Knowledge networks are helping members of organizations of all sizes learn quickly and collaborate productively. The most effective networks are clear about goals, allow for shared expertise and embrace online communication.
“Knowledge networks,” as Katrina Pugh and Laurence Prusak write in a recent article, “are collections of individuals and teams who come together across organizational, spatial and disciplinary boundaries to invent and share a body of knowledge.”
One engaging example is Women’s World Banking, a global nonprofit that is dedicated to providing low-income women with access to financial tools and resources.
“At Women’s World Banking, the creation and diffusion of knowledge is the product — the value Women’s World Banking brings to market,” write Pugh and Prusak in "Designing Effective Knowledge Networks," in the Fall 2013 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. In the course of their research, the authors developed a case study about the microfinance organization.
Women’s World Banking describes its mission this way on its website: “in order for more low-income women to have access to financial products than ever before, Women’s World Banking works closely with its global network of 39 leading microfinance institutions from 28 countries to create new credit, savings, and insurance products specifically designed for the unique needs of women. Each of our network members is committed to serving women as clients, innovators and leaders.”
The organization’s fact sheet says that it has 14 million individual women clients, a loan portfolio of U.S. $6.9 billion, and over 300 leaders in 63 countries who have gone through its training since 2009.
Pugh and Prusak explain that Women’s World Banking has been successful at weaving together networks particularly for its organizing leaders. Its success comes in part from three important features: being clear about goals, allowing for shared expertise and embracing online communication.
Pugh and Prusak note that “considerable research shows that unless goals are clearly stated and agreed upon, networks can easily lose energy and underperform.” For Women’s World Bank, one goal is learning and innovation, which means that it commissions and distributes knowledge for its members’ consumption. It introduced “project circles” for members to synthesize shared practices such as “re-entry strategies” when alumni return to their organizations after attending a training or workshop.
Being sensitive to issues around expertise is important in building a successful knowledge network. “Leaders need to be clear on how the network makes it safe for even the expert to be vulnerable and learn and for the learner to speak of bold possibilities,” write Pugh and Prusak. “High-performing knowledge network leaders we interviewed thought deeply about how to trade off showcasing experts with supporting members who were stepping into the vulnerability of learning.”
In the Women’s World Banking Leadership Community, alumni of the Women’s World Banking Center for Microfinance Leadership participate in the community’s core team alongside Women’s World Banking staff — “thus bridging the gap between expert, learner and convener,” write Pugh and Prusak.
Finally, “network leaders understand how online and real-time or live convenings serve to build cohesion, connectivity, collaboration and engagement,” write the authors. For Women’s World Banking, that means having a robust website where members discuss topics, share documents, read activity feeds and collaborate on wikis, chats and discussions.
Charu Adesnik, corporate affairs manager at Cisco, which provided seed funding for the Women’s World Banking Leadership Community, says that “technology allows learning to continue well after an in-person training.” She adds: “The [Women’s World Banking] Leadership Community is drawing together a diverse set of microfinance leaders who now have a global platform to share best practices and access resources that improve the impact of their services.”