Networks. Why draw maps of them?

Last autumn I went for a Sunday walk in Belgium with my friend and colleague Anne Lemaire. Here’s a photo of the map we used:

I’d not seen this kind of design before. The routes are not numbered but the junctions are. At each junction you find signs pointing to all the junctions directly connected to it. It’s such an easy way of navigating that I found it confusing at first: there really is practically nothing for you to do; you just need to decide which junction number you’re walking to next.

Anne and I obviously know how to have a good day out on a Sunday, because we started talking about networks. Maps of roads and paths are all maps of networks, but the numbering scheme on this Belgian one seems to make it really obvious.

There’s something about this that reminds me of LinkedIn. You (the junction) are connected directly to some people and indirectly to others. LinkedIn unfortunately won’t draw you a network map, but it will tell you whether someone is directly connected to you (the next junction), a second degree connection (next-but-one), third degree (next one on from there) or further away (which it calls ‘out of your network’).

The similarity for me is that both the Belgian map and LinkedIn are transactional. LinkedIn encourages you to get your 1st degree connections to introduce you to 2nd degree ones - because they might be useful to you - and the walking map uses each junction to get you to the next.

The maps I’m currently involved in drawing are relational maps. They’re grounded in the question “Who do you know?” - or refinements of it, like “Who have you collaborated with in the last year?”

View the HSD Associate map to see quite a complex example of a relational map.

Relational maps are a visually engaging way of revealing a system to itself but whilst Facebook is successfully mining this kind of data, albeit in a manipulative, disrespectful and self-serving way, the rest of us have yet to become fluent in using network maps for the collective good. What I’ve noticed is that after the initial wow moment, the response to maps is one of puzzlement - What do you do with a map like this? What can you do that you can’t do with a list or a database? Does it matter that I worked with X last year - what does that mean right now?

Network metrics - things like centrality and degree - are ways of seeing patterns in the shape of the map and finding key people who can act as bridges or might be acting as bottlenecks in the flow of information. And scale-free networks have a particular kind of connection-pattern which is thought to be characteristic of robust networks.

But in the networks I’m involved in, I'm still sceptical about whether the pattern of who-knows-who connections is a reliable indicator of a living, breathing network. In my networks connections between individuals seem to be necessary but not sufficient. The fact that people are connected isn't enough by itself to spark action.

Maps of potential

So I’m curious about a third kind of map. The networks I’m interested in are things that gather potential together and then hold it closely enough for useful stuff to happen. In this scenario, a map of who knows whom, or who has worked with whom, says something about the history of the network but I’m not sure how it helps the network actually do things.

One problem is that you often don’t know what potential is there until it reveals itself. For example, I recently did a short piece of work with two people in the Netherlands. The relationships were already in place - I’ve known both people for a year or two - but what sparked the work was a two-minute conversation I had with a different person who saw a potential for something to happen.

With a mapping tool like Kumu you can easily produce views of your network like “all the people interested in the health sector” or “everyone with experience in Appreciative Inquiry” - provided you’ve thought to ask the question - but these are really just database queries. If you’re going to draw a map, then in some way it’s the shape of the map, the pattern, that’s important.

So what I’m struggling with is how we draw maps which give us the chance to see patterns of creative potential. The maps we’re currently drawing go some way towards this in helping to “reveal the system to itself.” They reveal patterns of connection which we may want to change (isolated parts of the network for example) and the changes we make may help set the conditions for creative action, but I feel we are missing something.

And it could of course be that creativity in a network comes simply from talking to each other.

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