Sharing Ideas and Creating Bonds – The Power of Networks

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Feb 15, 2019
by Lucy Browett
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Sharing Ideas and Creating Bonds – The Power of Networks

Martin Gilbert, director of the British Council Austria, reflects on the networks established by the organization Martin Gilbert at Salzburg Global Seminar

Founded in 1934 and working in over 100 countries, the British Council has established itself as a remarkable force in the world, creating opportunities for people worldwide, promoting the study of the English language and providing the resources for cultural exchanges.

Martin Gilbert, director of the British Council Austria, attended Citizen Diplomacy at the Crossroads: Activating Networks for Change, a three-day immersive learning program hosted by Salzburg Global Seminar, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance.

The program, in particular, focused on the way organizations can better utilize their alumni networks for good - networks which the British Council has in abundance.

Gilbert said, “We make networks of people. They might not be formal networks, but they’ll be networks of people who we share values with that we want to work with towards achieving some goal. You can formalize these networks and write them down, but even if they’re not formalized, they still exist.”

He emphasizes while these networks can be born from British Council programs, it is up to participants to sustain and grow them. He said, “Be active. Take part…join up with your peers.

“Take opportunities to be involved, join chat groups. If there’s nothing available, create something. Be clear about what you want to achieve and how the network can actually help you.”

Going Global is an annual conference run by the British Council for leaders in international education, which this year will be held in Berlin.

Gilbert says, “Now there’s an opportunity there for the individuals to take part to actually create networks within the network, so they can. If you’re clear when you go into that conference what you want to get out of it, who you want to join up with, then you’re much [more] likely to create a functioning network at the end.”

With so many alumni networks from various programs, it is likely that not every network following such programs is prosperous and utilized to its full potential. What makes a successful network?

Gilbert says it is down to the primary aims of the network when it is first established and to what extent these aims have been achieved.

He said, “You create a network in order to actually achieve something. So, I would say in order to evaluate whether it’s been effective or not, you’ve got to look at what you want to achieve.”

“For example, I might want to bring in a variety of different people working in the field of disabled art or artists who are disabled, working in some particular field of the arts together. I’d work, I’d set up a network of other institutions who are working in that area and then maybe organize a conference. Now with the help of that network, if I’ve achieved the aim of running a conference that has a good outcome, then I think I could say it’s been an effective network.”

However, Gilbert recognizes a need not to put pressure on networks to thrive. He said, “I’m also a believer in deactivating networks. I don’t keep networks alive unless there’s a particular reason because it’s just wasting people’s time.”

Certain long-running programs such as the Erasmus+ scheme, Study UK program and the Language Assistants Program seem to have had the greatest effect in creating long-lasting networks of like-minded people. Gilbert recognizes qualities and skills practiced by the many young people embarking on these programs every year are indicative of citizen diplomats.

He said, “A diplomat to my mind is someone who shares ideas, creates bonds between groups. So the people have the opportunity when they’re taking part in these programs to actually develop as some kind of diplomat.”

He added, “If we’re looking at citizen diplomats, that’s what you want them to do. You want them to create bonds with other people and look for opportunities to work together, to challenge each other and to have fun with each other.”

Gilbert even points to programs such as the Language Assistants Program paving the way for some of its participants to become diplomats, citing the current UK Ambassadors to Canada and Switzerland among others as former language assistants.

What is Gilbert’s highlight of a network born from a British Council program? The answer is FameLab - a global competition to discover and nurture the world’s next great science communicators.

Gilbert said, “That program has created a huge network of science communicators who are incredibly passionate about what they do. The people in the British Council that work on the program are incredibly passionate about what they do. It brings in partners from all sorts of organizations.”


The program Citizen Diplomacy at the Crossroads: Activating Networks for Change was held in partnership with The German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance, as part of the Global Leaders Consortium (GLC).