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Webinar: Woodland owner networks and peer-to-peer learning: a research review

The National Network of Forest Practitioners has announced a webinar that may be of interest to some of this site’s readers.  It’s free and open for anybody to attend.

Update: The webinar is now over.  Watch a complete recording at http://nnfp.acrobat.com/p73834210/. Presentation begins at the 5-minute mark, and discussion at around 55:00.

Woodland owner networks and peer-to-peer learning:
A research review

Thursday, January 8, 2009 @ Noon Eastern

Presented by Eli Sagor of the University of Minnesota Extension
and Woodland Owner Networks project lead

Active sustainable management of private forest (PF) land provides public value through rural economic activity, forest ecosystem management, and water quality protection. PF conservation program administrators and funders recognize a need to engage many more private forest owners than they have in the past. Woodland owners consistently select peers as a preferred source of information to support forest management decisions. However, beyond Extension master volunteer programs, peer-to-peer learning has received little attention as a forestry outreach tool. Can peer-to-peer learning through woodland owner social networks influence landowner behavior? If so, how can Extension and allied outreach professionals mobilize and support landowners to provide accurate decision support to their peers? And what kinds of outcomes can be expected?

workshop groupIn this hour-long presentation and discussion led by Eli Sagor, we’ll explore research from sociology, social psychology, and related fields that may help answer these questions. We’ll also briefly discuss case studies from New York, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Ample time will be available for audience questions and input.

This webinar is the first in a series focusing on innovations in landowner outreach. Subsequent webinars will address regional variations on woodland owner networks projects.

The webinar is now over.  Watch a complete recording at http://nnfp.acrobat.com/p73834210/. Presentation begins at the 5-minute mark, and discussion at around 55:00.


Strong ties, weak ties, and information transmission

This post is a short overview of strong ties, weak ties, and transmission of information.  Different kinds of information move through social networks in different ways.  Easily codified ideas move efficiently through weak ties.  Tacit information, on the other hand, by definition requires a more extended or intense contact among strong ties.  These concepts have important implications on the woodland owner network model that best fits your particular situation.

(Pardon the formal tone–this is lifted from a draft of my dissertation prospectus.)

Strong and weak ties

In a seminal work on the “embeddedness” of rational economic decisions within social networks, Granovetter (1985) illustrates the importance of network effects on decisions and behaviors considered by classical economic theory as driven by atomistic, purely self-interested actors.  Granovetter’s embeddedness argument suggests that a variety of social influences constrain behaviors.  In fact, he argues, the notion of the atomistic, purely self-interested actor is overly simplistic and fails to account for the role of social systems in regulating human behavior.

The embeddedness argument says little about the details of network effects.  These are elaborated in Granovetter’s (1973) classic work on the strength of weak ties and subsequent work on the nature of strong and weak ties and high- and low-density networks.

The strength of weak ties argument demonstrates the value of weak ties for transfer of information across large social distances (e.g. across a large number of social ties).  Weak ties are an efficient way to access new ideas or codified information (Reagans and McEvily 2003; Wasserman and Faust 1994) such as quick answers on an online discussion board or participation in a one-off field workshop.

Weak ties allow easily codified information to travel quickly across social distance, because brief contact is often sufficient for the transfer of such information (Friedkin 1982; Granovetter 1973).  The value of weak ties is not their efficiency per se, but their numbers: each weak tie contributes little information, but in aggregate, a large number of weak ties gives access to a large number of pools of knowledge (Friedkin 1982), and a broader body of information.

Tacit information, on the other hand, is transmitted more efficiently through strong ties than weak ties (Friedkin 1982; Reagans and McEvily 2003).  By definition, tacit information requires a more intense, closer interaction, be it extended observation, direct instruction, or some other form of contact.  Information, or learning, that requires this kind of contact flows relatively inefficiently through weak ties compared with strong ties.

Different kinds of networks thus provide efficient access to different kinds of information.  Dense networks, composed of small numbers of strong and interconnected ties, produce more stable knowledge systems.  Less dense networks, composed of large number of unconnected weak ties, produce more dynamic, open access to different bodies of information and new ideas (Wasserman and Faust 1994).

Implications for woodland owner network organizers

Some behaviors are driven mostly by easily codified information.  For instance, an individual who has already decided to sell timber might be swayed by a friend’s testimonial that a professional forester increased his timber sale returns by 20 % over an offer already received, and thus be persuaded to (change behavior and) hire a consultant.

For other behaviors, however, information may not be enough.  For some landowners, easily codified financial information may be a minor consideration.  More central to their decision process might be factors like trust, a feeling that managing the stand might improve future growth or provide underrepresented habitat, a more abstract desire to do the right thing.  In these cases, personal contact from trusted, known individuals (strong ties) might be the only factor that would lead them to consider managing their woods.

