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InfoQ Homepage Articles Net-Map - A Toolkit to Understand and Visualise Stakeholder Influence

Net-Map - A Toolkit to Understand and Visualise Stakeholder Influence

Net-Map is a tool developed by Eva Schiffer that allows you through interviews to visualise and analyse how different people and groups influence a particular situation. It is of interest to Agile teams as it can help you understand who your stakeholders (referred to as actors) are, how they are connected and the level of influence they have. InfoQ recently caught up with Eva and asked her a few questions.

InfoQ: In one or two sentences, how would you describe Net-Map to somebody new to the approach?

For any complex problem, Net-Map helps you understand who is involved, their formal and informal connections, their goals and influence and how to best navigate this complex network strategically. Net-Map is a pen-and-paper participatory approach, which means you sit together with people who know about the issue you are interested in and draw and discuss the network and its challenges and opportunities. This allows you to see a problem from different perspectives, discover major bottlenecks and opportunities and to develop a common vision among those involved.

InfoQ: What was the problem that the Net-Map was created to solve?

Whether you want to change an organisation, accelerate your career or tackle a social issue, you know that knowing the best technical solution or having formal authority are just a little part of what makes you successful. To have the maximum possible impact you need to know who the major drivers of change and major obstacles are, how they are embedded in an influence network and how you (as a person, organization or movement) can be most strategic in this situation. While initially developed to understand and improve water politics in Ghana, we have found that the basic structure of looking at actors, links, goals and influence is intuitively applicable in cultures all around the world. Net-Map has been used on all continents in non-governmental organisations, governments and corporate environments.

InfoQ: What should a completed Net-Map look like?

A completed Net-Map is a large sheet of paper on which actors are noted on actor cards (post-it notes). They are connected by arrows in different colours to indicate different kinds of connections (for example, flow of money, friendship, competition or hierarchy). Next to each actor card is an abbreviation or symbol for the actor’s goals and an influence tower (made of stackable wooden discs) indicating the level of influence of the actor on the problem discussed. 

InfoQ: The resulting Net-Map is based around defining a question and identifying the actors who have involvement in the process. Do you have any tips for the types of questions you should ask when interviewing the actors?

There is a list of questions that provide the basic structure for drawing a Net-Map:
  1. Who influences XY?
  2. How are these actors linked with regard to specific kinds of connections? (the kinds of connection are either pre-defined or derived out of the discussion)
  3. What are the goals of these actors with regards to XY?
  4. How strongly can they influence XY?
These questions are followed by a more general discussion of the picture that evolves, looking at bottlenecks and opportunities, reasons and incentives, future strategies and past reasons for success or failure.

One crucial issue is to define XY properly. This often requires some pre-testing in which you should make sure the question is specific and non-ambiguous, is worded in a way that is immediately and intuitively understandable for your participants and that it is neither too big nor too small. The risk is more towards making the question too big – as a result you often get only general statements and little insight into what really happens. 

Also, defining the links that you want to look at requires some experience with the method and thinking about what the most important links will be for this specific case. In general I recommend not more than four different kinds of links, including formal and informal, and choosing links that are very different from each other. Here, as in the general question, it is crucial to find wording that is clear and easily understood by interview partners.

For the open discussion after the mapping is done, the best recommendation is to follow your instinct and lead the discussion to those issues that the participants find most interesting, burning or controversial.

InfoQ: The influence towers give an interesting third dimension to the net-map. Is there a suggested scale for assigning influence to an actor?

We often end up with influence towers between zero and five or six but there is no predefined scale. In cases with a very high power difference between the highest and the rest, interview partners may want to have a much higher highest tower. In the analysis we normalise the influence values toward values between 1 and 0.

InfoQ: What are some of the key concepts that we should be able to infer from a completed Net-Map?

From the structure of the map, influence towers and goals you can find out how the position of an actor in a specific network (for example, the money network or the advice network) is linked to their influence and with how much influence the different goals are supported. From the qualitative discussion you get a more in-depth insight of how and why this works the way it does and can detect major pressure points, incentives, gaps and coalitions.

InfoQ: What are some of the most interesting Net-Maps you have seen over the last couple of years?

