Networking the Unintentional Network: RAVSAK as a Case Study in Progress

by Dr. Idana Goldberg and Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman

Are there limitations to networked thinking? Can networked learning be taught and learned? Rabbi Hayim Herrings’s blog post last month on eJewish Philanthropy, “How to Minimize the Risk of Network Un-Weaving“, questions whether a relationship-based network approach to community building and shared learning might be too antithetical to the hierarchical systems embedded in much of our institutional structures. We believe the two are not mutually exclusive. Schools are certainly places where institutional hierarchy remains important in ensuring educational excellence and the fulfillment of mission and vision, yet in our work we have found that formal and informal networks as well as networked thinking provide tremendous opportunities for shared learning and growth.

RAVSAK: the Jewish Community Day School Network offers an opportune case study in the evolution of networks and networked thinking. Founded as a grassroots network of Jewish community day school leaders, at a time when the fax was the latest technology, we have nonetheless only recently begun to recognize the implications of the word network and its centrality to how we fulfill our mission. As each of us separately began to realize the power of cultivating networks to satisfy our personal and professional goals, we started to consider how this way of thinking could stimulate change in the field of Jewish education.

Today, RAVSAK understands the need to embrace strategies and tools to maximize the potential of our Jewish community day school network for the broad cross-section of our 130 member schools and their own internal networks of professionals, board members, students and stakeholders. Over the past year we have been working with Darim Online’s Social Media Boot Camp for Educators, a program generously funded by The Covenant Foundation, which has invested in the development of many networked approaches across the field.

When we started with Darim, we thought it was all about finding the right technology, but as we’ve worked with our internal team (made up of committed professional staff and lay people) and our terrific coach, Lisa Colton, we’ve realized that it’s actually about finding the right people and building the right relationships, and only then figuring out what the right technology might be to help these relationships thrive. As a network, RAVSAK is in many ways an unintentional one. Its members share certain affiliations, yet often have interacted primarily through the professionals in the RAVSAK office. In our attempts to change the culture of our network from a hub and spokes model of learning, we are promoting new ways to decentralize knowledge and increase peer-peer learning and interactions, through the creation of a variety of network sub-groups.

We understand that successful networks emanate from relationships that inspire trust and are considering new ways to engender this trust, by emphasizing common interests, pre-existing relationships and shared needs. We know that learning stems from listening and we are beginning to implement new ways to hear the conversations that are happening within our own network and those that intersect with ours, as well as finding opportunities to generate new conversations. Beyond just providing the technology for a network conversation, we are experimenting with various approaches to designing and facilitating the learning experience in the network. By engaging in an intentional process of trial and error, we can measure the effectiveness of different tools, platforms and facilitative strategies. By training and supporting a network facilitator, we can simultaneously design the network, deepen relationships and cultivate a network culture of reflection amongst the network’s members.

Critical to this culture shift’s success within our network is to shift attention from the network as a product, and focus on cultivating the individuals who build these relationships and think deeply about how networks work – the network weavers. That’s why RAVSAK recently brought Yechiel Hoffman on board to work with us on transforming our unintentional network into an intentional one. Together, we hope to elevate RAVSAK’s network engagement by understanding the nature of the network’s member’s needs and positioning within the network. We are working together and with our members to create a model that reflects RAVSAK’s strategic plan, and embodies and inspires the values and learning goals of the network’s participants. We need to recruit, train and coach the network facilitators to support Ravsak’s networks and become part a new cohort of network weavers impacting our field.

Eventually, we may not need individual network weavers woven into our institutions and networks. Eventually, every Jewish educator, communal professional, board member and Rabbi will naturally gravitate to fostering, nurturing and facilitating those in their networks to connect, grow and collaborate. But as referenced in the Rabbi Herring’s blog post, until institutions embrace networks and systems thinking, we depend on those who gravitate personally and professionally to this mode of thinking and behaving.

At this moment when technology has created disruptive opportunities for decentralized systems and shared learning, questions like Rabbi Herring’s are important opportunities for interrogating what formal and informal networks offer to Jewish organizations, the field of Jewish education and our work as Jewish professionals. We have found the theoretical and historical frameworks underlying network theory as well as the demonstrated learning and growth that comes from utilizing and activating natural and designed networks to be valuable in our own work. Rabbi Herring may be accurate in determining that many organizations rely on vertical hierarchies operating under command and control, and are more activity driven than mission driven. We believe the horizontal platform model of networks, oriented around influence rather than power, is the very reason we need networks and networks weavers in our system. We should not be afraid that new models demand a shift from old paradigms, but rather explore how these new models prepare us for the inevitable new paradigms. The question becomes less how we un-weave our networks, but how we cultivate a field in which learning through networks becomes commonplace and as essential to leadership as any other skill.

Dr. Idana Goldberg, is the Associate Executive Director at RAVSAK. Idana can be reached at: idana@ravsak.org.

Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, is an Educator, Nonprofit Leader and Community Organizer, who is working as a consultant to RAVSAK on their network-weaving efforts. He can be reached at: yechielhoffman1@gmail.com.

This post also appears on JewPoint the Darim Online Blog and on 21st Century JewishEd.

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