Professional Collaboration Networks

What is a PCN — and why should every social worker have one?

Concept of a professional collaboration network showing individuals in a branched formation.

By Jana Eisenberg

In the social work field, just like in the larger world, there is a near-constant conversation about the ethical uses of social media and other digital technologies. However, one tactic that seems unarguably worthwhile is the Professional Collaboration Network (PCN).

In fact, PCNs are so effective that the UB School of Social Work’s Doctor of Social Work (DSW) program integrates them throughout the curriculum.

A 2020 paper in Research on Social Work Practice defines PCNs as “technology-mediated, user-centered [participatory] relationship constellations designed to enhance connections and professional opportunities.” Citing the lack of information exchange among stakeholders about problems and solutions, the authors — including former and current faculty Melanie Sage, Louanne Bakk, Annette Semanchin Jones and Nancy J. Smyth — say PCNs are “goal-specific, extending across disciplinary and international borders.”

Think: Active, rather than passive, use of powerful, free online tools like LinkedIn, Instagram, X/Twitter and Facebook.

In the DSW program’s first-year curriculum, every student must take “Digital Technology and Professional Collaboration Networks for Social Work Practice,” a course where they immediately establish and access their own PCN.

One of the main issues that PCNs can solve in social work is closing the gap between research and practice, which is one of the larger aims of the DSW program.

“When social workers start out, they can use their PCN to learn more about their topic,” says Louanne Bakk, clinical associate professor and DSW program director. “As they progress, perhaps earning more advanced degrees or entering the workforce, they might be thinking about evidence-based practices — they can use the PCN to learn how others are dealing with their topic. There really is no end to the applicability — with continued advancement, we can use the global network, finding places to connect and position ourselves.”

“Creating the PCN is really valuable; it helps us learn, grow, collaborate and meet stakeholders in our area of interest.” — DSW student David Kurtz

In the part-time, online DSW program, student live in various parts of the country and may never meet in person. This makes a PCN even more vital, offering both opportunities to connect with other members of their cohort and spaces to expand their networks.

“Creating the PCN is really valuable; it helps us learn, grow, collaborate and meet stakeholders in our area of interest,” says DSW student David Kurtz. “My preferred outlet is LinkedIn, and my field is international anti human trafficking. I was already connected with a few friends and colleagues on LinkedIn. Through those connections, I found more people in the field who are doing a lot of great work and expanded my network. I look up different topics and areas of interest; when I read relevant articles, I search and add the author on LinkedIn, for example.”

The platforms across which PCNs can be built may be familiar (and can also include things like listservs), but what sets PCNs apart is the intentionality and mindfulness of establishing and accessing them.

Michelle Fortunado-Kewin, DSW ’22, is one of the school’s PCN instructors; she finds this topic so compelling, particularly for connecting students and professionals from marginalized communities, that she invited several of her students — including Kurtz, Tammie Williams-Pitman and Melissa Elliott-Brogan — to present alongside her on the topic at the Social Work Distance Education 2024 Virtual Conference in April.

Zoom screen showing David Kurtz, Melissa Elliott-Brogan, Tammie Williams-Pitman and Michelle Fortunado-Kewin.

Clockwise from top left: DSW students David Kurtz, Melissa Elliott-Brogan and Tammie Williams-Pitman and instructor Michelle Fortunado-Kewin, DSW ’22, presented "Using Professional Collaboration Networks to Build and Expand Students' Professional Community" at the  Social Work Distance Education 2024 Virtual Conference.

Fortunado-Kewin emphasizes the benefits of digital PCNs for everyone, and specifically for women and Black, Indigenous and People of Color, as a valuable and accessible tool to establish and engage in interdisciplinary connections, build community and collaborate on projects or policies, both locally and globally.

Williams-Pittman already had a de facto PCN, built from her decade-plus of experience, education and practice, as well as from being an educator herself. She manifested her PCN as a vision board, mapping her various connections.

“My vision board — my PCN — is the reason for the work. It starts from the ground up, with the people that we fight for — the community, the voters, the students, those who are voiceless,” she says. “It moves up to those who can advocate and champion the change, maybe those in the legal community. Then there is academia; I’ve been friends with my professors for a decade. This is my journey of coalition-building, people who care about making the world a better place.”

Williams-Pittman has had success on X/Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, connecting with authors and community and political leaders. “I go and find them, and then I'll start following,” she says. “What they're doing is starting conversations, and frequently, they respond.”

Shortly after Kurtz presented virtually, he traveled to Thailand to attend a conference he learned about through a LinkedIn connection.

“I found out that some of my PCN connections are speaking at the conference in Thailand,” he said. “It is an amazing opportunity to meet people that I’ve been connecting with on the internet, to hear from them in person and continue to do work together.”

Other examples of what researchers, practitioners and students can accomplish through a PCN
  • Establish themselves credibly in the field, whatever stage they are at
  • Contribute knowledge of social systems across interdisciplinary contexts
  • Contribute to public conversations about policy and practices
  • Enter into professional relationships extending beyond in-person networks to include global perspectives from practitioners, social service agency leaders, service recipients, academics, journalists and other potential collaborators and stakeholders
  • Connect with and elevate the voices of those most impacted by research and practice
  • Create opportunities for collaborations and dissemination via informal and formal networks
  • Achieve greater impact and influence decision-making across fields