Working on Avian Influenza prevention in Ghana we were able to detect major entry points for corruption because of the way the system was structured. Looking at public health interventions in Malawi we were able to show how revolutionary the impact of giving cell phones to front line health workers was; and how little impact a new internet platform had on information networks. For me, the most interesting insights always come from the discussion that goes along with drawing the maps. So saying that a Net-Map looks interesting does not really get to the heart of what is interesting about it. 

InfoQ: You have presented this approach to Agile conferences. How do you see this approach aiding Agile teams?

Net-Map can be incredibly powerful in helping Agile coaches and organisations implementing Agile in supporting the organizational changes that are required. At the beginning of an Agile implementation, mapping out the internal influence landscape with regards to this change, especially looking at who wins and loses power can help structure successful strategies and bring the team together behind a common vision. Throughout the implementation cycles repeated Net-Maps can help teams understand whether they are keeping on track, where unexpected obstacles have come up and what the best strategies are to deal with them.

In the meantime, I have used Net-Map in an Agile project (helping a major hotel and resorts corporation) and have seen how it works in helping the Agile implementers (internal and/or external) to understand the politics around this major organizational change, by determing who will gain or loose power, who are the informal opinion leaders and what are the coalitions that are for or against change. Mapping the current situation also helped us initiate a discussion about the common organisational history which allowed the external consultant to be more aware of potential pitfalls and how organisational politics may influence the success of the Agile implementation. By mapping the situation with a small group of leaders who all have crucial roles in implementing change, we were also able to facilitate an in-depth frank but kind discussion of their relationships and how they need to further develop.

InfoQ: If someone is interested in facilitating a Net-Map session, where would you suggest that they start?

Net-Map is a free and open-access process which you can teach yourself by reading the manual, some case studies, and experimenting with the format in non-threatening environments. Also, getting a basic knowledge of social network analysis in general, group facilitation and participatory processes can be very helpful. One warning, however -- while the 4 basic questions of Net-Map are easy to learn and copy, it turns out that defining the right questions, facilitating excellent sessions and analysing the data to its full potential afterward are tasks that can be rather tricky, and, most people require more formal Net-Map training. For someone who really wants to get into it, a combination of formal training and continuous experimentation with feedback is the most intense and successful way of becoming a Net-Map master.

InfoQ: Is the process evolving or has it proved itself to be relatively stable?

Yes and yes. Since first coming up with the procedure the four basic questions have remained stable and we have used them in case studies as diverse as improving marketing for washing powder, understanding job search behavior of poor rural Americans or strategic planning of anti-torture campaigns in South East Asia. On the other hand, the thinking of a core group of Net-Map practitioners has been evolving since the beginning, going in two directions, one into using it as a strong tool for initiating change and the other developing and standardising approaches for data analysis that hold up to peer reviewed research standards. Also, a new method that we developed out of our experience with Net-Map is Process Net-Map, which doesn’t look at the (relatively stable) connections between actors as much as the different steps that they have to take with each other in a process (for example, from policy idea to vote or from product idea to finalised product).

InfoQ: If our readers would like to know more about the Net-Map approach, where can they get more information?

They can look on the blog, shoot me an email or read the Field Methods paper "Net-Map: Collecting Social Network Data and Facilitating Network Learning through Participatory Influence Network Mapping in Field Methods".

For more information on Net-Map in an Agile context, some articles include Net-Map Technique for Agile by Paul Boos on the Agile Scout Blog, a review of a Net-Map session at Agile Coach Camp US 2011 by Lisa Crispin as well as number of Agile related posts by Eva Schiffer on her Net-Map toolbox site.

About the Interviewee

Eva Schiffer is a social scientist and facilitator, working as independent consultant in Washington DC, helping groups and individuals to better understand the complex realities in which they work and make most of their influence networks. Before becoming independent, she worked as a post-doctoral fellow for the International Food Policy Research Institute, mainly living in a small town in northern Ghana (Bolgatanga) where she developed Net-Map as an answer to concrete local governance problems. For the development of Net-Map she was awarded the “Promising Young Scientist of the Year Award” of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in 2008.



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