Developing Network Purpose

It all starts with purpose – the importance of getting the purpose of your network right and agreed cannot be overstated. Purpose quite rightly sits at the heart of many theoretical models of networks, and of many of the most effective networks in practice. It addresses the fundamental question of why: Why does the network exist? Why do people want join the network? Why bother with a network?

A statement of purpose is a brief and broad description of a network’s raison-d’etre, its reason for existing. It should be a relatively enduring phenomenon – if you think you need to change your purpose every six months, it’s not really a purpose. Purpose sits at the top of the ladder of useful strategic concepts, above mission, vision, aims/goals, objectives, strategies, plans etc. In the best networks, there is alignment between the content expressed at these different levels.

The idea of purpose is particularly important in networks, as they often rely on the discretionary effort and energy of their members. If people can identify with, and sign up to the network’s purpose, it makes it much more likely that they will want to devote time to the network. It acts both as a motivation for existing members, and as a magnet to attract new members. So the purpose needs to be meaningful both to those inside the network, and to those outside it, some of whom may like to join. A clear statement of purpose also helps to attract interest, support, sponsorship and funding from key stakeholders.

So how do you develop a purpose for your network? It’s important that network members are engaged in the process of developing the purpose, rather than having it imposed on them, even by a well-meaning network leader! It can feel quite a messy process at the start, and arguably this is a good sign, as members put forward different ideas, some of which may conflict with one another. This process needs to be facilitated, and what typically results is an emergent sense of clarity and consensus from the debate and discussions. It’s helpful not to get too hung up on precise wording at this stage, but rather to focus on the core ideas, which should be expressed within the statement of purpose. Refining the wording can happen later.

Useful points to consider in developing a purpose for your network include thinking about the beneficiaries of the activities of the network, the gap that the network is designed to fill, the ultimate goal which you are seeking to achieve, and the values of network members that are either implicit or explicit. A good statement of purpose will have wide appeal, bring people together, and be helpful in determining the focus of the network – what it does, and equally importantly, what it does not do. It is especially useful to be able to refer back to the network’s purpose, in the case of finely balanced decisions. It may be that one of the options under consideration has a closer fit with the purpose than others, and this gives it the edge.

If we share Collins and Porras’ perspective, that a good purpose statement should be "broad, fundamental, inspirational, and enduring”, this does not mean that a network never changes its purpose. In fact, it’s both important and helpful to revisit the purpose of your network from time to time. I have worked with several networks on refreshing their purpose periodically. This has the benefit of checking whether it is still relevant, or needs to be updated. It also provides an opportunity for newer members of the network to have their say in contributing to a fresh look at the network’s purpose, and at the same time refreshes the motivation of existing members. Purpose matters!

Article Footnotes

Collins J., Porras J. (1997) Built to Last. Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. HarperBusiness, New York