including ways to reduce costs. With all the competition, they should consider ending work on saturated areas and finding where they offer the most value. Technology may also lead to changes in business models: for example, some fee-for-service activities like hosting job postings may no longer be possible, while other services like training may have an expanded market.
Finally, networks need to think about how to stay relevant. Network leaders should be ready to adapt, recognising that technology is fundamentally changing how networks work, and will continue to do so. Members and potential members have less time and money than ever, with more demands from other networks. Staying relevant may mean giving members something unique, expanding the membership base, finding a niche, or getting creative. And for those reliant on member funding, finding ways to reduce costs may be essential. On the positive side, many organisations and people still want what networks offer, such as person-to-person connections, cross-sector collaboration, and a shared identity. Understanding those and how they are changing, and providing them, will be key to network longevity and health.