The Importance of Learning in Networks

The Importance of Learning in Networks

We are seeing a shift in the social transformation space from evaluation to learning and support for change. Evaluation has too often been a judgment-based, funder driven approach to determining whether progress has taken place that tends to penalize risk-taking and innovation and focus mindlessly on outcomes even when it’s not clear what the solutions are. 

System-shifting networks are sets of organizations, individuals and funders who are committed to innovating, experimenting, collaborating and learning to shift to healthier systems. In such networks, participants need a system of support that enables learning and change to happen on individual, organizational, collaborative project, network, culture and system levels: it’s what is called fractal change. *

*A fractal is a phenomenon in nature or mathematics that manifests as a repeating or self-similar pattern at every scale.

From my experience, I’ve seen change and learning are most likely to happen in collaborative projects and when scaffolding for learning is in place. So if we want to track anything as our networks go forward, it would be in these two places.


A. The scaffolding for learning consists of the following:

  1. Trained catalysts: Facilitators who enable people in collaborative projects to pick up network culture/values, skills and practices more rapidly (especially equity) and help projects be more successful; learning weavers who capture what is learned and share with the network so all benefit from learning in the project.
  2. Innovation funds that not only support these projects but bring together funded projects in Communities of Practice where participants learn how to learn more explicitly.
  3. Just-in-time tracking (for example surveys on things like network values and network leadership) that participants use to see where they (as individuals, groups, networks, etc) are having challenges in shifting to a network way. Having quantitative measures enables the individual, group or network to quickly determine strengths and challenges and then develop strategies to shift those challenges and later see if those strategies worked. We have developed surveys on network values, network leadership, collaboration skills and whole network assessments, see resources.
  4. Cross-network learning and sharing sessions: networks (or more usually projects) reach out to learn from other networks. This learning is shared with the field.
  5. A communications system that makes it easy to share learning within projects, among projects, with the network and with other networks. 

B. Collaborative projects are where people collaboratively work on shifting their own values and behavior in a supportive, nurturing environment and at the same time are continually trying new approaches and learning from what they do.

We could greatly benefit by focusing on these small groups as the petri dish of transformation: introducing different practices and discovering which have the potential for both personal and network transformation.

The trick to scaling change is to support the change that happens in collaborative projects to ripple out throughout the network and on to networks of networks.


So what would be helpful is for those of you who are network evaluators to watch and record and reflect back the whole network:

  1. Is change happening in projects? When is it most successful? What are participants doing that seems to accelerate individual and collaborative change?
  2. What scaffolding is in place and functioning well? Where is work needed? How are these pieces of the scaffolding supporting learning? What aspects seems to be the most effective is supporting learning?
  3. Is learning spreading from projects to network? From projects and networks to networks of networks?  How is it spreading? What accelerates spreading?
  4. Is learning being applied to future projects? Examples? Can we follow the path? What enables people to use other people’s/project’s learning?

Another interesting aspect of self-organizing networks (where people are involved in several collaborative projects at any one time) is the flow of innovations from one project to other projects as the participants in the original project share their innovations with their other projects. This is how zoom became the standard for most networks – early adopters like me used it with all our projects and its use spread with amazingly rapid speed. It would be really useful to see if this kind of spread of other innovations generated by projects or networks could be tracked to determine how spread could be accelerated.

I feel that learning has been grossly underdeveloped in networks. I believe that if we started spending much more of our time in learning while we are doing, transformation could occur quite quickly. 

So please start experimenting and sharing back with us what you learn about learning! 

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