What is the definition of professional networking


from: Critical Glossary Help for Education. Düring, Diana et al. (Ed.) (2014)
Link to the book

If there is a canon of key terms that semantically characterize social work at present, “networking” is undoubtedly one of them. Although the idea of ​​networking is by no means new to social work, it is currently possible to speak of a rediscovery of this term and, ultimately, of an omnipresent use. Associated with this is a connotation that is associated with a large number of positive expectations regarding the concept of networking. In view of this omnipresence and assignment as a kind of “message of salvation”, however, it is surprising how little depth of reflection is compared to the concept of networking with regard to its potentials and limitations. In many discourses at the moment, networking seems to be a central answer to existing problems of very different stripes. It is therefore all the more necessary to deal with the concept of networking, to classify its meaning and to derive the consequences that result from the pursuit of networking in social work. In the following, networking will be briefly defined and its relation to theoretical location, practical use and political classification will be discussed.

The concept of networking is associated with many expectations in the different levels of action in social work, which correspond more to a “myth of cooperation” (cf. Santen / Seckinger 2003: 25). From a professional point of view, reducing uncertainty in case work by broadening the ability to analyze and act through exchange and support of the institutions involved is particularly important. On the other hand, institutions hope above all to use synergy effects by recognizing parallel services and coordinating them with one another. For politics appears inter alia. The reduction of several contact persons at the various service providers in favor of a single binding network of institutions in the sense of a single control is attractive. Due to the associated high level of acceptance in both theoretical and practical reception, the concept of networking is assuming an increasingly prominent role, which can ultimately lead to a fashionable use in which the introduction of networking is an end in itself. In contrast to many other terms, networking has positive connotations per se (cf. Kessl 2011: 412).

In view of the frequent use of any form of cooperation, however understood, a definition is difficult in general technical usage. From the different assignments, the meaning of the concept of networking has so far been more of a diffuse understanding of the quality concept within networking. So far, a coordinated answer is required as to what characterizes good networking, how networks can be established and further developed in a targeted manner and how sustainable concrete added value can be achieved through networking. In the multitude of practical applications and assumptions, there are innumerable references to this, but they require a theoretical foundation and empirical saturation in the sense of a multidimensional network concept (cf. Fischer 2013: 161).

The local networks early help are an example. These are a collective term for services for young families in particularly stressful life situations, which differ fundamentally from child protection in terms of logic, target group and methods (cf. BMFSFJ 2012). The preventive approach is not an appendage of child protection, but, as the 14th report on children and young people of the Federal Government points out, a generalist primary preventive offer for all young families, in the sense of a new municipal infrastructure and a secondary preventive approach for families at risk (cf. BMFSFJ 2013: 301). Networking is seen in the early help as a key to solve existing offers from the parallel structures of the institutional tunnel vision, to set offers holistically in relation to each other and to improve the structural cooperation between the youth welfare and the health system.

In view of the poorly defined network term, the early help aims to gain “knowledge of the structural prerequisites, framework conditions and equipment of networks” (BMFSFJ 2012: 2). Networking is thus placed at the center of action, without a qualitative justification being able to be given as to whether this method is at all suitable for achieving the goals of early aid. Only through the use of networking can this fundamental question be ascertained during the process of the federal initiative Early Aid and Family Midwives from 2012 to 2015. The obligation to use networking as a method is increased by expressly naming it in several child protection laws at the level of the federal states and the law on cooperation and information in child protection (KKG). This includes a legal regulation of the framework conditions for binding network structures with the aim of ensuring that those involved in child protection inform each other about the range of services and tasks offered by the various institutions. In addition, the actors have to clarify structural questions regarding the design and development of offers and to coordinate the procedures in child protection with one another. Thus, the legal norms contain a mandatory clause for certain professional groups to network. This obligation to act in a network contradicts the general basic condition of networking, according to which it is fundamentally promising based on voluntary motivation alone, because networking in the sense of a productive cooperation in the solution of certain tasks requires actual commitment and not just mere presence.

Despite all the contradictions in current implementation practice, networking can be described as a form of institutional cooperation that goes beyond mere bilateral cooperation between two agencies. What all interpretations have in common is a focus on problem-related, temporally and objectively delimited forms of equal cooperation based on the division of labor (cf. Kardorff 1998: 210). As a basic condition, it remains to be noted that networking is of fundamental importance for the institutions involved that goes beyond the mere processing of an individual case. Networking "includes the organized interaction of different, coordinated offers in a supply region within a supply system, ideally against the background of a common conceptual basic understanding" (Santen / Seckinger 2003: 27). Networking thus means a multidimensional cooperation network for the long-term processing of jointly defined institutional problems outside of the conventional rule structures.

