Organizational Networks

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Rachel Hellenga and Vrylena Olney. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Organizational networks increase the ability of the ISE community to engage larger and more diverse audiences in quality STEM programs through large-scale outreach initiatives and through partnerships which connect ISE professionals to each other and to professionals in other sectors. Rather than multiple agents working independently on the same problem (isolated impact), these networks have the potential to achieve system-wide impact by establishing infrastructure that facilitates coordination of effort and resources across organizations, and by forging ties within and across professional communities to build the trust, reciprocity, and shared values which inspire people to take collective action toward a common goal.

Some of the specific ways in which networks engage diverse audiences and improve quality of STEM programs include:

  • organizing STEM-related events at a large scale
  • producing and disseminating curriculum, programs, exhibits, or media for simultaneous use by hundreds of organizations
  • involving nontraditional audiences typically at the periphery of STEM education community by connecting to community organizations
  • building capacity and expertise by linking ISE professionals with scientists and researchers
  • improving program and project quality by developing communities of practice which facilitate peer-to-peer learning and shared quality metrics
  • increasing access to quality programs through cross-sector partnerships that link out-of-school education providers, science-rich organizations, and the formal education system
  • coordinating the resources of diverse institutions to maximize impact across the informal and formal education sectors

This article uses the term “organizational networks” to describe formal collaborations established among three or more organizations in order to advance informal STEM education. An organizational network might have a core source of funding and leadership or it might comprise a decentralized group of peer organizations; it might aim to strengthen ties within a community or it might build bridges between communities. In addition to assessing a network’s effectiveness in achieving specific outcomes for individual learners, a network can be studied to understand the value it creates at a systems level within and across communities. The summary below highlights current research on networks and profiles organizational networks within the ISE field along with evidence of their impact.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Roles Played by Organizations within a Network

Social network theory frames networks in terms of “nodes” and “ties.” “Nodes” are actors in a network and “ties” are the links between these nodes. Examining how the nodes (organizations) are connected to each other can help to identify influential members of a network, clarify roles, and reveal patterns of communication and interaction. A few descriptions of network nodes are described here with references to relevant ISE networks.

Nodes with the most connections:  Nodes with many links inside a community might serve as leaders who strengthen bonds within a community and motivate collective action, for example establishing a professional association to link members of the citizen science community [see the Citizen Science example below].

Nodes in strategic positions:  Nodes which connect disparate groups can serve as liaisons, such as a museum facilitating interactions between psychology researchers and parents [See the Living Laboratory example below]. Nodes in key geographic locations might serve as regional hubs to connect local members to a national network [See the NISENet example below].

Nodes at the periphery of a network have less influence within the network but the most potential to reach beyond the network, for example tattoo parlors offering programming during a science festival involve nontraditional audiences. [See the Science Festival Alliance below].

In a network operating without a central source of funding, nodes might serve as intermediaries which facilitate program delivery and collaborative fundraising among organizations across sectors, for example coordinating the efforts of multiple after school providers with a single formal education system [see Every Hour Counts, below].

Brief overviews of social network theory and examples of network maps can be found at these URLs.

Achieving Geographic Scale Through Regional Hubs

Example from the field: Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network

The NISE Network involves hundreds of organizations dedicated to fostering public awareness, engagement, and understanding of nanoscale science, engineering, and technology (nano). When the Network began in 2005, informal science education institutions had little expertise, experience, or incentive to do nano education for the public (St. John, Helms, Castori, Hirabayashi, Lopez, and Phillips, 2009, 3 – 4). Nine years later the Network includes over 500 dedicated, invested partner organizations and 1,400 individuals working toward a common goal of engaging audiences in nano content.

This project illustrates how an organizational network uses regional hubs to build bridges between the central leadership of the project and outlying organizations.

Partners are organized geographically around seven regional hubs. Regional hub leaders facilitate partner interaction in Network activities, help museum educators connect with researchers and each other, host regional workshops and meetings, and provide additional support to institutions in their region. The regional hub structure allows the Network’s fourteen funded partners to effectively engage hundreds of additional museums and universities across the country, including many smaller, lesser-known, rural museums. According to the Network Communication Study Year 6 Developmental Evaluation, the regional hub structure connects the different partners and is “essential for communicating Network information, updates, and providing ongoing support” (p. 29). Regional hub leaders serve as a key conduit between funded partners developing products and resources and the broader Network (p. 30). The regional hub structure also fosters community at the regional level, “cultivat[ing] a sense of community that helps [partners] feel part of the Network.”