Most woodland owner networks exist not to promote any specific behavior, but to help landowners feel supported, find answers to their questions, and make well-informed decisions.  Nonetheless, understanding how strong and weak ties affect information flow may help network organizers create learning spaces well suited for effective and efficient member support given the network’s, and members’, goals.

What do you think?  How do strong and weak ties operate differently within your networks?


  • Friedkin, N. 1982. “Information Flow Through Strong and Weak Ties in Intraorganizational Social Networks.” Social Networks 3:273-285.
  • Granovetter, M. 1973. “The strength of weak ties.” American Journal of Sociology 78:1360-1380.
  • Granovetter, M. 1985. “Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness.” American Journal of Sociology 91:481-510.
  • Reagans, R., and B. McEvily. 2003. “Network structure and knowledge transfer: The effects of cohesion and range.” Administrative Science Quarterly 48:240-267.
  • Wasserman, S., and K. Faust. 1994. Social Network Analysis: Methods and Applications. New York: Cambridge University Press.

An overview of collaborative learning

By Allyson Muth, Ed.D., Forest Stewardship Program Associate, Pennsylvania State University

Collaborative processes of learning can enhance the conversation between Natural Resource Professionals (NRPs) and Private Forest Landowners (PFLs). In our work with PFLs, we are increasingly finding merit in the idea of promoting an interaction that creates civility, fosters productive conversations, and builds on common ground. These strategies have been examined in grassroots literature and collaborative forestry literature, but, for many, are not yet part of a natural resources practice.

Collaborative processes help build social agency. That is, people build the capacity to meet their own needs and to work together to find solutions that work for them. Ownership of the process, and of the solutions formed, fosters a commitment to seeing those solutions implemented. Through this collaborative process, a community with shared interests forms and begins to address environmental, social, and economic issues simultaneously. The relationships formed here, built on confidence and understanding, will endure and serve to address future resource and community questions.

Bringing groups of people together can encourage these types of constructive interactions. Doing so forms a “local” community with a shared desire to influence the protection and use of natural resources. Through participatory decision-making and collaborative processes, communities of PFLs can focus on and affect natural resource management issues on their own lands.

However, there are risks inherent to such an approach; NRPs are not in charge. Individuals and the community more broadly are making the decisions. The decisions made may not necessarily be the “right” or “best” decisions from a purely resource orientation; but, perhaps are “good” decisions that consider the well being of all, including the resource. This approach does not deny the importance of the technical, experiential, and academic resources that NRPs bring to the conversation. We have a responsibility to share this information with decision-makers; however, our primary role may more appropriately be to facilitate decision-making, create learning and ownership for the PFLs, and help the community make the best decisions possible.

Collaborative learning is a tool that promotes learning and the creation of social agency. Its focus is on interactions among people that often foster extraordinary creativity. Peters defines collaborative learning as “to labor together in order to produce knowledge, and frequently, to take action on the basis of new knowledge” (1995, p. 269). Collaborative learning is people – PFLs and NRPs – working together to create new understandings. To accomplish this we need to:

  • Establish dialogue
  • Focus on construction
  • Recognize multiple ways of knowing
  • Create cycles of action and reflection
  • Promote fellowship and build trust


Dialogue is an open conversation in which meaning flows through and between the participants, and new understanding emerges (Bohm 1996). To enhance our dialogue with PFLs, we need to inquire into the things they say, to reflect upon our assumptions, and create a new interaction. By modeling this behavior for PFLs, we create a space in which they feel comfortable sharing in a similar manner.

Focus on Construction

A focus on construction encapsulates two ideas: the creation of new understanding and the recognition of the importance of relationships to the creation of those new understandings (social construction) (McNamee and Gergen 1999). In a collaborative learning event, the NRP and the PFL construct new understandings out of the experiences and knowledge each brings to the group. By focusing on creating something new in our conversations, or simply becoming aware of that possibility, we take our interactions to a new level and reflect new possibilities.

Multiple Ways of Knowing

In our interactions with PFLs, each person in the conversation brings with them a unique set of experiences and knowledge. The lived experiences of PFLs are equally important as the technical resources NRPs can contribute. Allowing people the opportunity to share their learning gained through life experience empowers them to participate fully. By making space for different types of knowing to come to the table, we create a more equal and respectful interaction through which PFLs are more comfortable contributing to the interaction and committing to the solutions formed.

