We experience networks in many aspects of our lives, from personal acquaintances and professional relationships to professional associations, formal learning and collaborative support groups. For those involved in the work of the Institute @ CESA #1, efforts to leverage the power and support of an innovation network in the development of a scaled personalized learning system are very familiar.

Yet despite our frequent involvement with networks, we may not spend much time thinking about how we can garner the greatest personal and professional benefits these relationship structures can offer. The staff at the Institute has been thinking about how we can assist individuals, teams and full staffs to tap the potential of our shared network. Our search has led us to an emerging framework or rubric to understand networks.

The framework includes five levels or dimensions of benefit from low level emotional support to life transforming experiences the we long to replicate throughout our professional careers. Each dimension can serve a purpose and offer personal and professional benefits, but as with most activities, the greater the investment, the greater the return.

At the lowest level of network engagement our involvement may be confined to sharing our frustrations, complaining about our situation or bemoaning the absence of what we desire. This type of network experience can provide a measure of emotional release and shared experience, but we rarely expect or experience any significant answers or learning.

At the next level we can find ourselves and associates swapping “war stories” about past experiences, past wins and the “good ole days.” Some learning may result from this experience, particularly for novice members. However, the application of the learning is often random and inefficient. Still, the feelings of association and camaraderie can make the experience worthwhile enough to stay associated with the network over time.

The third level of the network benefit framework involves “solution sharing.” At this level, group members may present a challenge or problem and other members of the network share how they solved the problem or how they see its significance. However, there is little effort to understand the context or nuances of the problem presented. Again, learning can result, but the solutions offered must be evaluated and modified in light of the specific and unique elements of the problem presented. This level of network involvement can offer even greater benefits, but full engagement and deep understanding are neither expected nor offered.

A fourth level of network engagement presents the opportunity for members to share their challenge or problem and other members of the network actively attempt to understand the dimensions, significance, context and implications of the situation presented. Observations and insights are shared and examined within the group. Solutions are crafted to address the uniqueness of the specific problem described. Members offer their ideas, experiences and expertise in service of the good of other members with an understanding that at another time the same commitment and efforts will be made on their behalf. Learning at this level of network involvement can add significantly to our expertise and professional confidence. Often at this level, the interaction is so powerful that continued and repeated experiences of this type are a strong attraction to remaining involved in the network.

The fifth and most powerful dimension or level of network involvement presents the unique opportunity to be a part of a group committed to create a solution, address a challenge or invent something that will benefit all members, but requires the collective efforts of the network to achieve the desired outcome. This level of engagement presents the opportunity to be part of an effort that is larger than each of us with a collective benefit greater than can be generated by individual and isolated efforts. Each member brings his or her best thinking, most creative ideas and complete commitment in service of shared success. Learning at this level often is profound and life changing. The experience can be so powerful that we spend much of the rest of our professional lives seeking to replicate the experience and the benefits it generated.

While each level of network engagement offers benefits, the work of designing and scaling a new educational approach that transforms the experience of learners in a personalized environment beckons us to build a network with the benefits of the two highest and most powerful levels of engagement. Our work is to make this experience not just possible, but regularly accessible to network members.