Example from the field: Living Laboratory

Living Laboratory sites are generally based in public settings such as museums, where museum staff host brief research studies conducted by child psychology researchers with families of young children. The collaboration with researchers and involvement of the general public results in a greater understanding of real-world learning for researchers and a greater appreciation of research methods for museum professionals and parents. It has engendered partnerships among members, influenced the research questions of researchers, connected research projects across geographic boundaries, resulted in new programming and partnerships, and has created research opportunities for undergraduates at colleges without a research faculty. [per interview with PI Rebecca Kipling, 2014.06.18]

Hubs provide an initial point of entry and orientation for new network members, function as “matchmakers” to provide introductions between ISE organizations and researchers, host face-to-face meetings, and create opportunities for ISE professionals and research scientists to form ties within and across their professional communities. Three hub organizations and the lead organization (Museum of Science, Boston) handle regional communication to orient new partners, many of whom approach them via the national web site. Project participants at different organizations assist each other through peer networking initiated at regional meetings and sustained throughout the year.

Coordinating Organizations without a Centralized Funding Source

Some networks are formed among organizations without a single source of funding to support the partnership. In this case, one or more intermediary organizations which are not direct service providers often serve as “backbone organizations” which seek funding and coordinate the efforts of diverse service providers.

Example from the Field: Every Hour Counts

Every Hour Counts is a consortium of after-school providers which summarized the role of “intermediary organizations” in supporting after-school programming:

Intermediaries unite stakeholders around a shared mission, coordinate and maximize resources, and drive improvement throughout their communities. An intermediary’s work includes:

  • Increasing access by raising funds and targeting resources to where they are most needed
  • Driving improved student outcomes by coordinating expanded (after-school) learning with in-school learning
  • Improving efficiency by building relationships that help public agencies, funders, service providers, schools, and parents work together
  • Promoting continuous improvement by collecting data about program effectiveness, setting shared expectations for quality, and providing training and professional development.

Example from the Field: Cincinnati “backbone organizations”

The Foundation Strategy Group (FSG) analyzed the role of six Cincinnati-based “backbone” organizations, all of which serve as a focal point for cross-sector partnerships. FSG identified six key activities conducted by these organizations in order to achieve collective impact:

  1. Guide vision and strategy
  2. Support aligned activities
  3. Establish shared measurement practices
  4. Build public will
  5. Advance policy
  6. Mobilize funding

The roles of backbone organizations are described in a series of blog posts entitled “Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

Reaching Organizations at the Periphery

Some projects make a concerted effort to activate nodes at the periphery of the network as a strategy for involving nontraditional educators and audiences in science education.

Example from the Field: Science Festival Alliance

The Science Festival Alliance is coordinated through MIT University and has initiated annual science festivals hosted by cities across the U.S. The festivals typically take place over one or two days and involvement a wide variety of organizations in each metropolitan area ranging from universities to billiard halls and tattoo parlors. Each festival is typically anchored by a traditional science education organization such as a museum or university which acts as the fiscal agent for disbursement of grant funds and which coordinates the program calendar and communication strategy surrounding an event. The Alliance has spawn partnerships and activities including science festivals in additional cities which are sustained by communities without grant funding but which receive mentoring and coordination strategy from the central network. (Per interview with PI Ben Wiehe, 9/18/2013)

In a presentation for the 2011 ISE Organizational Networks Convening in Washington, DC, the Science Festival Alliance described the following characteristics correlated with effective science festival networks:

  • Massively collaborative
  • Designed for target audience
  • Reach new audiences
  • Enthusiastic public response
  • Many venues
  • Unite stakeholders
  • Involve STEM professionals
  • Provide laboratory for innovative programming
  • Recurring

Strengthening Bonds within a Single Professional Community

Example from the Field: Citizen Science Association

While many networks focus on establishing partnerships which bridge different communities, the Citizen Science Association illustrates an example of an organization inside a single community which is establishing the infrastructure supporting a cohesive community of practice. The Citizen Science Association (CSA) was established in 2013 with support from the Schoodic Institute, and membership rose to 2000 in just a few months. Many citizen science professionals do not have the benefit of on-site peers performing similar work and are seeking opportunities to connect with each other, exchange information, and build a group identity. The CSA also launched a professional journal addressing citizen science methods and best practices in order to encourage the creation of a shared body of work independent of the scientific findings generated by the field.

