Jim Kent retained to write a regular column in the International Right of Way Magazine

Barbara Billitzer, publisher and editor of International Right of Way Magazine, has invited James A. Kent, President of the JKA Group, to contribute a bi-monthly column on a vital and increasingly important concept: the importance of working effectively with informal networks in a community when proposed site and corridor projects impact them. Barbara described it well:

"Attaining community buy-in on newly planned infrastructure projects is no longer a luxury proposition. When local residents are embraced during the introductory stages, miraculous results follow. From faster approval to accelerated project schedules, the strategy of managing community issues works."

Here is part of the letter with which Jim accepted this assignment:

"When I met many of you after my talk at the annual IRWA conference in June, I was not surprised by the number of people who had never considered "informal networks" and how they operate. Informal networks are horizontal in nature, unlike formal systems that are vertical. The networks have eight community archetypes that manage the heart and soul of everyday life in a community. For more than 40 years, my colleagues and I have been involved with these networks in successfully delivering projects that prevent disruptive issues from occurring in the community.

Through these columns, I will provide IRWA members with insight into new ways of doing business in communities--ways that are often more effective and rewarding than most current practices. We call our approach social ecology, the science of community. We know that if we take certain steps to identify, listen to and involve the community on the front end of a project, then provide strategic follow through, we get good results. The predictability in community work that we have developed can be passed on to you – opening the door for a better community and better society through successful projects that address heart and soul issues at the site and corridor specific level.

Identifying and connecting with the informal networks in communities are keys to a successful engagement process. Most of us understand the value of networking as a verb. However, the idea of a "network" as a noun, that is, as a thing to be described and mobilized, is foreign to the experience of many. Frankly, if the issues of informal networks and their implications are not well understood in a project-development approval process, you and your project team will be sitting ducks when you walk into a formal meeting where "group-think" prevails.

With a traditional approach dominated by a formal process, the real issues in the community that can make or break the project are often missed entirely. In a formal approach, as many as 90 percent of the people being affected are often not engaged and do not show up at the public meetings and hearings. Exclusive reliance on the formal approach carries with it the dynamics to create "government by ambush" which stops projects at both the site and corridor level.

In the coming months, I will tell stories that show how informal networks operate in a community setting and how they influence project approval. When these horizontal systems are understood and engaged, opportunity is created for new projects to optimize social, economic and ecological benefits in a local area building a community's heart and soul. Citizens become your partners and collaborators because you are addressing their issues of survival and attachment to place."

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