We live in an increasingly networked world. Advances in technology over the past 15 years have enabled collaboration and networked activities in ways we couldn’t imagine just a few short years ago. Despite this, there has been relatively little research on networks, how they function, and their potential. Personally, I find networks both fascinating and mystifying. The “network” seems like a nebulous concept, but also a very real one, especially when I think about my “work network” or my “network of friends and family”. For me, in the past, networks were just things that existed; I gave little thought to how they are structured or function or how you might use networks to achieve goals, outside of the odd suggestion like “use your network to find a job after your graduate work”.

But I gradually became more interested in networks. I would love to say curiosity alone drove me to find out more about networks, but in reality, about 10 years ago, people in my workplace began discussing using networks for certain purposes. So, I started to do some digging and here are some things I found out about networks:

  • There is a whole language related to describing and understanding networks, including interesting terms like “actor”, “nodes” and “structural holes”
  • Networks are about the connections among ‘actors’ within a specific type of knowledge and/or practice
  • Actors can be individuals, groups or organizations
  • Networks are constantly changing and have life cycles, similar to living things
  • Networks can be social, work-related or interest-driven
  • You can make maps of networks (and sometimes, they are quite beautiful)

This told me something about WHAT networks are, but little about WHY they exist and do what they do, so more digging was needed. It turns out there are many advantages to networks. Some advantages that I find most interesting include:

  • Building connections beyond one’s individual or organizational experience
  • Allowing greater ease of movement beyond professional, disciplinary, and organizational boundaries
  • Encouraging shared learning, rapid diffusion of new knowledge, cross-fertilization of diverse ideas, efficient problem solving and enhanced group ownership

Now I started to get even more interested. Aren’t these advantages aligned with some of the goals of knowledge mobilization? If networks are a structure that can achieve these goals, how might I use them in my work? Intentionally creating a network was a novel idea for me. But where to start? As far as I was aware, there was no course on network building I could take. Back to the literature I went.

It turns out that there are few researchers who have studied networks in detail over the years and many of the earlier helpful contributions are from two groups of people: one group consists of Provan and Milward, out of the University of Arizona. Along with some colleagues, they have concluded that there are several factors to consider when building networks and setting them up for success. Some of the factors that predict effectiveness are: the level of trust amongst members, the number of participants or “actors”, the level of consensus around the goals of the network and the level of skill and experience with other networks that the actors bring. These all also predict what model of network governance you should consider. The second group includes Robeson, Wenger, Garcia & Dorohovic, Huerta, and others, whose thinking has helped shape the following keys to network success:

  • Establish clear purpose and goals
  • Address hierarchy of needs
  • Include a culture of trust in stated core values
  • Fulfill specific role functions such as effective leadership, sponsorship, knowledge brokerage and community membership
  • Maintain a flexible infrastructure
  • Establish supportive processes
  • Balance homogeneity and heterogeneity
  • Secure adequate resources
  • Demonstrate value

The big question for KMb is how we maximize the value of networks to support moving evidence to action? Evidence Exchange Network (EENet) provides a case example. EENet is a knowledge exchange network that brings together diverse stakeholders, including researchers, policymakers, service providers, system planners, persons with lived experience, and family members. Our goal is to make Ontario’s mental health and addictions system more evidence-informed—no mean feat! But that’s why we take multiple approaches. We translate evidence – which we interpret broadly – into usable and accessible forms: Research Snapshots, for example. But we don’t simply disseminate findings through our network; we also help shape the knowledge that’s being created. Our Creating Together initiative brought together provincial partners to help set research priorities. Our Persons with Lived Experience (PWLE) and Family Members Advisory Panel – a mouthful, I know! – has informed projects under the Drug Treatment Funding Program.

We are especially excited about our Communities of Interest (COI) initiative. We view CoIs as forums for knowledge exchange and collaborative knowledge creation on a topic related to mental health and addictions. This format allows for progress toward some more specific knowledge mobilization goals with the support of the network’s knowledge brokers. This year, nine COIs are busily working toward their goals.

All of these efforts – Creating Together, the PWLE and Family Members Advisory Panel, the CoIs – are almost like mini-networks within EENet. But then that’s been our conception for awhile: we are a network of networks. Maybe that’s confusing; but our aim is not to duplicate existing networks but, rather, to link up to them and help increase the spread of evidence.

One challenge we continue to face is how to evaluate a network approach to knowledge mobilization? Especially given the multi-faceted nature of the activities taking place within the structure. Our answer has been to develop a theory of change and use a multi-pronged approach that allows us to examine the network as a whole as well as specific activities within the network. One of the most interesting evaluative approaches we have employed to date is a social network analysis of where Ontario mental health and addictions stakeholders are going for their evidence and how EENet fits within that landscape. Hopefully we will be publishing that soon.

Some questions to leave you with:

  • What networks do you belong to?
  • Are there networks that exist out there that can help you fill a KM goal? (It is always easier to plug in to an existing structure than build from scratch like we did)
  • How can technology help networks? Is the technological platform the network? Or is it a tool for the network?
  • What are some of the downsides of networks?

In the meantime, here some resources about networks that I have found useful:

Note: An earlier version of this blog originally appeared as part of a course on “Knowledge Mobilization and Evidence-based Practice” at Renison College, University of Waterloo in 2014.

About Me

Heather Bullock, MSc. is a PhD candidate in the Health Policy program at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada and is part of the McMaster Health Forum's Impact Lab. Heather is a 2016 Trudeau Scholar. Heather has an extensive background in health care policy and knowledge mobilization, holding progressive leadership positions. She is on leave from her position as Director of Knowledge Exchange at the CAMH, Canada’s largest mental health and addictions teaching hospital. In this role, she developed and led an innovative knowledge mobilization initiative: Evidence Exchange Network, which aims to make Ontario’s mental health and addiction system more evidence-informed. She also helped build a program that supports implementation efforts in Ontario’s mental health and addictions system. Heather has also worked for the Government of Ontario as Research Transfer Advisory where she connected people within government with the best available research evidence to support evidence-informed policy-making. She instructs several courses and modules on knowledge exchange including a graduate-level course at McMaster University and previously at the University of Toronto.

Heather’s research interests lie in how large jurisdictions implement evidence-informed policy directions in mental health systems. Her dissertation is exploring how developed countries structure their implementation efforts as well as the process of policy implementation in Ontario’s mental health and addiction system. Heather serves in an advisory capacity for several provincial, national, and international initiatives such as the International Knowledge Exchange Network for Mental Health and the Provincial Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health. Her expertise is sought globally and she has conducted training in knowledge mobilization and implementation for Government of Saskatchewan, University of Toronto, University of Ottawa, Government of Ireland, and the Swedish Government, among others. She has Masters level training in behavioural ecology and evolutionary psychology from Queen’s University.