The primary focus of this community of practice could be categorized as “bonding”—helping professionals with similar interests and roles to find each other and to create solidarity, rather than “bridging” (connecting disparate professional cultures) [see Putnam, below]. Potential progress indicators might include the number of association members retained and added year over year, conference attendance, number of journal submissions, size of journal readership, and surveys to determine to what extent the activities of the association contribute to a sense of a “professional home” and a group identity for citizen science professionals. (Interview between Rachel Hellenga and Tina Philips, June 3, 2014)

Developing Indicators of Network Effectiveness

To measure the value of an organizational network, researchers looking beyond outcomes for individual learners to identify attributes of the network itself which provide indicators of its effectiveness.

The Research Perspective: Characteristics of a Healthy Network by Inverness Research

Inverness Research has drafted a list of characteristics associated with a healthy network. This tool allows us to take a step back from measuring impacts on participants, and to examine the network itself:

  1. Shared vision of the identity, purpose, and work of the network
  2. Support for real work and concrete contributions
  3. Internal connections and coherency
  4. Mechanisms for drawing upon and contributing to participating members
  5. Multiple opportunities for participation and interaction with the network
  6. Recognized and valued by the broader field
  7. Development of network governance and administration

The Research Perspective: Framework for Youth, Program, and Systems Outcomes by TASC

The After School Corporation (TASC) and Every Hour Counts (described above) are developing a framework for articulating and measuring outcomes at the “youth, program and systems levels.” For more information on this work in progress see:

Bridging and Bonding to Build Social Capital

The Research Perspective: Robert D. Putnam at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government

Putnam popularized the concept of social capital, articulating the value of social networks and their power to support collective action toward the common good: “Social networks deliver value through “information flows, norms of reciprocity, and collective action.” Putnam describes two complementary dimensions of social capital: “bonding” or social ties among similar people, and “bridging,” or connections between people across a social divide, noting the role that black churches played in the civil rights movement as an example of social capital resulting in collective action. Putnam’s website, the Saquaro Seminar, features a collection of resources for learning about social capital.

Putnam is developing and refining tools for measuring social capital, and recently published a toolkit for nonprofits seeking to measure the social capital resulting from their work with specific stakeholders. He offers a framework for aligning social capital development with an organization’s core mission in order to help project planners determine whether the desired impact is 1) at the individual or community level and 2) “bonding,” to promote solidarity and collective action; or “bridging,” to break down barriers and connect constituents to new resources. In addition he notes that an increase in social capital might be pursued as a primary result of a project, or it may be expected as a byproduct.

Example from the Field:

Most citizen science projects exemplify “bridging” between two groups of stakeholders: scientists need assistance with data collection to support scientific research findings, while volunteers have interests such as learning about science through engagement in authentic research. As intermediaries, citizen science professionals can provide a mechanism for recruiting volunteers while also advocating for clearly stated learning learning outcomes that ensures volunteers benefit from the study beyond learning to use a specific data collection instrument. The measurable outcomes in this scenario might address the efficiency and quality of the data collection on the one hand, the learning outcomes for volunteers on the other.

Citizen science projects have documented additional benefits which illustrate Putnam’s description of social capital as a potential “byproduct,” such as 1) social capital and economic improvement resulting from stronger bonds among community members, and 2) increased trust in scientists developed over the course of a collaborative project. Attention to these community impacts evokes the “youth, program, systems level” framework proposed by Every Hour Counts, and underscores the importance of measuring the overall value created by organizational networks in addition to outcomes for individual project participants.

Ronald Burt: Value of Connecting Disparate Networks

Ronald Burt, University of Chicago, analyzes the mechanisms underlying the value of networks in the context of professional career advancement. He suggests that “the way networks have their effect is not by getting information from people but rather by finding people who are interesting and who think differently from you.” He describes the gaps or “structural holes” that arise between isolated groups of professionals which each develop separate forms of shorthand communication—jargon, symbols, systems of phrasing, and other tacit knowledge. He uses the term “closure” to describe a choice to dwell entirely inside one’s professional group. Closure can enable members of a team to stay efficient and hone their existing skills, but it narrows the forms of communication used. In contrast, “network brokerage” is about building connections across structural holes. Burt’s research indicates that “network brokers”—the people who connect disparate groups—are more likely advance their careers. His research has determined that the communication skills developed by network brokers, rather than simply exposure to more information, is the key to their career advancement. “It is not being in the know, but rather, having to translate between different groups so that you develop gifts of analogy, metaphor, and communicating between people who have difficulty communicating to each other.”