Networking as a method is closely related to the concept of the network as a structural level on which this method is implemented. The reference to the network is particularly relevant here, as it refers to an important difference that is often not clearly distinguished in professional practice. In the form of networking among professionals described so far, the institutional component is clearly addressed. In contrast to social networks, which are aimed at the widest possible use in public, institutional networks contain a delimited participant area that does not insist on the highest possible number of users, but on the fulfillment of a specific action goal by the network.

With the use of the various terms such as networking and network, it can be assumed that the idea of ​​networking results in several structural and methodological derivations. Access to this is provided by the intentions in the network orientation, which can currently be structured as follows (cf. Fischer / Kosellek 2013: 11):

  • the Network approach in the sense of a theoretical approach to determining the assignment and definition of social work,
  • the Networks as an established form of methodical action and
  • the network as a new institutional and professional level of action for social work.

Thus, behind the network orientation with the network approach, there is a theoretical component that serves to functionally locate social work within society and to answer questions about the definition of goals, one's own mandate and self-image (cf. May 2013: 45 ff.). With the concept of networking, on the other hand, a methodological component is taken up. Networking is part of the existing catalog of methods and can be described as a working principle in social work (cf. Motzke / Schönig 2012: 239). In addition, network orientation includes a third component, in which the network represents a level of action in social work as a structural term, which, when considering the case, enables access to the field and allows deductions for institutional and professional consequences.

Networking as a form of methodical action is based on the assessment that the prevailing departmental thinking as the result of a gradual breakdown of municipal services of general interest into functional and hierarchical subtasks as well as the lack of transparency of the broken down processes leads to operational isolation in which professional actors act relatively isolated (cf. . Schubert 2008: 20 f.). Function-related pillars and hierarchical processes create enormous barriers to cooperation in cooperation within an agency and with other agencies, which do not do justice to the holistic life situation of addressees with their life-world segmented responsibilities.

Networking involves two different approaches in overcoming this institutional columnar structure: One variant understands networking as an approach to create a new system of action to solve existing problems outside of the rule structures. The advantage of this variant lies in the chance of avoiding the obstacles in the conventional handling of problem situations through new structures, often on the basis of temporary model projects. The disadvantage is that the creation of new structures does not solve the problems in the rule structures, mostly only temporary answers are found within the framework of the model term, and networking ultimately contributes to the increase in parallel structures.

A second interpretation understands networking as a possibility to consciously bring about changes through this approach within a modernization of existing control structures. This rather organic approach avoids the creation of new parallel structures and consciously builds on an often more laborious change of existing control structures. Disadvantages to be taken into account here are the higher resistance to changing what already exists from the start and the usually lower implementation speed. At the same time, however, due to the integration into regular operations and the absence of model structures, there is a higher probability of establishing sustainable networking structures.

Regardless of the implementation variant, it becomes clear that the term networking is more than a mere method. Rather, networking a priori also includes a different understanding of political control, institutional positioning and professional perception. Beyond a mere method of promoting effective action, it is also important to question the associated changes in the institutional self-image and the expectations of other institutions. The network level is to be understood as an independent structural level that does not take place incidentally in the action between case and field, but rather represents its own platform with special potentials, dynamics and limitations. As a result, in addition to cooperation with other institutions, networking always changes the institutions involved, the supporting structure and the forms of political control.

It should be noted that networking as a concept needs to be further specified. The approach has inherent potential and opportunities that go far beyond a mere understanding of networking as a method. At the same time, however, it is also necessary to develop an understanding that networking cannot be the answer to all problems and that the limits of the approach are defined. The perspective of networking lies in a different view of the modernization of institutions, which inevitably adapt to the new framework conditions in the coordinated perception of needs and the development of offers through network action. In addition, it is important to observe how the professional understanding of actors changes through networking, who no longer see themselves only as actors of a certain institution, but also as part of a network with partially heterogeneous logics of action.


  • BMFSFJ - Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth (2012): Administrative agreement “Federal Initiative Networks Early Help and Family Midwives” 2012–2015. Berlin.
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