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The importance of informal networks

Update from Wilton Park CEO Tom Cargill, 27 July 2021

Informal networks occupy an ambivalent space in both democratic and non-democratic societies.

The British politician Tony Benn famously suggested five challenging questions of anyone who holds power – 1. What power have you got; 2. Where did you get it from; 3. In whose interests do you exercise it; 4. To whom are you accountable; and 5. How do we get rid of you? Informal networks, by definition, often struggle to answer all five.

Of course, these are good reasons informal networks are used for bad purposes, and get bad names as a result. Words like cabal and conspiracy point to the suspicion we hold of informal networks and the unaccountable power they can wield.

But we know that informal networks can achieve incredible things too. The global response to the 2008 financial crisis and the most impressive achievements in the response to COVID-19 and the development of vaccines have all been achieved through informal, as much as formal, networks.

So, what is required to develop healthy informal networks? How has the move online hastened by the pandemic changed the utility and behaviour of informal networks? And what is the future of informal networks in a world where accountability, transparency and credibility mean the inherent ‘informality’ of networks may raise more questions than answers – particularly when they touch on what can be sensitive issues?

Informal networks need to be voluntary, non-hierarchical, and based on individuals, rather than on any organisational affiliation. This last is important because for an informal network to operate, individuals within it need to be able to claim a degree of agency not always available within the formal hierarchies of a more structured professional body. An important caveat here is that while an informal network of the type I am talking about depends upon members being able to speak as individuals rather than simply employees, it also requires an awareness of and mutual respect for each other’s professional circumstances and a trust that everyone in the group will be mindful of and avoid creating tensions between individual and professional identities.

That issue of trust is particularly relevant to us at Wilton Park because, as an arm’s length body of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, we are given a rare latitude and freedom of action by our parent department which we need to maintain and respect, but which in turn enables us to be a convenor where people from all over the world trust us to act honestly, objectively and not simply as platform for UK interests. That is a combination of circumstances which has taken decades to build up, indeed it is hard to imagine many other organisations fortunate enough to share such attributes. It gives us unique reach and agency. All the more important then that we respect both the individuals and the organisations which partner with us and provide the basis for the informal networks we support and encourage.

So, a healthy informal network requires trust, almost more than anything else. I would argue it also needs diversity. Throughout my career I have found that it is the diversity of networks, just like the diversity of ecosystems, that is the key differentiator for judging a networks power, reach and durability. Of course, there needs to be some mutuality of interest – enough to build a sense of common purpose. Yet although it is required – that common issue can often be quite a nebulous or incidental driver. It is the diversity of perspectives, of background, of life experience and of culture which really supercharges the effectiveness of a network. It also brings resilience. If everyone in the conversation shares too much background or too many traits, who will point out the things everyone else has missed? Or bring the leadership or expertise no one else knew they needed? Throughout my career I have lost count of the number of times I have been on the fringes of encounters between individuals who thought they had nothing in common, but through building a relationship realised just how many touch points and ways of helping each other there were.

So, trust and diversity are for me two key drivers of a healthy informal network. But what prospects are there for informal networks in an age of increasingly virtual engagement; one where our time and priorities are increasingly compressed, and where there is often ever more pressure to use our professional time for narrowly defined professional objectives?

Well; I would argue that we are just entering an era when informal networks will become ever more a part of our lives. One key reason is the very rise of virtual engagement, as well as growing concerns over who is using our data as well as over how it is used. Trust will therefore become an ever more valuable commodity in driving behaviours, and informal networks I would argue are driven and empowered by trust between members.

Informal networks and the trust they depend upon also require investment in time, and especially in face to face dialogue. As we are finding with our Friends of Wilton Park network, you can sustain, and even build for some time, a network already in existence, but for it to be created in a durable fashion, in person meetings are key.

Finally; I believe the informal networks which we create at Wilton Park will become ever more important and recognised simply because of the sheer complexity of the challenges we are now facing as a species and a planet. As the effort to respond to COVID-19 and produce and then roll out a vaccine demonstrate, the problems we face required people across multiple disciplines and boundaries coming together to execute highly complex projects over an extended period of time. Traditional and formal structures of course play a key role in leading on such work, but I would argue the fast changing complexity of the challenges we face risk leaving some traditional organisations partly or wholly redundant – especially those bodies, both national and international, conceived and developed during very different periods in our history. Even where they are still fit for purpose, the relationships, the wiring, between such bodies is not always set up to respond as it needs to in today’s fast paced in environment. To be truly effective, those structures need to be backed-up up and supported by informal interdisciplinary networks of professionals of exactly the type Wilton Park nurtures. We provide resilience and back up wiring for when things go wrong, as well as raw material for initiatives to rewire and rebuild capacity.

So, I believe we have a strong future and an important role to play in bringing new perspectives, challenge and ideas to the big global problems of our time. Perhaps most importantly of all though, I think we can be important to each other – mutually supporting, challenging and bringing diversity of thought to each other as individuals as we make our way through life.

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