Networks as businesses

It seems that since I wrote a blog about the importance of Purple Champions, they’ve become the new must have thing for disability networks (not that I’m claiming any credit!).  Since writing the blog I’ve been working with the always amazing Kate Nash and Sarah Simcoe on a new PurpleSpace publication on the topic of Purple Champions and we’ve been organising an event for senior disability champions and D&I professionals to talk about the role of Purple Champions in the workplace and it’s got thinking about how this only part of the picture.

I’m going to go off in a little tangent now but stay with me….

In the last few months of my role within the Reach Disability Network at Barclays I’d been working hard to bring in a new leadership team to drive the network forward. Whilst doing this I started to wonder about whether we should be looking at networks not as just a voluntary scheme but as social enterprises or business within organisations whose purpose was to provide consultancy, awareness and support in order that organisations become more disability confident. It’s this work that’s brought me to write this blog post about networks as businesses and why it’s so important that we arm disability network leaders with key business skills.

Networks as businesses

So you might be thinking – I’m not sure about this, why should networks behave like businesses they’re voluntary groups who just need to get on and do what they need to do. That’s all well and good but the fact remains that networks need a few things to survive and thrive – money, people and a strategy and all too often we see network leaders who don’t have the skillset to deliver these key elements.

By thinking of a network like a business it will also change the mindset of the network leaders in terms of how they manage stakeholders and access funding and resources. Which brings me back to champions (see I told you I’d get back to champions!). By changing how we view stakeholders and thinking of them in the context of a business network leaders will set themselves up for a more successful relationship with their stakeholders and, hopefully, enable the network to thrive.

As I’ve been working on developing a framework and best practice guidance for champions I’ve come to question why most networks have only one champion. I think we need to change this approach to truly enable to the networks as businesses approach. For year’s personal and professional coaches have been talking about the need to develop your own personal board with you as a CEO. The approach suggests surrounding yourself with people you trust but who  each provide something different, for example someone who you work with on your personal brand, your career path or your network. Why shouldn’t be adopt this approach for our networks.

A board of champions

Let me explain- by having just one champion, you’re relying on them to be knowledgeable about a wide range of topics and what I’ve discovered is that many champions feel pressured and uncertainty about fulfilling their roles because they’re being asked to know everything, which often means they don’t fully engage or buy into being a champion. What if we had multiple champions, each focused on supporting our networks using the skills and knowledge they bring to the table – rather than assuming they know everything. You could have a champion focused on the brand of the network, another focused on  being connections and relationships for the network and others focused on whatever your network needs. This approaches brings the skills and expertise they have to bear rather than hoping that one person can bring everything.

By taking this approach we might also seem more engaged champions as they can see how they can support your network, champions whose time is best spent and champions who are more willing to fight for the network when the time comes.

Changing to a business orientated mindset

The mindset change of network leaders might also lead to some things…

  • Business case and a plan – if you’re going to have a business, you’re going to need a plan. By having a plan you’ll show credibility to your board (of champions) and to your funders. However, it’s not everything. A plan is nothing without delivery which is why a plan has to rally the troops (see point 3).  The plan should include what you achieve, how you’re going to achieve it and how it’ll be measured.
  • Access to funding- for as long as I’ve been involved with disability networks I’ve consistently heard about how there is a lack of funding. By far too often networks can’t demonstrate why they want funding and what they’ve done with their funding . In short without a way of showing what success looks like and showing you can deliver it’s highly unlikely you’ll get access to new funding.
  • More active and engaged network members- people need a rallying call, to know why they should follow you and not someone else. For sustainable, long term engagement a plan as well as a way of communicating and marketing your plan is the only way to go.

The future of networks

So, is the future of networks that they change tact and approach and become more business in structure, strategy and approach? I think so, but it’s important to note I’ve not fully tested the theory. What I can tell you is that when running a network I worked hard to try and take a business orientated approach, building trust with leaders and champions and showing incremental improvements in engagement and strategy delivery. I put metrics in place and reported on them and saw improvements in leadership engagement and funding. What I’ve not tested is the board of champions idea – I’d love someone to take the risk and give it a go – I’d be happy to help them try.

One thought on “Networks as businesses”

  1. At our corporation we have a small budget and a large committee effectively of purple champions who are committed to certain items on the agenda for going ahead and researching within the business and implementing. Recent items have included a special initiative on the tube for “please give up a seat” for those who have non visible disabilities. Other items includes setting up an autism working group and all of this is done through not requiring a budget. But there are other jobs that require some kind of spending, such as membership to purple space and other external organisations and organising events where external parties come. It is difficult to arrange an event where the subject needs to be taken seriously without inviting someone from outside of the organisation. So yes. some kind of budget is necessary in order to run the network effectively, and have senior management on board in TfL’s case it is a director on the ExecCo and senior managers allotted to the group. The “purple champions” still runs the group in the voluntary role to which they have been elected, through a fair and democratic process. The groups are also recognised within the E&I leadership team so anything that is suggested can be controlled and carefully reviewed. Although we have a small budget at TFL this has to be carefully controlled so everything has to be carefully approved. Lastly we have a committee of about 10 members who are made up from other people across the organisation who are either affected by the protected characteristic or have the protected characteristic within our own Communities and are committed towards performing actions required at carefully manage meetings.


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