This article provides practical advice on building and leading a new professional multi-agency network. It looks at how to map out a new network and what steps to think about in the lead up to the first meeting. It is taken from a Community Care Inform Children guide on this topic. The full guide offers an in-depth view on how to build and maintain a professional network, and includes case scenarios, examples and practice points. Inform Children subscribers can access the full content here. The guide is written by Ryan Wise, a social worker, systemic practitioner and practice educator.
A major aspect of social work, whatever field you are in, is working with professionals from different disciplines. Meetings and relationships with other agencies – teachers, health staff, drug and alcohol services, mental health services, housing, probation and so on – are about working together in the best interests of the child and their family. However, and perhaps inevitably, different professional backgrounds (and the training, culture, values and priorities that go along with those) can lead to friction.
Social workers should think about how to create a space where discussion is welcomed but does not create anxiety among professionals and ultimately leave families less supported than they could and should be.
Mapping out a new network
Ahead of a first multi-agency face-to-face meeting, allow yourself some thinking time. You may or may not have had telephone or email contact with other professionals, but let’s assume you’ve had sight of documents or a conversation with someone in your organisation to brief you about the network and give you a good basic understanding of who is involved.
Map out the network, either in your mind or on paper, with all the details you know about each person. You may only have snippets at this stage, but any information you have can support you in developing hypotheses about how members of the network may work with one another.
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After mapping the network and understanding the context, ask yourself – what are your initial thoughts and feelings relating to each professional? They may be instinctive reactions; do not disregard your intuitions, but approach with caution and remain curious as you would with a risk assessment.
Who might you be drawn to and who might you not be? What ‘stories’ are there in your own organisation about the other agencies that might orientate your thinking? What may lead to bias?
It is important to recognise you are a part of the process – how will you be received? For example, others may hold specific narratives about your own organisation.
Taking a proactive approach when building a network
When taking a proactive approach to building a network your initial hypotheses and ideas may turn out to be a bit off or even completely wrong. However, even if that’s the case, thinking about the other professionals and actions you might take can have a positive impact on the network and meetings by:
- Ensuring that you as the lead professional have a sense of ownership over how the network works together to support a family.
- Providing an opportunity to iron out disagreements or seek clarification to ensure meetings are not overwhelmed by topics which are not associated with best helping a family or individual.
- Developing and building trust and confidence, both in yourself and in each other.
As social workers, time is often not on our side, but working out how to start on a good foot can pay off in the long run.
The initial email
Emails can sometimes feel like the nemesis of good social work – overloading us, and creating more bureaucracy and less time spent directly with families. But a strategic email that sets out how you want to work can reduce bureaucracy over the time you work with each family. If you are using email to organise the meeting, why not also use it to start embedding a productive way of working?
An email ahead of the meeting can do the following:
- Signal the start of a new dynamic. The professionals’ relationships prior to your involvement may have not been very effective. An introductory email from a new social worker may be a useful way of starting afresh. If you suspect that others have a pre-existing concern or narrative about your agency, you can be proactive to subtly address this.
- Introduce everyone to each other. Individual professionals may have consulted each other but not yet come together as a network. This can be an opportunity for everyone to know who is involved.
- Set out how you want to work. You can test out hypotheses and ideas to pre-empt potential issues in working together you are concerned about.
- Invite views and create a sense of collaboration from the start.
- Get a handle on paperwork and processes. You can ask for a preferred way of communication which can reduce unnecessary emails. This can also be an opportunity to say how you would like to share out minute-taking and so on.
However carefully you craft your email, you may not hear back from some or all the professionals. Even if that’s the case, you will have given thought to how the network might work together and what problems/difficulties you may encounter. You have then taken proactive steps to address potential difficulties, using email to strategically show your leadership skills, while inviting professionals into a collaborative culture of working.
Whatever the responses are, it would be good to look at what, if anything, has changed in your thinking – are there any positives you can draw out or areas which stand out as potential issues that need addressing from the outset?
The full Inform Children’s guide covers this topic in full including pre-meeting planning, chairing a meeting and building professional relationships for future meetings. It includes case scenarios, examples and practice points.