Nurturing your Ecosystem through Member Engagement

Guest Blog Post By Amy B. Schulz, MBA, NACCE, Special Projects

After identifying partners in your ecosystem, the next step is to assess the strength of current connections and evaluate a need for developing new partnerships to round out your maker ecosystem. This blog post will focus on fostering current relationships, and a future post will examine how to build new partnerships.

In their book, Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact: Connecting to Change the World, Plastrik, Taylor, and Cleveland (2014) provide strategies for fostering networks. In the example of the Networks United for a Rural Voice (NURV), diverse stakeholders joined together to move policy to improve conditions in rural communities. Initial strangers did not see how they were connected, but over time their common goals and budding relationships shaped the direction of the network, and, ultimately, policy. Forming trust through relationships was key to their success. The same ideals can be applied to developing a makerspace or innovation lab ecosystem. The richness of relationships from within the ecosystem can catapult a makerspace past the startup phase and initial funding. If the ecosystem members all feel invested in the makerspace, they will work together to ensure its success.

Trust is the key currency in a thriving ecosystem. Firstly, it is critical to evaluate the level of connectedness currently within your ecosystem. Plastrik, Taylor and Cleveland (2014) provide the following four levels of member connections:

“Level 1: I have been introduced to this person, but do not exchange information with them on a regular basis.

Level 2: I exchange useful information with this person on a regular basis but have not worked/do not work directly with them on a project.

Level 3: I exchange useful information with this person on a regular basis and have worked or am working directly with this person on one or more projects.

Level 4: I depend on this person regularly for important advice and have worked with him/her on more than one project (Plastrik et al., 2014, p. 86).”

In the context of a makerspace or innovation lab, levels of connectedness may appear by partners’ level of support in activities, such as a campus maker fair or in internships provided by industry partners. Platrik, Taylor, and Cleveland’s (2014) model provides a basis to start evaluating levels of engagement within the ecosystem.

Patterns may emerge of the most active partners and where future cultivation may be necessary for a more robust ecosystem. For example, if there is a strong clustering of Levels 3 and 4 connections around partners in making activities, but among employer partners the Levels fall in the 1-2 range, that would indicate a need to invest effort in employer relationships. Ecosystem stewards can design activities to engage the target audiences. Here are a few things to keep in mind when planning activities to engage ecosystems members:

  1. Face to face interactions are the gold standard of relationship building and ecosystem engagement. When possible, plan events that bring members together for in person connections.
  2. Employ empathy when designing events. What will appeal to your members and be beneficial to their goals? While you may have curriculum development and internship placements in mind, they might be attracted to the network for like-minded thinkers in similar fields or a sense of social responsibility. Understanding what brings value to your members will help to drive how to plan ecosystem events.
  3. Continually invest through multiple areas of entry. While in-person events are the gold standard, there are many other ways to engage members between in-person events, such as social media, e-newsletters, webinars, regular conference calls, and special interest groups. Like a face to face event, think through what brings values to members when designing virtual engagement activities.
  4. Become a network hub. Make your college the central hub to connect members of the ecosystem and add new members. If you have strong ties with members, you can introduce them to each other, which provides tremendous value to the ecosystem. They, in turn, will introduce new members to organically grow your ecosystem.

An ecosystem is a loosely connected and mostly volunteer network so participation will emerge as the value is evident. Be strategic in planning engagement activities to provide value while optimizing connections within the ecosystem. While the ecosystem will bring value to your makerspace or innovation lab work, the ecosystem should be beneficial to everyone involved.

Plastrik, P., Taylor, M., & Cleveland, J. (2014). Harnessing the power of networks for social impact: Connecting to change the world. Washington, DC: Island Press.