NISE Net and Living Laboratory both serve as examples of how “translating” concepts across different professional cultures and from professional to lay audiences enables participants to developing a richer set of communication strategies.

Example from the Field: Living Laboratory

This project illustrates the learning and development that results when members of different professional cultures reach across the “structural hole” described by Burt. Project leads have reported that as child development researchers develop simpler language to explain their research questions, observation tools, and findings to museum professionals and to parents of young children, the dialogue can not only help them to communicate more clearly, but in some instances has created a reciprocal partnership in which ISE professionals and families contribute to shaping the research questions and tools. In return, professionals and parents develop a new appreciation for the research endeavor along with new language and mental models that inform their own interactions with young children and bring new legitimacy to their work.

Example from the Field: NISE Network

NISE Net is meant to be a bridge—a kind of interface—between the science research community and the public. p.30 NISE Net has provided valuable, varied, and multiple opportunities for professional development and networking among leaders in the ISE field and scientists from research institutions. Participants in the leaders survey reported Increased relationships with nanoscience researchers (90%); New relationships with informal science institutions 87%; Increased connections with nanoscience research institutions 87%; Other (e.g., science education advocacy groups) 13%. Nearly all of the scientists we interviewed agreed that they are gaining or have gained professionally. The most often cited benefit was the opportunity to learn how to better communicate their science with public audiences. Second to this benefit, also previously noted, was fulfilling the broader impacts requirement for NSF grants. (p. 33) From Review of NISE Net Evaluation Findings: Years 1-5 Summative Evaluation

Linking Social Capital to Collective Action

Research on social capital provides additional models for understanding and measuring the benefits of networks. Grootaert and Van Bastelar outline two forms of social capital: 1) “structural social capital,” consisting of externally observable elements such as roles, rules, precedents, and mechanisms for conflict resolution and 2) “cognitive social capital” reflecting levels of trust, accepted norms of behavior, shared values, and reciprocity. They describe social capital as a fundamental driver of “collective action,” which in turn can lead to positive impact within a community. They propose that instances of collective action serve as indicators that one or both forms of social capital are in place: 1) social structures facilitate collective action and 2) trust and shared values motivate people to initiate and participate in collective action.

Example from the Field: NISE Network

The 2010 Delivery and Reach study reported robust participation in the annual Nano Days event and a significant number of partnerships established between organizations. “Collaboration” was a frequently cited success in an open-ended question about the success of NanoDays, and surveys indicated that “collaboration with partner universities, museums or organizations was important and allowed institutions to do more during NanoDays than they would have been able to on their own” (Pattison, S., Benne, M., LeComte-Hinely, J., 2011). In addition to this result, which fell in line with the original goals and activites of the project, Network members initiated a substantial number of ideas for additional nano science programs, prompting the project leads to establish a mini-grant program which provides modest funding to support of member-initiated projects. The former illustrates the structural social capital needed to coordinate large-scale efforts, and the latter illustrates the tendency to initiate and participate in collective action as trust, shared values, and reciprocity increase.

The organizational networks profiled in this article have all resulted in collective action initiated and coordinated by project leaders. Evidence can be found in the evaluation reports and at the project URLs. What is more notable is that every project lead reported new collaborations and initiatives sparked among network members and carried out independently, typically without additional funding or oversight from the core network. These instances of spontaneous, coordinated action among members serve as indicators of the less tangible aspects of social capital [See individual project profiles]


Many projects and researchers merit attention from professionals interested in establishing a network, measuring the value it creates, or maximizing its impact. The selected projects, researchers, and network models profiled in this article are not comprehensive. They were selected to provide evidence regarding the nature of the impact that can be achieved by effective organizational networks, and to offer models for understanding the mechanisms that make networks effective.

In “Better Together: Restoring American Community,” Putnam suggests that new project teams should “find existing networks that can be recycled.” He shares examples of leaders who implemented successful projects by seeking out and involving existing networks, and observes that once a network is established, it has inherent value which can be tapped for new initiatives. This insight by Putnam underscores the fundamental value which is created by investing in the formation of effective organizational networks. In the process of pursuing STEM learning outcomes and other measurable benefits for diverse audiences, networked organizations establish infrastructure which can increase the effectiveness, reach, and impact of the ISE community.


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