Innovation and Learning Networks and Free Actors

Posted by Steve Waddell in Net Dev on April 10, 2012

The idea of “Free Actors in Networks” (FANs) is useful for any type of network, but arose with innovation and learning ones.  A Dutch colleague, Eelke Wielinga, introduced me to the “FAN Approach” to network development that arose out of 3-1/2 years of experience with networks of livestock farmers working for sustainable innovations.

Interestingly, in this case these Free Actors were not provided by a network secretariat. “The facilitators (consultants and researchers) were provided as part of a research programme, that was funded by the Ministry,” Eelke explains. “In the course of the experiment we found out that they acted as ‘Free Actors’ on a temporary basis.” They worked 120 farmer-centered innovations that required stakeholder networks for their development. The project report describes the Free Actors as having:

  • knowledge of the subject matter;
  • affinity with group work;
  • capacity to take up challenging positions and bear the risks;
  • sufficient insight into knowledge processes to be able to recognize where the process requires corrective steering;
  • sufficient ability to select and implement an effective strategy in these cases;
  • access to relevant experts and various stakeholders in order to make the contacts needed by the network.

This describes the “network organizer” role core to any network;  for a similar role, more focused specifically on attributes, June Holley uses “network weaver”;  I often use the term “community organizer”.

However, I think this list misses some key skill success factors in the Dutch case and Innovation and Learning networks in particular.  In the Dutch case, there were three types of expertise present that I think deserve emphasis as being additional qualities needed for FANs working in innovation and learning networks:

  1. Researchers participating had content area expertise.  These is a very interesting variation of them usually being “network members” rather than people actively doing the connecting.
  2. The consultants had facilitation expertise.  Although people in networks often have problem-solving experience, much more rare is facilitation “expertise” in terms of deep understanding of, and capacity for applying, dialogue, problem-solving and change methods and tools.
  3. Together, they had/developed “innovation and learning” expertise, articulated in part in the “FAN approach”;  learning networks must be particularly expert at reflection, learning and documentation processes.

The importance of at least the first two of these skills is more evident in the project report conclusion that FANs are important to address three obstacles:

“A free actor has the capacity, the insight and the position to do what is necessary to help the network overcome the major obstacles. Some of these are knowledge obstacles. For example, it is not easy for entrepreneurs to drum up the right expertise, especially when new search directions are concerned. There are process obstacles as well. The faith that is needed as a stimulus for making an active contribution to the network, even when things get harder, does not always automatically come into being. And there are obstacles in the environment such as frustrating regulations, or resistance among other parties, which also have to start moving to make new practices possible.

FAN Tools

The FAN approach was further developed in a more recent report with POS, a Dutch NGO:  Looking at Collaboration in North-South Networks.  That report contains a particularly useful graphic (see right), that distinguishes between networks’ change strategy and that of organizations.  Eelke explains that:

“Key in the FAN approach is the focus on peoples ambitions, on connection and energy. This is what we call the ‘red column of inducing change’: people > ambitions > connection > targets > mission. In contrast, the common belief is that program and organizations should be organized along the ‘blue column’: mission > targets > instruments > competences > indicators > people. This focus misses out the most important part of interaction. A shared mission is not the start of a good process but the result of it.”

The reports associate tools with the FAN approach, that again are useful for all networks:

The report mentions several interesting challenges.  One is “…the game of responsibilities between the facilitators and the participants  in the networks…(how) to offer encouragement without taking the initiative away from the network members. This game gets another dimension with participants who represent others. How does interaction stay healthy?”

Eelke comments:

I strongly agree on the passage (about the three important skills not mentioned in the report). It is good you remind us about this. I found it remarkable that this subject matter expertise played such an important role in these networks. For many years I had worked with facilitators who believed that it was a disadvantage to know something about the contents, because that would distract you from the process. Here we found out that it was essential for creating trust.

The experiment was so successful that it was converted into a regular subsidy programme, first for the livestock sector, and later on for all sectors in agriculture. Stimulating innovation through networks around user initiatives has become a big thing in The Netherlands. However, it was not allowed to call them ‘innovation networks’ because policy makers (especially in the EU) still make the stupid distinction between research and application.

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