Leadership in complex networks: the importance of network position and strategic action in a translational cancer research network

Janet Long, Frances Cunningham, Janice Wiley, Peter Carswell, Jeffrey Braithwaite

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Background: Leadership behaviour in complex networks is under-researched, and little has been written concerning leadership of translational research networks (TRNs) that take discoveries made 'at the bench' and translate them into practices used 'at the bedside.' Understanding leaders' opportunities and behaviours within TRNs working to solve this key problem in implementing evidence into clinical practice is therefore important. This study explored the network position of governing body members and perceptions of their role in a new TRN in Sydney, Australia. The paper asks three questions: Firstly, do the formal, mandated leaders of this TRN hold key positions of centrality or brokerage in the informal social network of collaborative ties? Secondly, if so, do they recognise the leadership opportunities that their network positions afford them? Thirdly, what activities associated with these key roles do they believe will maximise the TRN's success?

Semi-structured interviews of all 14 governing body members conducted in early 2012 explored perceptions of their roles and sought comments on a list of activities drawn from review of successful transdisciplinary collaboratives combined with central and brokerage roles. An on-line, whole network survey of all 68 TRN members sought to understand and map existing collaborative connections. Leaders' positions in the network were assessed using UCInet, and graphs were generated in NetDraw.

Results: Social network analysis identified that governing body members had high centrality and high brokerage potential in the informal network of work-related ties. Interviews showed perceived challenges including 'silos' and the mismatch between academic and clinical goals of research. Governing body members recognised their central positions, which would facilitate the leadership roles of leading, making decisions, and providing expert advice necessary for the co-ordination of effort and relevant input across domains. Brokerage potential was recognised in their clearly understood role of representing a specialty, campus or research group on the governing body to provide strategic linkages. Facilitation, mentoring and resolving conflicts within more localised project teams were spoken of as something 'we do all the time anyway,' as well as something they would do if called upon. These leadership roles are all linked with successful collaborative endeavours in other fields.

Conclusions: This paper links the empirical findings of the social network analysis with the qualitative findings of the interviews to show that the leaders' perceptions of their roles accord with both the potential inherent in their network positions as well as actual activities known to increase the success of transdisciplinary teams. Understanding this is key to successful TRNs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalImplementation Science
Issue number122
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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