ISE Organizational Networks

On November 17-18, 2011, the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) convened nine projects from the National Science Foundation (NSF) ISE Program portfolio to discuss and explore their efforts to form, sustain, nourish, and grow organizational networks of partners and collaborators who work together towards common ISE goals. The participating networks involved science museums, science festivals, public television stations, libraries, an aquarium, and an afterschool science research study, among others. NSF ISE Program Officers, outside experts on organizational theory and practice, and CAISE Co-PIs, advisors, and staff completed the ecology of stakeholders learning together in this workshop, which is one in a series that will precede and inform the agenda of the 2012 ISE Principal Investigator Meeting in Washington, D.C., March 14-16.
Workshop participants prepared by reading background material: Utilizing Collaboration Theory to Evaluate Strategic Alliances, (Gajda, R., 2004), Orchestration Processes in Network-Centric Innovation: Evidence from the Field (Nambisan, S., and Sawhney, M., 2011), and selected chapters from Net Work: a practical guide to creating and sustaining networks at work and in the world (Anklam, P., 2007). Principal investigators also updated their project abstracts on and prepared visual representations of their network structures, responding to Anklam’s assertion that “if it’s a network you can draw it.” Project evaluators discussed challenges they encounter in measuring the impacts of networks, particularly while tracking the objectives of the individual institutions involved. Program Officers then shared perspectives on NSF’s interests in funding “net work,” and how it aligns with the larger values and "One NSF" direction of the agency. CAISE displayed a Twitter feed throughout the workshop, which provided a repository of comments that workshop facilitator Julie Johnson referenced and used to ensure inclusivity of unvoiced observations, thoughts and questions.
Dr. Todd LaPorte, Associate Professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, and Dr. Joy Frechtling, Vice President and Associate Director of Westat’s Education Studies Group, served as reflectors and participant observers throughout the workshop, asking provocative questions and introducing academic theory and models as appropriate. For example, Dr. LaPorte introduced the idea that workshop participants were the conveners and monitors of networks, concerned with building the capacity of nodes and linkages, and Dr. Frechtling shared the observation that networks, especially ones which involve a geographic distribution of partners, require distinct management, and resource considerations.

Among issues discussed were:

  • Definitions, semantics, vocabulary, and metaphors related to networks
  • Networks as catalyzers of innovation as well as innovative strategies themselves
  • Network as “Trojan horse,” i.e., not a panacea for addressing the broader impact needs of individual projects
  • Distinctions and overlap between organizational networks and social networking

Some of the insights and conclusions that emerged from the dialogue among the participants, experts, facilitators, and program officers included:

  • A continuum of tightly to loosely structured networks is possible, depending on the funding configuration, the cultures of the member institutions, and the intended goals of the work
  • Network conveners (hubs) sometimes feel the need to "de-hubify," i.e., distribute leadership and guidance among network members Networks need to be effective first and then innovative if possible
  • In evaluating networks, there is a distinction between unintended outcomes that may be construed as unmeasurable and “constitutive effects” which may not be planned but could be anticipated
  • Networks provide unique professional development opportunities
  • Networks may outlive their usefulness when members “have nothing more to say to each other”
  • In its convener and connector roles, CAISE itself functions as a network and/or a broker of networks, as much as it does a center

In a closing session of the workshop, principal investigators brainstormed ideas about synthesis documents or "how to" guides that might ultimately be useful for ISE professionals thinking about instigating networks and evaluators talked about the need to learn about how the impacts of networks are measured in formal education and elsewhere. These issues and other take home messages from the workshop were recorded on a meeting wiki to be referred to when seeding further conversation on the topic of organizational networks at the 2012 ISE PI Meeting.

Evaluation of the workshop based on a post-convening survey showed that participants found the conversations and sessions to be exploratory, relevant, and generative of new thinking, and refined questions to be addressed. Participants also spoke of the need to expand the discussions beyond the group of projects and attendees represented at the convening, e.g., project managers and those with experience with networks from different fields entirely. Several attendees and program officers thought that the next useful step in the conversation would be to look critically at the practical aspects of various networks -- what has worked and particularly, what hasn’t, and why. 

The convening catalyzed a breakout session at the 2012 Advancing Informal STEM Learning PI meeting and pre-conference workshops and sessions at the 2012, 2013 and 2016 Association Science-Technology Centers conferences. A Knowledge Base article on that builds on some of those discussions was initiated in 2014.