The Necessity of Networking

WASHINGTON (08/21/2000) - One of the most valuable aspects of the Year 2000 solution was the networking. At every level of society, people got together, physically and online, to talk about what they were doing to prepare for the date change and the dreaded Year 2000 bug. Like the bug, networking cut across boundaries, drawing people from every kind of organization.

Within the federal government, agency staff members and agency heads shared information and cooperated with their counterparts in other agencies, ignoring bureaucratic and turf boundaries. In the private sector, banks, airlines and other industries followed suit, temporarily putting competition aside to cooperate on a common problem.

Although the Year 2000 bug is no longer an issue, the successful technique of using networking to share best practices and find common solutions should continue. An online discussion group with occasional face-to-face meetings can solve problems within and across organizations. Costs are small compared with the size of the problems that can be tackled successfully. Four elements are essential to success: incentives, interactivity, coordination and trust.

*Incentives. When participants see the benefits of being part of a network, they will contribute ideas enthusiastically. Early substantive results - solutions to specific problems - are essential. Network organizers also should recognize that membership on a dynamic cross-boundary team can be a powerful contributor to employees' job satisfaction.

* Interactivity. A successful network stays active. Useful information must flow regularly, with a balance struck between too much and too little traffic in the online group. Moreover, the discussion flows should be useful and organized - and solutions must flow from the interactions. The network should not be permitted to become a forum for speechmaking.

* Coordination. A small team is needed to run an online group. Responsibilities include maintaining the membership list and the Web site, moderating the discussion to keep it on point, recognizing leaders and cultivating their balanced participation, proposing the agenda, and keeping the results accessible. Often the greatest hurdles are staffing and funding the facilitating group. The easiest solution is to find a few deep-pocketed organizations that want to solve a specific problem. Alternatively, fees can be collected from network members.

* Trust. Perhaps the quintessential element of success is trust among a group's members. This begins with a network organizer with a reputation for fairness and objectivity. The sponsorship of a large organization, such as an association or committee, can also be very helpful.

Knowing who else is on the list makes information sharing easier because, ultimately, trust comes from people working together. This is where a weakness of our seductive electronic tools reveals itself: Periodic face-to-face contact is essential to create and sustain trust. We're wired, but, thankfully, we're still human.

--McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget and director of the International Y2K Cooperation Center, is president of McConnell International LLC.

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