Network thinking

Curtis Ogden at The Interaction Institute for Social Change provides a very good summary of the differences between network-centric and hierarchy-centric thinking, called Network Thinking:

  1. Adaptability instead of control
  2. Emergence instead of predictability
  3. Resilience and redundancy instead of rock stardom
  4. Contributions before credentials
  5. Diversity and divergence

One major challenge in helping organizations improve collaboration and knowledge-sharing is getting people to see themselves as nodes in various networks, with different types of relationships between them. Network thinking can fundamentally change our view of hierarchical relationships. For example, using value network analysis, I helped a steering group see their community of practice in a new light, mapped as a network. They immediately realized that they were pushing solutions to their community, instead of listening to what was happening. Thinking in terms of networks, networks, networks lets us see with new eyes.

1. Adaptability instead of Control

Here are some recommendations for moving to a new social contract for creative work:

  • Abolish the organization chart and replace it with a network diagram (some new tech companies have done this).
  • Move away from counting hours, to a results only work environment (with distributed work, this is becoming more common).
  • Encourage outside work that doesn’t directly interfere with paid work, as it will strengthen the network (such as Google’s 20% time for engineers).
  • Provide options for workers to come and go and give them ways to stay connected when they’re not employed (like Ericsson’s Stay Connected Facebook group). Build an ecosystem, not a monolith.

2. Emergence instead of predictability

As we learn in digital networks, stock (content) loses significance, while flow (conversation) becomes more important – the challenge becomes how to continuously weave the many bits of information and knowledge that pass by us each day. Conversations help us make sense. But we need diversity in our conversations or we become insular. We cannot predict what will emerge from continuous learning, co-creating & sharing at the individual, organizational and market level but we do know it will make for more resilient organizations.

3. Resilience and redundancy

A professional learning network, with its redundant connections, repetition of information and indirect communications, is a much more resilient system than any designed development program can be. Redundancy is also a good principal for supporting social learning diffusion. There is always more than one way to communicate or find something and just because something was blogged, tweeted or posted does not mean it will be understood and eventually internalized as actionable knowledge. The more complex or novel the idea, the more time it will take to be understood.

4. Contributions before credentials

Programmers might call this, ‘you are only as good as your code’. Credentials and certifications often act as blinders and stop us from recognizing the complexity of a situation. As Henry Mencken wrote, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

5. Diversity and Divergence

My approach to working smarter starts by organizing to embrace diversity and manage complexity.  Diversity is a key factor in innovation and I’ve yet to find an organization that does not want to improve innovation.

12 Responses to “Network thinking”

  1. Andy Jankowski

    Hi Harold, Great post. Have you read Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s book Linked? I read it a few years back. A great compendium of ideas, and the science behind them, for people in our field. I like your line of thinking and the way you present information. Your post made me think back to Albert-Laszlo’s work. Thanks for sharing.


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