Cycles of Action and Reflection

Reflection serves to redirect actions and provides a way to examine and challenge assumptions guiding the actions. Through this process refinement, new ideas emerge. In a collaborative learning interaction with PFLs, this means we keep checking in with each other, talking about what has changed, and deciding together how to move forward. This is difficult to do when writing a management plan for one PFL property, but should be part of our efforts across the landscape to encourage continual growth and interaction with PFLs.


Finally, collaborative learning involves creating fellowship and building trust. People must be comfortable enough with each other to be open and willing to try new ideas, and they must feel that others have their best interests at heart. For things to work best, group members have to relate to each other. The building of trust between PFLs and NRPs is a time intensive process, but remains necessary to our interactions. These informal connections set the stage for further efforts and conversations that will create new understandings.

In practice, we propose that NRPs be intentional about creating relationships wherein these actions can occur. By remaining open to the possibility, we create the space for a change in our interactions with PFLs. We allow them to become a contributor to their understanding about the land, and with that new understanding (of which they have more ownership through their contribution) reach good decisions.

Selected References:

  • Bohm, D. 1996. On dialogue; L. Nichol (ed). Routledge, New York. 101 p.
  • McNamee, S. and K.J. Gergen. 1999. Relational responsibility: Resources for sustainable dialogue. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA. 236 p.
  • Peters, J.M. 1995. Good question! Collaborative learning and the intentional stance. P. 269-274 in Proc. of conf. on Educating the adult educator: Role of university, M. Collins (ed.). Canmore, Alberta, Canada.

Other Resources:

  • Isaacs, W. 1999. Dialogue and the art of thinking together. Doubleday, New York. 428 p.
  • Parker, J.K. 1992. Hanging question marks on our professions: Addressing the human dimensions of forestry and natural resource management. J. F. 90(4):21-24.

Diffusion models: two-step flow vs. network

More than once I’ve heard Everett RogersDiffusion of Innovations described as “Extension’s bible.”  Many Extension interventions apply diffusion theory to encourage adoption of target behaviors from horticultural practices to sustainable forest management.

But how do innovations move through a social network?  Two very different models are nicely summarized in an article I read recently (Watts & Dodds 2007; full citation below).  This post describes the two models, with some thoughts on applications to private forest management situations.

Two-step flow model


Source: Watts & Dodds 2007: 441.

Under the two-step flow model, a small number of early adopters receive information and pass on information from a central source to a much larger number of people.  These folks tend to access many media sources, filter information, and multiply certain messages through their networks to much larger audiences.

A common private forestry example is a master volunteer (e.g. Oregon State Master Woodland Manager or New York Master Forest Owner) who has received extensive training and subsequently shares her new knowledge with her neighbors.  She’s heard of every new idea, but has opinions that her less-involved neighbors have come to trust.

Because of the reputations they’ve earned, individuals like master volunteers also serve as opinion leaders rather than mere conduits of information.  Others look to them not only as sources of information, but as trusted filters or interpreters of that information.

Under the two-step flow model, opinion leaders play crucial roles–without their work to multiply and disseminate information, the information doesn’t reach other potential adopters.

Network model


Source: Watts & Dodds 2007: 441

Under the network model, information reaches all (or a much larger proportion of) the members of the community more or less equally.

Under the network model, influence occurs less through controlling the flow of information and more through filtering and interpreting it.  The individuals with more ties are those to whom others look for leadership.

A woodland owner example here might be downturns in stumpage prices.  Everyone might be aware of the market conditions, but would look to one another for help interpreting the information, speculating about future conditions, and deciding how to act.  Although all members have access to the same market information, some are clearly more influential than others.  For instance, in the figure at right, the individual at bottom center is consulted by many more of his neighbors than most others are.

The nature of an actor’s influence is not easy to quantify, and of course varies based on the community and situation.  One common decision rule is the threshold rule, which posits that a given individual will adopt a behavior when a certain percentage of her contacts has adopted.

Extension applications

These models, while sharing some common elements, are quite different.  Understanding which model applies, if either does, is obviously important to program design.  Classic master volunteer programs are based on the two-step flow model.  This model is well entrenched and demonstrated to be efficient and effective.

However, for some types of information and behaviors, new media may penetrate more deeply into a community, flattening the information hierarchy.  In these cases, landowners may be less dependent on others for information and more so for interpretation, discussion, and processing

Which of these models applies better to your situation?  Does thinking about diffusion in these ways suggest changes in the way you reach out to your key audiences?

Full citation: Watts, D.J. and P.S. Dodds. 2007. Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation. Journal of Consumer Research. 34(4): 441-458.

IUFRO small-scale forestry conference call for papers

The first call for papers has recently been announced for Morgantown, WV, USA in June 2009.  The conference, organized by the the IUFRO Small Scale Forestry unit, looks like an excellent opportunity to discuss woodland owner networks and related issues.  The call is below.  I hope to see you there!

Dear Colleague,

The 2009 IUFRO 3.08 Small-Scale Forestry group is seeking abstracts for Seeing the Forest Beyond the Trees: New possibilities and expectations for products and services from small-scale forestry to be held in Morgantown, West Virginia from June 7-11, 2009.

This conference will bring together scientists and practitioners to share their experiences in management, policy development and economics of contemporary small-scale forest products and services.  Papers are sought in the areas of New and emerging opportunities for small-scale forests, Sustainable agroforestry, Policy formulation, Amenity values of small scale forestry, Economic valuation.  Further details on the topics of interest can be found on the conference website

Authors can view the call for abstracts and the list of topics of interest on the symposium website (http://ssf09.com/).  Submitting your abstract by December 8 will allow the scientific panel to review and respond to you by early January.  Abstracts should be sent to Dr Kate Piatek (Kathryn.Piatek@mail.wvu.edu).  A second call for papers will be made in mid January 09.

For more information about the conference please contact Dave McGill (dmcgill@wvu.edu) who is the chair of the conference organizing committee.

Kind regards
John Herbohn, IUFRO 3.08 Coordinator

Valente lecture: Social network analysis for behavior change

Last Thursday, Tom Valente delivered a lecture called Using Social Network Analysis to Understand and Change Behavior at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

Like his book Network Models of the Diffusion of Innovations, the lecture reviewed prominent network analysis theories and models in the context of innovation diffusion theory. The content is highly applicable to building woodland owner networks to foster sustainable forestry behaviors.

Valente’s full lecture is available as a narrated slideshow here.

The lecture abstract is as follows (from the promotional poster):

Prof. Valente will describe the field of social network analysis and present data from individual and community level studies that describe how network factors influence behavior. He will also present data on the effectiveness of network-based interventions and explore the utility of social network data for accelerating diffusion of innovations. Data and evaluation derived from studies of tobacco use, substance use, children’s health insurance coalitions, and many other settings.

Click here to watch and listen to Valente’s lecture.  It’s long but worth checking out.  (You can skip forward and back among slides by clicking slide titles at right.)

Woodland owner networks and peer learning in Finland

I recently learned of a project in Finland investigating peer-to-peer outreach and landowner-driven Extension in Finland.  The rest of this post is excerpted from the project’s website and from email exchanges with Teppo Hujala of the Finnish forest resource institute METLA.

Photo by vipa

This research endeavor seeks to figure out, whether owner networks and peer-to-peer learning (mentoring) would boost family forest owners to more active owner-driven behavior. Contrarily to the predominant forestry-professional-centered approaches, the idea is based on organization-independent grassroot-level evolvement of owners’ collaboration. Our case is from Finland, but the project is placed in a wider Nordic and European contexts with intensive benchmarking with comparable North-American projects.

Our project that is introduced on the peerforestry site is a next step after a national three-year project relating to customer orientation in forest planning (i.e. owner-driven extension). So far we have investigated owners’ decision-making strategies, communication preferences and perceptions of customer value. Currently we are applying funding for establishing a peer-learning pilot in Finland. At this point the site exists for promoting international communication (like ours) and for convincing our funding providers. Later it will function as a portal of the project.

Total forest area in Finland is 20 million hectares, of which some 60% is owned by family forest owners. There are approximately 440,000 owners, average holding size being around 30 hectares. Average age of an owner is 60 years. Owners are today less often than before dependent on forest income, and they are becoming more often non-resident, urban, and higher educated. Share of self-active owners is decreasing while multiple values of ownership are growing in importance. These changes, among others, challenge the current practices of forestry extension.

Finnish national forest policy aims at activating owners to timber trading and silviculture. Parallelly, biodiversity of forests is fostered by voluntary means and subsidies. At the same time, government-driven forest planning and extension system is undergoing a transformative change that is catalysed by the technical development of remote-sensing-based forest inventory. Furthermore, deregulation of forestry extension is being considered. All these aspects justify the research and development of family forest owners’ decision making and decision support from the perspective of communication and learning.

Recent research results and inspiring discussions in Small-scale Forestry Conference in Gérardmer, France in June 2008 convinced our Finnish research network “Methods and Processes of Decision Making in Forestry of the idea that in spite of continuing studying expert-led services, landowners’ peer-to-peer learning is worth investigating.

This is why we have initiated research endeavor titled “Owner networks and peer-to-peer learning among family forest owners to accelerate learning and action”. The aim is to learn from international experiences, change ideas with our US colleagues within “Woodland owners networks”, and build a working model for peer learning in Finnish conditions for piloting. The project will actually launch on 2009 and last for three or four years.